The serpent (Hebrew: נחש, nachash) occurs in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The symbol of a serpent or snake played important roles in religious and cultural life of ancient Egypt, Canaan, Mesopotamia, and Greece. The serpent was a symbol of evil power and chaos from the underworld as well as a symbol of fertility, life, and healing. Nachash, Hebrew for "snake", is also associated with divination, including the verb-form meaning to practice divination or fortune-telling. In the Hebrew Bible, Nachash occurs in the Torah to identify the serpent in Eden. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, it is also used in conjunction with saraph to describe vicious serpents in the wilderness. Tanniyn, a form of dragon-monster, also occurs throughout the Hebrew Bible. As in the Exodus, the staffs of Moses and Aaron are turned into serpents, a nachash for Moses, a tanniyn for Aaron. In the New Testament, the Book of Revelation makes use of Serpent several times to identify Satan, the Dragon an ancient Serpent (Rev.12:9; 20:2).
- 1 Hebrew Bible
- 2 New Testament
- 3 Serpents in biblical mythology
- 4 Religious views of the Serpent in the post-Biblical period
- 5 See also
- 6 Footnotes
- 7 References
In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Genesis refers to a serpent who was responsible for the Fall of Man (Gen 3:1-20). Serpent is also used to describe sea monsters. Examples of these identifications are in the Book of Isaiah where a reference is made to a serpent-like Leviathan (Isaiah 27:1), and in the Book of Amos where a serpent resides at the bottom of the sea (Amos 9:3). Serpent figuratively describes biblical places such as Egypt (Jer.46:22), and the city of Dan (Gen.49:17). The prophet Jeremiah also compares the King of Babylon to a serpent (Jer.51:34).
Serpent in Eden
In the Book of Genesis, the Serpent is portrayed as a deceptive creature or trickster, who promotes as good what God had forbidden, and shows particular cunning in its deception. (cf. Gen. 3:4–5 and 3:22) The serpent appears in the Garden of Eden who tempts Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and denies that death will be a result. The Serpent has the ability to speak and to reason: "Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made" (Genesis 3:1). There is no indication in the Book of Genesis that the Serpent was a deity in its own right, although it is one of only two cases of animals that talk in the Pentateuch (Balaam's donkey being the other).
The Hebrew word nahash is used to identify the creature that appears in Genesis 3, in the Genesis 3:3, NIV) Eve told the serpent God has said, Ye shall not eat of the tree in the midst of the garden, lest ye die.(Gen 3:3) The serpent replied, that ye shall not surely die.(Gen 3:4) and that if she eats the fruit of that tree; the tree "in the midst of the garden", ye will be as gods knowing good and evil.(Gen3:5) So Adam and Eve eat the fruit, but the knowledge they gain is loss of childlike innocence, and they are banished from the Garden. The Snake is punished for its role in their fall by being made to crawl on its belly in the dust, from where it continues to bite the heel of man. According to the Rabbinical tradition, the serpent represents sexual desire.
The serpent of Genesis plays the role of trickster, a speaking animal which even shares knowledge with God which is hidden from man. As with other trickster-figures, the gift it brings is double-edged: Adam and Eve gain knowledge, but lose Eden. The choice of a venomous snake for this role seems to arise from Near Eastern traditions associating snakes with danger and death, magic and secret knowledge, rejuvenation, immortality, and sexuality. It is also possible that the association of the snake with the nude goddess in Canaanite iconography lies behind the scene in the Garden between the reptile and naked Eve, "Mother of all life", the "Great Mother Goddess of the Canaanites" Qetesh.
Debate about the Serpent in Eden is whether it should be viewed figuratively or as a literal animal. Voltaire, drawing on Socinian influences, wrote: "It was so decidedly a real serpent, that all its species, which had before walked on their feet, were condemned to crawl on their bellies. No serpent, no animal of any kind, is called Satan, or Belzebub, or Devil, in the Pentateuch."
20th Century scholars such as W. O. E. Oesterley (1921) were cognisant of the differences between the role of the Edenic serpent in the Hebrew Bible and any connection with "ancient serpent" in the New Testament. Modern historiographers of Satan such as Henry Ansgar Kelly (2006) and Wray and Mobley (2007) speak of the "evolution of Satan", or "development of Satan".
Fiery serpent m.n. () occurs in the Torah, or Pentateuch, to describe a species of vicious snakes whose poison burns upon contact. According to Wilhelm Gesenius, saraph corresponds to the Sanskrit sarpa, serpent; sarpin, reptile (from the root srip, serpere). These "burning serpents"(YLT) infested the great and terrible place of the desert wilderness (Num.21:4-9; Deut.8:15). The Hebrew word for "poisonous" literally means "fiery", "flaming" or "burning", as the burning sensation of a snake bite on human skin, a metaphor for the fiery anger of God (Numbers 11:1).
The Book of Isaiah expounds on the description of these fiery serpents as "flying saraphs"(YLT), or flying dragons, in the land of trouble and anguish (Isaiah 30:6). Isaiah indicates that these saraphs are comparable to vipers,(YLT) worse than ordinary serpents (Isaiah 14:29). The prophet Isaiah also sees a vision of seraphim, in the Temple itself: but these are divine agents, with wings and human faces, and are probably not to be interpreted as serpent-like so much as flame-like.
Serpent of bronze
In the Book of Numbers, while Moses was in the wilderness, he mounted a serpent of bronze on a pole that functioned as a cure against the bite of the "seraphim", the "burning ones" (Numbers 21:4-9). The phrase in Num.21:9, "a serpent of bronze," is a wordplay as "serpent" (nehash) and “bronze” (nehoshet) are closely related in Hebrew, nehash nehoshet.
Mainstream scholars suggest that the image of the fiery serpent served to function like that of a magical amulet. Magic amulets or charms were used in the ancient Near East to practice a healing ritual known as sympathetic magic in an attempt to ward off, heal or reduce the impact of illness and poisons. Copper and bronze serpent figures have been recovered, showing that the practice was widespread. A Christian interpretation would be that the bronze serpent served as a symbol for each individual Israelite to take their confession of sin and the need for God’s deliverance to heart. Confession of sin and forgiveness was both a community and an individual responsibility. The plague of serpents remained an ongoing threat to the community and the raised bronze serpent was an ongoing reminder to each individual for the need to turn to the healing power of God. It has also been proposed that the bronze serpent was a type of intermediary between God and the people that served as a test of obedience, in the form of free judgment, standing between the dead who were not willing to look to God’s chosen instrument of healing, and the living who were willing and were healed. Thus, this instrument bore witness to the sovereign power of Yahweh even over the dangerous and sinister character of the desert.
In 2 Kings 18:4, a bronze serpent, alleged to be the one Moses made, was kept in Jerusalem's Temple sanctuary. The Israelites began to worship the object as an idol or image of God, by offering sacrifices and burning incense to it, until Hezekiah was made King. Hezekiah referred to it as Nehushtan and had tore it down. Scholars have debated the nature of the relationship between the Mosaic bronze serpent and Hezekiah’s Nehushtan, but traditions happen to link the two.
Serpent in the Gospels
In the Nehushtan#Significance in Christianity
Temptation of the Christ
The Serpent m.n. () in Psalm 91:13 is identified as Satan by Christians: "super aspidem et basiliscum calcabis conculcabis leonem et draconem" in the Latin Vulgate, literally "The asp and the basilisk you will trample under foot; you will tread on the lion and the dragon". This passage is commonly interpreted by Christians, as a reference to Christ defeating and triumphing over Satan. The passage led to the Late Antique and Early Medieval iconography of Christ treading on the beasts, in which two beasts are often shown, usually the lion and snake or dragon, and sometimes four, which are normally the lion, dragon, asp (snake) and basilisk (which was depicted with varying characteristics) of the Vulgate. All represented the devil, as explained by Cassiodorus and Bede in their commentaries on Psalm 91. The serpent is often shown curled round the foot of the cross in depictions of the Crucifixion of Jesus from Carolingian art until about the 13th century; often it is shown as dead. The Crucifixion was regarded as the fulfillment of God's curse on the Serpent in Genesis 3:15. Sometimes it is pierced by the cross and in one ivory is biting Christ's heel, as in the curse.
Serpent m.n. (Greek: ὄφις; Trans: Ophis, /o'-fēs/; "snake", "serpent") occurs in the Book of Revelation as the ancient serpent or old serpent(YLT) used to describe the dragon,[20:2] Satan the Adversary,(YLT) who is the Devil.[12:9, 20:2] This serpent is depicted as a red seven-headed dragon having ten horns, each housed with a diadem. The serpent battles Michael the Archangel in a War in Heaven which results in this devil being cast out to the earth. While on earth, he pursues the Woman of the Apocalypse. Unable to obtain her, he wages war with the rest of her seed (Revelation 12:1-18). He who has the key to the abyss and a great chain over his hand, binds the serpent for a thousand years. The serpent is then cast into the abyss and sealed within until he is released (Revelation 20:1-3).
In Christian tradition, the "ancient serpent" is commonly identified with the Genesis' Serpent and as Satan. This identification redefined the Hebrew Bible's concept of Satan ("the Adversary", a member of the Heavenly Court acting on behalf of God to test Job's faith), so that Satan/Serpent became a part of a divine plan stretching from Creation to Christ and the Second Coming.
Serpents in biblical mythology
In the oldest story ever written, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh loses the power of immortality, stolen by a snake. The serpent was a widespread figure in the mythology of the Ancient Near East. Ouroboros is an ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail that represents the perpetual cyclic renewal of life, the eternal return, and the cycle of life, death and rebirth, leading to immortality.
Archaeologists have uncovered serpent cult objects in Bronze Age strata at several pre-Israelite cities in Canaan: two at Megiddo, one at Gezer, one in the sanctum sanctorum of the Area H temple at Hazor, and two at Shechem. In the surrounding region, a late Bronze Age Hittite shrine in northern Syria contained a bronze statue of a god holding a serpent in one hand and a staff in the other. In sixth-century Babylon, a pair of bronze serpents flanked each of the four doorways of the temple of Esagila. At the Babylonian New Year festival, the priest was to commission from a woodworker, a metalworker and a goldsmith two images one of which "shall hold in its left hand a snake of cedar, raising its right [hand] to the god Nabu". At the tell of Tepe Gawra, at least seventeen Early Bronze Age Assyrian bronze serpents were recovered. The Sumerian fertility god Ningizzida was sometimes depicted as a serpent with a human head, eventually becoming a god of healing and magic.
Religious views of the Serpent in the post-Biblical period
The first Jewish source to connect the serpent with the devil may be Wisdom of Solomon. The subject is more developed in Apocalypse of Moses (Vita Adae et Evae) where the devil works with the serpent.
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Following the imagery of chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation, Bernard of Clairvaux had called Mary the "conqueror of dragons", and she was long to be shown crushing a snake underfoot, also a reference to her title as the "New Eve".
A limited modern Christian association of religion with snakes is the snake handling ritual practiced in a small number of churches in the U.S., usually characterized as rural and Pentecostal. Practitioners quote the Bible to support the practice, especially the closing verses of the Gospel according to Mark:
- "And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." (Mark 16:17-18)
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