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Adam, Eve, and the (female) Serpent at the entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Medieval Christian art often depicted the Edenic Serpent as a woman, a symbol of fecundity.[1]

Serpent, derived from Latin serpens, a crawling animal or snake (Hebrew: נחש, nahash, (meaning whisperer and tanniyn) 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.[2] Nahash, Hebrew for "snake", is also associated with divination, including the verb-form meaning to practice divination or fortune-telling. In the Hebrew Bible, Nahash 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 nahash 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).

Hebrew Bible

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

Biblia Pauperum illustration of Eve and the Serpent

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 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 Garden of Eden. God placed Adam in the Garden to tend it (Genesis 2:15), but he has warned both Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, "or you will die". (Genesis 3:3, NIV) The serpent tells Eve that this is untrue, and that if she and the man eat the fruit they will have knowledge and will not die. 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.[1][3]

The legged and speaking 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",[4] the "Great Mother Goddess of the Canaanites"[5] 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."[6]

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.[7] Modern historiographers of Satan such as Henry Ansgar Kelly (2006) and Wray and Mobley (2007) speak of the "evolution of Satan",[8] or "development of Satan".[9]

Fiery serpents

"Fiery serpent" (שָׂרָף) 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).[10] 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).[11]

The Book of Isaiah expounds on the description of these fiery serpents as "flying saraphs"(YLT), or flying dragons,[10] 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).[12] 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.[4]

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.[2]

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[13] to practice a healing ritual known as sympathetic magic in an attempt to ward off, heal or reduce the impact of illness and poisons.[2] Copper and bronze serpent figures have been recovered, showing that the practice was widespread.[13] 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.[2] It has also been proposed that the bronze serpent was a type of intermediary between God and the people[13] that served as a test of obedience, in the form of free judgment,[14] 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.[15] Thus, this instrument bore witness to the sovereign power of Yahweh even over the dangerous and sinister character of the desert.[14]

In 2 Kings 18:4, a bronze serpent, alleged to be the one Moses made, was kept in Jerusalem's Temple[2] sanctuary.[12] 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[16] 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.[2]

New Testament

Serpent in the Gospels

In the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were visiting him, a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 3:7). Jesus also uses this imagery, observing: "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Gehenna?" (Matthew 23:33). Alternatively, Jesus also presents the snake with a less negative connotation when sending out the Twelve Apostles. Jesus exhorted them, "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). Wilhelm Gesenius notes that even amongst the ancient Hebrews, the serpent was a symbol of wisdom.[17]

In the Gospel of John, Jesus made mention of the Mosaic serpent when he foretold his crucifixion to a Jewish teacher.[15] Jesus compared the act of raising up the Mosaic serpent on a pole, with the raising up of the Son of Man on a torture device (John 3:14-15).[18] Main: Nehushtan#Significance in Christianity

Ivory of Christ treading on the beasts from Genoels-Elderen, with four beasts; the basilisk was sometimes depicted as a bird with a long smooth tail.[19]

Temptation of the Christ

In the temptation of Christ, the Devil cites Psalm 91:11-12 with, "for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in [their] hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone." (Matthew 4:6) Then he cuts off before the prophetic verse 13 of Psalms 91, "Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon (tanniyn)[20] shalt thou trample under feet." (Psalm 91:13 KJV)[21]

The Serpent (תַּנִּין) in Psalm 91:13 is identified as Satan by Christians:[22] "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.[23] 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.[24]

Ancient serpent

Serpent (ὄφις;[25]) occurs in the Book of Revelation as the ancient serpent[26] or old serpent(YLT) used to describe the dragon,[20:2] Satan[27] 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.[28]

Serpents in biblical mythology

Ouroboros, single and in pairs at SS Mary and David's Church, England

In the oldest story ever written, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh loses the power of immortality, stolen by a snake.[29] 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,[30] 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,[31] one at Gezer,[32] one in the sanctum sanctorum of the Area H temple at Hazor,[33] and two at Shechem.[34] 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.[35] In sixth-century Babylon, a pair of bronze serpents flanked each of the four doorways of the temple of Esagila.[36] 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".[37] At the tell of Tepe Gawra, at least seventeen Early Bronze Age Assyrian bronze serpents were recovered.[38] 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

Jewish views

The first Jewish source to connect the serpent with the devil may be Wisdom of Solomon.[39] The subject is more developed in Apocalypse of Moses (Vita Adae et Evae) where the devil works with the serpent.[40]

Christian views

In traditional Christianity, a connection between the Serpent and Satan is strongly made, and Genesis 3:14-15 where God curses the serpent, is seen in that light: "And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life / And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel" (KJV).

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".[41]

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)

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 The American journal of urology and sexology p 72
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Olson 1996, p. 136
  3. Barton, SO "Midrash Rabba to Genesis", sec 20, p.93
  4. 4.0 4.1 Toorn 1998, pp. 746–7
  5. [1]
  6. Gorton 1824, p. 22
  7. Oesterley Immortality and the Unseen World: a study in Old Testament religion (1921) "... moreover, not only an accuser, but one who tempts to evil. With the further development of Satan as the arch-fiend and head of the powers of darkness we are not concerned here, as this is outside the scope of the Old Testament."
  8. "The idea of Zoroastrian influence on the evolution of Satan is in limited favor among scholars today, not least because the satan figure is always subordinate to God in Hebrew and Christian representations, and Angra Mainyu ..."-Kelly, Henry Ansgar (2006). Satan : a biography (1st ed. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 360. ISBN 978-0-521-84339-3. 
  9. Mobley, T.J. Wray, Gregory (2005). The birth of Satan : tracing the devil's biblical roots. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-6933-0. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Gesenius, Wilhelm & Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1893). Genenius's Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. J. Wiley & Sons. p. dccxcv. 
  11. Olson 1996, p. 135
  12. 12.0 12.1 Noth 1968, p. 156
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Thomas Nelson 2008, p. 172
  14. 14.0 14.1 Noth 1968, p. 157
  15. 15.0 15.1 Olson 1996, p. 137
  16. Joines, Karen Randolph (1968). The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult. JOBL, 87. p. 245, note 1. 
  17. Gesenius, Wilhelm & Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1893). Genenius's Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. J. Wiley & Sons. p. dccxcvi. 
  18. C. H. Spurgeon, "The Mysteries of the Brazen Serpent", 1857
  19. The basilisk and the weasel by Wenceslas Hollar
  20. Strong's Concordance: H8577
  21. Whittaker, H.A. Studies in the Gospels "Matthew 4" Biblia, Cannock 1996
  22. Psalm 91 in the Hebrew/Protestant numbering, 90 in the Greek/Catholic liturgical sequence - see Psalms#Numbering
  23. Hilmo, Maidie. Medieval images, icons, and illustrated English literary texts: from Ruthwell Cross to the Ellesmere Chaucer, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2004, p. 37, ISBN 0-7546-3178-8, ISBN 780754631781, google books
  24. Schiller, I, pp. 112–113, and many figures listed there. See also Index.
  25. Strong's Concordance: G3789
  26. From the Greek: ἀρχαῖος, archaios (är-khī'-os) - Strong's Concordance Number G744
  27. Σατανᾶς, Satanas, (sä-tä-nä's) - of Aramaic origin corresponding to Σατάν (G4566) - Strong's Concordance Number G4567
  28. Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.
  29. Storytelling, the Meaning of Life, and The Epic of Gilgamesh
  30. Mathematical Symbols and Scientific Icons
  31. Gordon Loud, Megiddo II: Plates plate 240: 1, 4, from Stratum X (dated by Loud 1650–1550 BC) and Statum VIIB (dated 1250-1150 BC), noted by Karen Randolph Joines, "The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult" Journal of Biblical Literature 87.3 (September 1968:245-256) p. 245 note 2.
  32. R.A.S. Macalister, Gezer II, p. 399, fig. 488, noted by Joiner 1968:245 note 3, from the high place area, dated Late Bronze Age.
  33. Yigael Yadin et al. Hazor III-IV: Plates, pl. 339, 5, 6, dated Late Bronze Age II (Yadiin to Joiner, in Joiner 1968:245 note 4).
  34. Callaway and Toombs to Joiner (Joiner 1968:246 note 5).
  35. Maurice Viera, Hittite Art (London, 1955) fig. 114.
  36. Leonard W. King, A History of Babylon, p. 72.
  37. Pritchard ANET, 331, noted in Joines 1968:246 and note 8.
  38. E.A. Speiser, Excavations at Tepe Gawra: I. Levels I-VIII, p. 114ff., noted in Joines 1968:246 and note 9.
  39. CTM.: Volume 43 1972 The Wisdom of Solomon deserves to be remembered for the fact that it is the first tradition to identify the serpent of Gen. 3 with the devil: "Through the devil's envy death entered the world" (2:24).
  40. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Expansions of the "Old ... James H. Charlesworth - 1985 "He seeks to destroy men's souls (Vita 17:1) by disguising himself as an angel of light (Vita 9:1, 3; 12:1; ApMos 17:1) to put into men "his evil poison, which is his covetousness" (epithymia, ..."
  41. Schiller, Gertrud, Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. I, p. 108 & fig. 280, 1971 (English trans from German), Lund Humphries, London, ISBN 853312702


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