[Heb., na·chashʹ, tan·ninʹ, tseʹphaʽ, tsiph·ʽoh·niʹ; Gr., oʹphis].
A long, scaly, limbless reptile. Serpents travel on their belly or rib cage, and because of the nearness of their head to the ground, their flickering tongue appears to be licking the dust. (Ge 3:14) Over 30 kinds of snakes are found in Israel.
The Hebrew word na·chashʹ is evidently a generic, or general, term applying to all snakes or serpentlike creatures, and it is often used along with other Hebrew words that denote a particular kind of snake. (Ps 58:4; 140:3; Pr 23:32) Thus the tribe of Dan is likened first simply to “a serpent [na·chashʹ]” and then specifically to “a horned snake [shephi·phonʹ]” lying by the roadside and striking out at Israel’s enemies. (Ge 49:17) This Hebrew term corresponds to the Greek oʹphis, which is also generic. While many snakes in Israel today are of the nonvenomous types, Biblical references to snakes are mainly with regard to those that are dangerous or venomous.
The Hebrew words tseʹphaʽ and tsiph·ʽoh·niʹ are understood by lexicographers to refer to poisonous snakes, the Hebrew pronunciation perhaps representing in sound the hissing noise made by such snakes when they are approached. Both may refer to some variety of viper, but identification is uncertain. The King James Version incorrectly translated these words as referring to the mythical “cockatrice,” at Isaiah 11:8; 14:29; 59:5; and Jeremiah 8:17.
In the account about the converting of Moses’ rod into a snake (Ex 7:9-13), the Hebrew word tan·ninʹ is used, evidently referring to a “big snake” in view of the use of the word in other texts as describing a monstrous creature of the sea. (Ge 1:21; Job 7:12; Ps 74:13; 148:7; Isa 27:1; 51:9) Other texts where the term clearly applies to venomous snakes are Deuteronomy 32:33 and Psalm 91:13, where cobras are also mentioned. A fountain in postexilic Jerusalem was known as “the Fountain of the Big Snake.”—Ne 2:13.
The well-known characteristics of a serpent are referred to in various texts: its gliding motion (Job 26:13), its bite and its hiding place in stone walls (Ec 10:8, 11; Am 5:19), also its being cautious (Ge 3:1). This latter characteristic was used by Jesus as an example in admonishing his disciples as to their conduct when among wolfish opposers.—Mt 10:16.
Such ‘caution’ is referred to by an eminent British zoologist, H. W. Parker, in his book Snakes: A Natural History (1977, p. 49): “Even when the last line of defence has been reached, the counter-attack in its initial stages may be more simulated than real; frequent lunges are made with apparent ferocity, but they fall short of the objective and sometimes the mouth is not even opened. It is also not unusual at this stage for the snake to uncoil itself stealthily to be ready for a speedy withdrawal and flight if the enemy recoils. But when an all-out attack finally develops, it follows the pattern usually employed in securing prey, though with increased ferocity; species that would normally bite and then release their victim, or merely hold it, bite repeatedly or worry their molester.”
Figurative Use. The serpent is used figuratively in many texts: The lies of the wicked are likened to its venom (Ps 58:3, 4), the sharp tongue of evil schemers to that of the serpent (Ps 140:3), and wine in excess is said to bite as serpents do (Pr 23:32). The freedom from violence and hurt amid Jehovah’s restored people is illustrated by the ‘serpent’s food being dust.’—Isa 65:25.
The symbolic figure of the serpent, or snake, is also used in God’s pronouncements of judgment upon certain nations, such as Philistia (Isa 14:29) and unfaithful Judah (Jer 8:17), as well as Egypt, whose voice is likened to that of a serpent, doubtless referring either to a hissing retreat in defeat or to the lowness of her national voice because of the disaster she suffers. (Jer 46:22) This latter reference was probably also an expression designed to expose as futile the practice of the Egyptian pharaohs of wearing the uraeus, a representation of the sacred snake on the front of their headdress, as a sign of protection by the serpent-goddess Uatchit. At Micah 7:17 all the nations opposing God’s people are foretold to be obliged to “lick up dust like the serpents.”—See also Am 9:3.
At Jeremiah 51:34 the inhabitress of Zion likens King Nebuchadnezzar to a “big snake” that has swallowed her down.
Satan the Devil. At Revelation 12:9 and 20:2 God’s principal opposer, Satan, is referred to as “the original serpent,” evidently because of his employing the literal serpent in Eden as his means of communication with the woman. (Ge 3:1-15) As “the original serpent,” he is also the progenitor in a spiritual sense of other opposers; hence Jesus’ classification of such ones as “serpents, offspring of vipers.”—Mt 23:33; compare Joh 8:44; 1Jo 3:12.
In false religion. The serpent was a frequent symbol among pagan religions and was often an object of adoration. (PICTURES, Vol. 2, p. 530) In Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt the serpent was the symbol of fecundity and of sex goddesses; two serpents intertwined were used to denote fertility through sexual union, and because of the repeated shedding of the serpent’s skin, it was used as a symbol of continuing life.
King Hezekiah acted to eradicate any serpent worship from among his subjects by crushing to pieces the copper serpent that had been used in Moses’ time during an attack by venomous snakes in the wilderness.—Nu 21:6-9; 2Ki 18:4; see COPPER SERPENT; FIERY SNAKE.