[Heb., ʽakh·shuvʹ; shephi·phonʹ].
One of the viperous poisonous snakes that inhabit Palestine, distinguished by a small pointed horn above each eye. Raymond Ditmars reports that the horned viper (Cerastes cornutus) is found in N Africa from Algeria to Egypt and also in Arabia and S Palestine.
Because the venom of the horned viper is potent (though not usually fatal to humans), David fittingly speaks of violent men as having sharpened their tongue “like that of a serpent; the venom of the horned viper is under their lips.”—Ps 140:3; see ASP.
Reaching a maximum length of about 0.8 m (2.5 ft), the horned viper is of a pale, sandy hue and thus conceals itself in sand, waiting for prey. The untrained eye finds it most difficult to spot a lurking horned viper. In his book Reptiles of the World (1953, pp. 234, 235), Raymond Ditmars describes some horned vipers he saw in captivity: “Like all desert vipers, they were continually seeking to throw sand over their backs, thus hiding their bodies. If the cage were to be provided with several inches of fine sand, nothing would be seen of the snakes during the day but the tops of their heads. In shoveling sand the reptile flattens the body to such an extent, the lower edge acts as a scoop, then by a remarkable series of wave-like motions traveling the length of the body, on either side, the snake sinks into the sand or works this over its back.”
Figurative Use. The horned viper, which is alert and strikes with great swiftness, has been known to attack horses; thus the comparison given at Genesis 49:17 of the tribe of Dan with the “horned snake” is most fitting. There Jacob likened Dan to a serpent, a horned snake, “that bites the heels of the horse so that its rider falls backward.” This was not to downgrade Dan, as if he were a vile snake in the grass fit only to be crushed under the heel. Rather, in the capacity of a snake, Dan would serve a great national purpose. By lying in wait like the horned viper, he could, in effect, bite the heels of the horse carrying an enemy warrior and cause it to rear up and dump its rider off backward. So, though small, Dan would be as dangerous as a horned viper to Israel’s disturbers.