An extremely poisonous snake of Asia and Africa. The cobra mentioned in six passages of the Bible is undoubtedly the Egyptian cobra or asp, one commonly used in snake charming, both in Bible times and today. Like the common cobra of India and the Asiatic king cobra, the Egyptian cobra inflates its neck when angered. In fact, this species is known for being a quick and irritable serpent, and it will rear and hiss when even slightly disturbed. The Egyptian cobra has a misleading name, since it has a wide range outside Egypt; in fact, it has the widest range of any cobra in Africa. It is not limited to Africa, however; and Raymond Ditmars in his book Reptiles of the World says that this cobra is common not only in countries bordering the Sahara Desert but also in Arabia. The Egyptian cobra, however, is now extremely rare in southern Palestine.
The Israelites were thus well acquainted with this snake, not only while they were in Egypt, but also during their wandering through the wilderness. Moses, in addressing the Israelites in the wilderness, referred to the cobra’s venom, “the cruel poison of cobras.” (Deut. 32:33) The term “cruel” aptly describes the effect of the cobra’s venom, concerning which H. W. Parker says in his book Snakes (p. 133): “The symptoms immediately following a bite are pain out of all proportion to the damage caused merely by the wounds, followed at once by much local swelling with blood and serum oozing from the fang punctures. These symptoms, produced by the tissue-destroying and anti-coagulant substances, may appear within thirty seconds, and they spread as the venom disperses through the body, with haemorrhages developing at other points. Simultaneously the nerve poisons begin to take effect; weakness of the legs, drooping of the head and eyelids, paralysis of the tongue, lips and throat . . . nausea and increasing difficulty in breathing follow in succession with, though not inevitably, death from respiratory and heart failure.”
The cobra’s poison acts on the nerves and causes a paralysis of the respiratory system and is frequently fatal to man, unless antivenom is promptly given. Zophar speaks of “the gall of cobras” and “the venom of cobras.”—Job 20:14, 16.
The cobra strikes with a forward sweep of its raised body accompanied by a sharp hiss. When biting, the cobra’s jaw grasps the object tenaciously and then begins a peculiar chewing motion; that is necessary because the fangs are relatively short and a larger amount of poison can enter the wound with the longer contact. Because of this biting habit and the extreme toxicity of the venom, cobras are among the most dangerous of all creatures. Thus the psalmist, using figurative speech, links the cobra with the lion and says concerning those who have made Jehovah their trust: “Upon the young lion and the cobra you will tread; you will trample down the maned young lion and the big snake.” (Ps. 91:13) Isaiah, in speaking of the regathering of Jehovah’s people, prophesies of changed conditions for them, describing a time when “the sucking child will certainly play upon the hole of the cobra; and upon the light aperture of a poisonous snake will a weaned child actually put his own hand.”—Isa. 11:8, 11, 12.
The Bible refers to the cobra’s ear and alludes to the cobra’s ability to “listen to the voice of charmers.” (Ps. 58:4, 5) Though some naturalists claim snakes cannot hear, the Bible is in harmony with the latest findings that demonstrate that snakes have an internal sound mechanism and that they can hear fairly well. Thus the New York Times of January 10, 1954 (Sec. 4, p. 9), reported under the heading “Are Snakes ‘Charmed’ by Music?”:
“Dr. David I. Macht, research pharmacologist of the Mount Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, is one of the world’s leading authorities on cobra snake venom. . . . Dr. Macht reported that in working with cobras and cobra venom he became acquainted with a number of Hindu physicians, well educated, and from different parts of India. All agreed that cobras respond to some musical tones, from musical pipes or fifes. Some forms of music excite the animals more than other forms, the physicians reported. Indian children, playing in the dark in the countryside, are even warned not to sing lest their sounds attract cobras, he said. Dr. Macht commented that Shakespeare, who repeatedly referred to serpents as deaf . . . merely repeated a common misunderstanding. On the other hand, Dr. Macht said, the psalmist was right who implied conversely, in Psalm 58, Verse 5, that serpents can hear: . . . Contrary to the claims of some naturalists, Dr. Macht said, snakes are ‘charmed’ by sounds, not by movements of the charmer. Revise the textbooks, the physicians recommended.”
The snake can best hear a vibration on the ground or notes of high pitch. Some of its most common preys make high-pitched sounds; these high-pitched notes produce great uneasiness and alarm in the snake. Thus notes produced by flutes only signify food or danger to the snake and do not meet with an appreciation of the music played. When a snake charmer starts playing on his flute, this immediately gets a reaction from the snake and it lifts itself erect, alert to danger. Recognizing the sound as coming from the flute, it will naturally fix its attention on that object and the one playing it. If the charmer moves or sways back and forth, the snake will do the same. If he moves around the snake in a circle, the snake will, of course, turn to keep its eyes on the source of the sound.
Pharaoh Tutankhamen, whose tomb was discovered in 1922, used the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje) as his imperial symbol.
Some cobras, such as the black-necked or spitting cobra of Africa, can spit or spray venom a distance of six to twelve feet (1.8 to 3.7 meters). The spitting cobras aim at the eyes of the victim and seldom miss their target. Spitting cobras appear to be able to eject their venom in rapid-fire salvos. One observer reports that in Tanganyika a black-necked cobra sprayed venom between a dozen and twenty times—in rapid succession.