[Heb., na·hhashʹ, tan·ninʹ, tseʹphaʽ, tsiph·ʽohniʹ; Gr., oʹphis].
The term “serpent” describes a long, scaly, limbless reptile. Serpents travel on their belly or rib cage, and due to the proximity of their head to the ground their flickering tongue appears to be licking the dust. (Gen. 3:14) Some thirty-six kinds of snakes have been found in Palestine.
The Hebrew word na·hhashʹ 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; Prov. 23:32) Thus the tribe of Dan is likened first simply to a “serpent [na·hhashʹ]” and then specifically to a “horned snake [shephi·phonʹ]” lying by the roadside and striking out at Israel’s enemies. (Gen. 49:17) This Hebrew term corresponds to the Greek oʹphis, which is also generic. While many snakes in Palestine 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·ʽohniʹ are understood by lexicographers to refer to poisonous snakes, the Hebrew pronunciation perhaps representing in sound the hissing noise made by such snakes when approached. Both may refer to some variety of viper, but identification is uncertain. The Authorized Version incorrectly translated these words as referring to the mythical “cockatrice,” at Isaiah 11:8; 14:29; 59:5; 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. (Gen. 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 located by certain of the city gates of postexilic Jerusalem was known as the “Fountain of the Big Snake.”—Neh. 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 (Eccl. 10:8, 11; Amos 5:19), also its being cautious (Gen. 3:1). This latter characteristic was used by Jesus as an example in admonishing his disciples as to their conduct when among wolfish opposers.—Matt. 10:16.
Such ‘caution’ is referred to by an eminent British zoologist, H. W. Parker, in his book Snakes (chap. VI, p. 94): “There is often, however, an apparent reluctance to endangering their teeth, so that in the initial stages of an attack, when the creatures are more frightened than angry, they may lunge as if intending to bite, but without actually doing so. Whilst making these feints it is not unusual for them to uncoil themselves, almost imperceptibly, so that they can suddenly draw back and dash off swiftly to one side in an endeavour to escape. If such manoeuvres are unsuccessful they then strike in earnest and often with greater force than would be employed in catching food.”
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 they do. (Prov. 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 denunciations of judgment against certain nations, as against Philistia (Isa. 14:29), unfaithful Judah (Jer. 8:17), and 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 due to the disaster she suffers. (Jer. 46:22) This latter reference was probably also an expression designed to contrast with 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 Wadjet. 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 Amos 9:3.
At Jeremiah 51:34 the inhabitress of Zion likens King Nebuchadnezzar to a “big snake” who 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. (Gen. 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.”—Matt. 23:33 compare John 8:44; 1 John 3:12.
In false religion
The serpent was a frequent symbol among pagan religions and was often an object of adoration. In Mesopotamia, Canaan and Egypt the serpent was the symbol of fecundity and of sex goddesses; the symbol of two serpents intertwined was used to denote fertility through sexual union, and the repeated shedding of the serpent’s skin also caused it to be used as a symbol of continuing life.
King Hezekiah acted to eradicate any serpent worship 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.—Num. 21:6-9; 2 Ki. 18:4; see FIERY SNAKE.