Snakes in the Bible: how a symbol of wisdom got its bad rep

Source: https://www.abarim-publications.com/Dictionary/n/n-ht-si.html

Snakes in the Bible

— How a symbol of wisdom got its bad rep —

Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary


Dictionaries list four separate roots נחש (nhs), but even though these roots may be etymologically separate, to the perception of a Hebrew audience they probably weren't and expressed the same thing:

נחש I

The root נחש (nhsh I) isn't used in the Bible and we don't know what it might have meant. BDB Theological Dictionary suggests it may be onomatopoeic, imitative of the hissing of a snake. Its sole derivative is the masculine noun נחש (nahash), the Bible's most common word for snake. See below for a look at the use of snake imagery and its possible meaning in the Bible.

נחש II

It's not clear what came first, the verb or the noun (whether the verb נחש, nahash II, is a verb yielding the masculine noun נחש, nahash, or that the verb is denominative, formed from the noun). But the verb means to conduct divination or read omen, which was common practice in ancient times (Genesis 30:27, 44:5, 1 Kings 20:33), yet strongly condemned by the various Biblical legislators (Leviticus 19:26, Deuteronomy 18:10, 2 Kings 17:17 and 21:6).

The noun נחש (nahash) means divination or enchantment and occurs only in the Balaam cycle (Numbers 23:23 and 24:1). "Balaam's way" is referred to twice in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:15 and Revelation 2:14), and may in fact be the same as this art of divination and reading signs, which is still lavishly practiced today in fields ranging from the stock market to the church.

Knowledge that comes from the Lord has two distinct qualities by which it can be recognized: (1) It's understood in its context, and (2) it's never wrong. If a piece of wisdom is from the Lord, it can be explained logically and it works always and for everyone.

Someone who's in the know may advise, say, to not pass underneath a ladder because that could lead to misfortune. If that person is a diviner or a sign-reader, he will speak of bad luck and evil spirits and what not, and possibly advise you to also not pass through a triangular doorway, or quickly tap your chest in the shape of a square when your eyes fall upon something triangular. If that person has his knowledge from the Lord, however, he will explain you that a ladder stands there because someone is working up there. This worker may accidentally drop something, which will maim you if you happen to pass beneath it. The explainer may additionally advise you to also look out when you cross a street.

A diviner is not so much interested in getting the right information and with that protect and lead the people, but to secure a livelihood for himself by getting paid. The prime objective of a diviner is, therefore, not Truth but belief; the belief of his customers in him and his hocus-pocus. To achieve this, the diviner will dress in striking garb, wave elaborate symbols around, operate in impressive buildings and speak in esoteric wordings about punishments and diseases that will befall the infidels. His predictions will essentially be as accurate as a coin toss, but his statements will be vague enough to be explained both ways (this causes the majority of his predictions to be right). Correct predictions will be celebrated with great enthusiasm while incorrect predictions or ineffective measures will be explained away (a sick person who stays sick doesn't have enough faith, or opposing sprits are stronger than anticipated; all that). The worst part is that not all diviners are deliberate deceivers; many of them are their own greatest believers.

The man of God on the other hand will speak simply, clearly and logically. He won't be dressed other than normal, and he will live in an ordinary home and work out of an ordinary office. Furthermore, the man of God will never make a prediction that isn't true or a statement that can't be verified by others. A man of God who speaks the Word of God is never wrong, and that's how he and God's Word can be recognized (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). Faith in the knowledge that comes from God cannot be lost, just like faith in gravity cannot be lost, or the understanding that one plus one equals two. Understanding that comes from God can grow, but it cannot change (for much more on this, see our article on the Greek word πιστις, pistis, meaning "faith").

נחש III

The verb נחש (nahash III) isn't used in the Bible and its meaning is unknown. Its derivations, however, all have to do with bronze and copper, and the mastery of manufacturing bronze rang in a new age: the bronze age, which began in deep antiquity and ended sometime between the times of Moses and David, at the start of the iron age.

The profundity of the transition between stone age and metal age cannot be overstated. People have mined and smelted copper since 10,000 BC, but the soft copper didn't yield much advantage over stone tools and weapons. The bronze age proper began when folks discovered that by adding tin to copper, metal became hard and durable (around 3000 BC). That means that a people's chances of survival depended largely on its ability to make bronze. And that depended on the presence of people with the necessary metallurgic skills.

This skill — the command of the entire process that involved finding the right ore, creating an unusually hot fire and heating the ore up to the point where it began to yield its metallic soul — may nowadays sound rather mundane and technical; back then it was part of the magician's bag of tricks. Somehow people had discovered how to do it but very few understood what was actually going on; how or why stone would turn into metal when heated and why two soft metals became hard when joined. The people who could perform these miracles were not sooted coal-shovelers but highly respected spiritual leaders: the shamans, druids and wizards of the old world.

Logically, the art of metallurgy became firmly lodged in people's descriptions of knowledge and its acquisition; see for instance our article on the verb צרף (sarap), meaning to perform metallurgy (hence the name Zarephath). In Greek the verb μεταλλαω (metalleo), meaning to search carefully or inquire diligently, yielded the noun μεταλλον (metallon), meaning mine or quarry. The latter noun was imported into Latin as metallum to denote either a mine or what came out of a mine, and that is how English received its word "metal". The word "metal" literally means "something diligently searched for".

Most, if not all, of the Bible the way we have it today stems from the iron age, and iron is stronger than bronze but also harder to manufacture. But making iron works the same way as making bronze, and it seems logical that manufacturing iron became possible when making bronze was purified of all the nonsense that was associated with it. As stated before: it couldn't have been clear right away what exactly made the magic happen, whether it was the fire or the prayer, and the whole process was doubtlessly rife with elements that had nothing or little to do with it but which took up a lot of the community's energy and focus. And that's probably why the acquisition of knowledge became synonymous with metallurgy, because truth too lies bogged in the mire of our expectations, and is pried out over time by trying methods against results. A community that cares more about the liturgy and less about practical results will become more and more overgrown with magic and finally succumb from investing all resources in non-returning venues. A community that cares more about the practicality of the results and less about the pleasantness of the process will weed out the ineffective elements and invest evermore in that part of the process that has the desired effect, which in turn allows the community to raise the stakes and achieve more.

When folks figured out how to make iron the once revered art of making bronze became painfully blasé, and that appears to be the symbolic fate of bronze: it represents accidental skill and knowledge contaminated with superstition; one step up from being wholly ignorant but one step down from truly understanding. In the oft cited threesome of precious metals "bronze, silver and gold," bronze was proverbially deemed the least valuable (Isaiah 60:17, Jeremiah 6:28). Hence bronze became utilized to create fetters to bind prisoners with (Judges 16:21, Jeremiah 39:7), and began to symbolize oppression and mercilessness (Deuteronomy 28:23).

Here at Abarim Publications we see no reason to break this root up in two separate ones; there's only one root and its (further) derivations are:

  • The masculine noun נחשת (nehoshet), meaning copper or bronze (Genesis 4:22, Deuteronomy 8:9), or items made from bronze, such as fetters (2 Samuel 3:34, 2 Chronicles 36:6) or armor (1 Samuel 17:5). More than half of the 140 times this word is used in the Bible, it refers to the tabernacle and its utensils. This word is identical to the derivation of the assumed root nahash IV.
  • The adjective נחוש (nahush), meaning bronze (Job 6:12 only).
  • The feminine noun נחושה (nehusha) or נחשה (nehusha), meaning copper (Job 28:2) or bronze (Isaiah 45:2, Micah 4:13).
נחש IV

Root נחש (nahash IV) has been called into existence due to a single obscure occurrence of the noun נחשת (nehoshet - see root III). In Ezekiel 16:36 the prophet writes about Israel: "Because your נחשת was poured out..". and scholars generally assume that this describes acting shamefully in some way. Here at Abarim Publications we think that these words pertain to the whole library of rituals that also contained the means to make bronze. They don't describe a general shamefulness but rather an elaborate process in which most energy is lost and the little that is actually effective is so minute that it can only bring about the mere rudiments of social interaction.

Rather obviously, smelted bronze comes oozing out of the furnace in the form of a fiery serpent.

Snakes in the Bible

Together with the bull and the eagle, the snake (נחש, nahash) provided one of the most dominant animalistic symbols of the ancient world. The snake was associated with the staff, and curious enough, while this serpentine symbol is still used today (as the symbol of medicine, for instance, known as Asclepius' staff), it's probably the most anti-intuitive (at least to our modern intuition) and subsequently one of the least understood better-known symbols of antiquity. But armed with what we learned above, we may be able to unravel the mystery, at least of what the snake and the staff meant to the Hebrews:

When Moses and Aaron challenged the wise men of Egypt to a battle of wits, Aaron famously cast his staff upon the ground, upon which it became a snake. The Egyptian wizards too cast their staffs upon the ground and theirs too became snakes. But Aaron's snake swallowed up the Egyptians' snakes, and at some point turned back into a staff. With that staff Moses struck the waters of the Nile, upon which the river turned to blood as first of ten plagues (Exodus 4:1-5 and 7:8-17, also see 4:20 and Numbers 17:8; for the sake of completion we note that in Exodus 4 and 7:15 the word נחש is used but in 7:8-12 the word תנין, tanin; see the brief description below).

Here at Abarim Publications we like to believe that the Exodus story does not tell of the trek of 600,000 physical men and the subsequent massive invasion of Canaan — in part because the archeological record doesn't confirm that particular interpretation but also because the author of the story seems less concerned with international politics and much more with the evolution of Yahwism within several nations at once (Yahwism, we think, is a kind of proto-science and not a religion). The battle of the staffs too tells more than meets the eye, particularly because of the seamless transition between the staff and the snake. Moses and Aaron performed this transition by authority of God but the Egyptian wizards could do it too, which strongly suggests that this literary representation of this transition represents in fact a kind of natural phenomenon that can be discovered and mastered by the natural man.

The Egyptians were big fans of the snake. A snake-goddess called Wadjet was considered the patron deity of Egypt (hence the cobra on the Pharaoh's headdress) and her name derived of the Egyptian word for papyrus. Since wisdom (that's knowing how to do things and agreeing on how to do things; a stronger country knows how to do things better than a weak country) lies at the root of all civilization and the invention of script did wonders for the development of wisdom, it's no surprise that Egypt's patron deity was associated with papyrus (or that Pharaoh's daughter found Moses in the reeds and Israel escaped from Egypt by crossing the Sea of Reeds). Here at Abarim Publications we like to believe that the Exodus tells of developments in the wisdom tradition of the Near East, and particularly how Egyptian script (based on a huge portfolio of hieroglyphs, and only accessible to the royalty and an elite priesthood) was defeated by Semitic script (based on a very simple alphabet, which gave the common man access to all writing and which made the common man a king and priest; see our article on the name Christian).

The Biblical authors were quick to notice that although the snake is crafty and venomous, it's also limbless and basically just a slithering bowel that follows its appetites and nothing more (Genesis 3:14-15). God told the snake that the woman's seed would crush its head while the snake would crush the seed's heel (the word for heel is עקב, 'aqeb, which is also the root of the name Jacob; the Hebrew verb that's usually translated with crush or bruise doesn't really mean that; read our article on this verb שוף, sup, which also treats the homophonous noun סוף, sup, meaning reeds, as in Sea of Reeds).

A snake is a poisonous animal that follows it belly and that lives in the reeds, and to the Bible writers it symbolized the fears and expectations that entice a mind to draw erroneous conclusions from a library of papyri. All this starts when a person begins to understand that his actions might alter a situation, such as, say, the sickness of a person. This sick person would then be subjected to an elaborate healing regime that might include a hardy gulp of beer. If that person happened to have a viral infection, he might be cured by a naturally occurring antibiotic element in the beer. But the person could just as well be done in by any of the other facets of the whole "cure", which were often quite poisonous, or get better simply because of the placebo effect. But the medicine man would have no idea which element of his ritual actually had cured the patient, or perhaps killed him, or did nothing at all.

In other words: the snake represented precisely the same phase of the learning process that bronze did, namely the first boastful step away from ignorance; a desire to master the world that led to some accidental true knowledge in a wide bouquet of superstitions and nonsensical rites that caused more harm than good. But the opposite of the snake in the reeds, the Bible writers appear to say, was a staff (מטה, matteh) in the hand of a traveler.

A traveler — one who walked on the legs which lifted him from the earth and which a snake typically didn't have — wouldn't think to go on his way without his staff. He could lean on his staff when he needed rest, and when he walked his staff could poke ahead and inspect the man's path (and remember that the Gospel was also known as the Way; see our article on the word οδος, hodos). If the man encountered a robber or a wild animal, he could use his staff as weapon. A staff represented a man's power and security, and to the Bible writers it also represented true and tried knowledge of the world. This is why the western wizard (from the adjective wise) is commonly depicted with a staff, which in turn was often said to be endowed with special powers and which in later times evolved into the wizard's wand.

A staff was a tool in a man's hand and perfectly followed his bidding, but a snake could not be managed or predicted and could strike at any moment and kill without ado. A traveler who traveled the world of wisdom could be led astray by the painful bite of a snake and disappear in a bog of folly, yet those folks who acted out of a tried truth could always try whatever they encountered to what they knew, and stay on the right path. Hence the people who believed Christ could fearlessly pick up serpents (Mark 16:18), or be bitten by them without ill effect (Acts 28:3, see our article on the name Dike). And in the desert the Israelites were saved from fiery serpents by Nehushtan, the bronze snake Moses made (the Hebrew phrase "bronze serpent" uses twice the same word: נחש נחשת; nahash nehoshet; Numbers 21:9).

Read for more on the Bible's snakes our article on the name Leviathan. Also see our article on the Greek words for snake: δρακων (drakon), snake, εχιδνα (echidna), viper and οφις (ophis), serpent.

Other Hebrew words for snake (or perhaps particular species) are:

  • שרף (sarap), usually translated as viper, from the verb שרף (sarap), meaning to burn. The serpents the Israelites had to face in the desert were of this kind. The famous Seraphim are also known by this word.
  • אפעה ('ep'a) another word for viper (Isaiah 30:6, 59:5, Job 20:16), which is highly similar to the adjective אפע ('epa'), meaning worthless (Isaiah 41:24)
  • צפע (sepa'), which may be onomatopoeic and thus may mean "hisser".
  • שפיפן (shepipon), which is a complicated word that we discuss in the same article that also looks at the words שוף, sup and סוף, sup (see the link above).
  • תנין (tanin), probably a loan-word and one that was used across the Semitic language spectrum to indicate mythological sea- or chaos monsters. The whole chaos-conquering mythology obviously tells the same story of discovering how to world works in order to master it.

Associated Biblical names