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Serpent. The Hebrew word nâchâsh is the generic name of any serpent. The following are the principal biblical allusions to this animal: Its subtlety is mentioned in Gen. 3:1; its wisdom is alluded to by our Lord in Matt. 10:16; the poisonous properties of some species are often mentioned, see Ps. 58:4; Prov. 23:32; the sharp tongue of the serpent is mentioned in Ps. 140:3; Job 20:16; the habit serpents have of lying concealed in hedges and in holes of walls is alluded to in Eccles. 10:8; their dwelling in dry sandy places, in Deut. 8:15; their wonderful mode of progression did not escape the observation of the author of Prov. 30, who expressly mentions it as “one of the three things which were too wonderful for him.” ver. 19. The art of taming and charming serpents is of great antiquity, and is alluded to in Ps. 58:5; Eccles. 10:11; Jer. 8:17, and doubtless intimated by St. James, James 3:7, who particularizes serpents among all other animals that “have been tamed by man.” It was under the form of a serpent that the devil seduced Eve; hence in Scripture Satan is called “the old serpent.” Rev. 12:9, and comp. 2 Cor. 11:3. Hence, as a fruit of the tradition of the Fall, the serpent all through the East became the emblem of the spirit of evil, and is so pictured even on the monuments of Egypt. It has been supposed by many commentators that the serpent, prior to the Fall, moved along in an erect attitude. It is quite clear that an erect mode of progression is utterly incompatible with the structure of a serpent; consequently, had the snakes before the Fall moved in an erect attitude, they must have been formed on a different plan altogether. The typical form of the serpent and its mode of progression were in all probability the same before the Fall as after it; but subsequent to the Fall its form and progression were to be regarded with hatred and disgust by all mankind, and thus the animal was cursed “above all cattle,” and a mark of condemnation was forever stamped upon it. Serpents are said in Scripture to “eat dust,” see Gen. 3:14; Isa. 65:25; Micah 7:17; these animals, which for the most part take their food on the ground, do consequently swallow with it large portions of sand and dust. Throughout the East the serpent was used as an emblem of the evil principle, of the spirit of disobedience and contumacy. Much has been written on the question of the “fiery serpents” of Num. 21:6, 8, with which it is usual to erroneously identify the “fiery flying serpent” of Isa. 14:29 and 30:6. The word “fiery” probably signifies “burning,” in allusion to the sensation produced by the bite. The Cerastes, or the Naia haje, or any other venomous species frequenting Arabia, may denote the “serpent of the burning bite” which destroyed the children of Israel. The snake that fastened on St. Paul’s hand when he was at Melita, Acts 28:3, was probably the common viper of England, Pelias berus. [See also Adder; Asp.] when God punished the murmurs of the Israelites in the wilderness by sending among them serpents whose fiery bite was fatal, Moses, upon their repentance, was commanded to make a serpent of brass, whose polished surface shone like fire, and to set it up on the banner-pole in the midst of the people; and whoever was bitten by a serpent had but to look up at it and live. Num. 21:4–9. The comparison used by Christ, John 3:14, 15, adds a deep interest to this scene. To present the serpent form, as deprived of its power to hurt, impaled as the trophy of a conqueror, was to assert that evil, physical and spiritual, had been overcome, and thus help to strengthen the weak faith of the Israelites in a victory over both. Others look upon the uplifted serpent as a symbol of life and health, it having been so worshipped in Egypt. The two views have a point of contact, for the primary idea connected with the serpent is wisdom. Wisdom, apart from obedience to God, degenerates to cunning, and degrades and envenoms man’s nature. Wisdom, yielding to the divine law, is the source of healing and restoring influences, and the serpent form thus became a symbol of deliverance and health; and the Israelites were taught that it would be so with them in proportion as they ceased to be sensual and rebellious. Preserved as a relic, whether on the spot of its first erection or elsewhere, the brazen serpent, called by the name of Nehushtan, became an object of idolatrous veneration, and the zeal of Hezekiah destroyed it with the other idols of his father. 2 Kings 18:4. [Nehushtan.]


Serpent—denoting immortality.


The Viper.