Serpent in the Near Eastern Culture

Genesis 3: 8

Bronze Snake at Mount Nebo
Bronze Snake at Mount Nebo

A general term for the various snakelike creatures found in the ancient Near East (Heb. nāḥāš, kārāp̱; Gk. óphis). Representations of serpents in literature and other media (chiefly clay and bronze) occur throughout the ancient Near East. Serpents functioned largely as objects of worship or charms against evil, often that of snakebite. Enuma Elish depicts Tiamat, herself perhaps a serpentlike creature, as allied with a horde of creatures—many serpentine—in her battle with Marduk. While Gilgamesh is swimming, a serpent steals the plant that is to give immortality.

In the Gen. 3 story of the fall of humanity, a crafty serpent (cf. Matt. 10:16) talks Eve into eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which she then hands to Adam. God pronounces the consequences on the serpent, Eve, Adam, and the ground (only the serpent and the ground are cursed). This explains why the serpent has no legs; for humanity, it means—among other things—the loss of immortality (cf. Gilgamesh). In Gen. 3 the serpent is simply one of God’s creatures. The explicit equation of the serpent with the satan, the accuser, comes in later Jewish and Christian apocalyptic works (e.g., 2 Enoch, Revelation).

In Num. 21 God commands Moses to craft a bronze serpent (Heb. kārāp̱) to relieve the effects of a plague of poisonous serpents (năḥāšɩ̂m) which God had sent to punish the people. This serpent image was later erected in the Jerusalem temple, but the association of this serpent (Neáhusûtaµn) with Canaanite religious practice eventually led Hezekiah to destroy it (2 Kgs. 18:4). The healing aspects of the bronze serpent reflect other ancient cultures (perhaps underlying the reference to Jesus in John 3:14).

The vision of Isa. 6 includes fiery, winged serpents (sărāp̱ɩ̂m) which hover around the divine throne, symbols of God’s regal glory. Similar depictions of winged serpents have been found in Egypt, where the erect image of the cobra (uraeus) was a symbol of the royalty of the pharaoh and the gods.

Thomas, M. A. (2000). Serpent. In D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers, & A. B. Beck (Eds.), Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible (p. 1188). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.