The following terms are used in the Old Testament to denote serpents of one kind or another: (1) "naḥash," the generic and most frequently used term; (2) "peten" (asp or adder; Deut. xxxii. 33; Isa. xi. 8; et al.), perhaps identical with the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje), which is found in southern Palestine, and is frequently kept by snake-charmers; (3) "ẓefa'" (A. V. "cockatrice," R. V. "basilisk," LXX. "asp"; Isa. xiv. 29); (4) "ẓif'oni" (adder, basilisk, cockatrice; Isa. xi. 8, lix. 5, et al.), perhaps the large viper (Duboia xanthina); it is identified also, by some, with the cat-snake (Tarbophis fallax); (5) "ef'eh" (Arabic, "af'a" = "viper"), connected in Isa. xxx. 6 with Egypt; (6) "shefifon" (adder; Gen. xlix. 17 [R. V., margin, "horned snake"]), perhaps identical with the Cerastes hasselquistii, said to have been the asp with which Cleopatra killed herself; (7) "'akshub" (Ps. cxl. 3; LXX. "asp," Arabic version, "viper," A. and R. V. "adder"; Talmud and Rashi, a kind of spider, or tarantula [comp. "'akkabish"]); (8) "zoḥale 'afar" (Deut. xxxii. 24; comp. Micah vii. 17, which designates the serpent as creeping on the earth); (9)"tannin" (Ex. vii. 9 et seq.; elsewhere, "dragon," "monster"); (10) "ḳippoz" (Isa. xxxiv. 15; A. V. "great owl," R. V. "arrow-snake"; the connection suggests some bird); (11) "saraf" and "naḥash saraf" (Num. xxi. 6; Deut. viii. 15; the epithet "fiery" probably refers to the burning sensation and inflammation caused by the venom of the snake).
The idea of flying serpents ("saraf me'ofef"; Isa. xiv. 29, xxx. 6) rests, perhaps, on the confusion of serpents with lizards, which is found also in classical writers. They belong to those fanciful creatures with which folk-lore peoples the desert regions ("Pal. Explor. Fund, Quarterly Statement," 1894, p. 30). For the "naḥash bariaḥ" and "naḥash 'akalaton" in Isa. xxvii. 1 see Leviathan.
Serpents abound in Palestine, as well as in Egypt, the Sinaitic Peninsula, and the Arabian desert. According to Tristram, the serpent tribe is represented in Palestine by eighteen species, mostly belonging to the genera Ablabes and Zamanis, of the Colubridœ family.
The qualities and habits attributed to the serpent in the Old Testament are subtlety (comp. Gen. iii. 1), the disposition to lie concealed in holes, walls, and thickets (comp. Amos v. 19; Eccl. x. 8; Prov. xxx. 18-19), and the habit of eating dust (comp. Gen. iii. 14; Isa. lxv. 25), a belief in which was common among the Greeks and Romans. The art of serpent-charming is referred to in Ex. iv. 3, vii. 9, Jer. viii. 17, and Eccl. x. 11. The ability to stiffen serpents into rods is still possessed by Oriental jugglers.In the Talmud.
The generic names for the serpent are "naḥash" and (Ber. 12b). Like fish, the snake has its eyes in the sides of its head (Niddah 23a); and it is endowed with a keen sense of hearing ('Ab. Zarah 30b). Its back is curved, its belly flat (Ned. 25a). Its mode of progression is by slowly raising first the head and then gradually the rest of the body (Ber. 12b). Serpents copulate with their bellies turned toward each other; the period of gestation is seven years, during which intercourse continues (Bek. 8a). The serpent lives in empty cisterns and in houses, where it has a dangerous enemy in the cat, the latter being immune to its poison (Ḥag. 3a et al.). It tastes dust in whatever it eats; still it is fond of water, wine, milk, and melted suet (Ter. viii. 4; 'Ab. Zarah 30a, b; Shab. 85a; Beẓah 7b). It is driven off by the smoke of the burning antler of the hart (Yalḳuṭ Shim'oni, ii. 97c; comp. Ælianus, "De Natura Animalium," ix. 20; Pliny, "Historia Naturalis," viii. 32, 50). The skin of the serpent was made into covers for the seats of kings (Yer. Ned. iv.; Ḥal. 3); and in Pirḳe R. El. xx. (comp. Gen. R. xxiv. 6) it is said that the garments of Adam and Eve (Gen. iii. 21) were made of the same material.Their Poison.
The poison of the serpent forms a coherent mass (B. ḳ. 115b). It varies in strength and weight. That of a young serpent is heaviest, and falls to the bottom when dropped into a vessel of water; that of an older one remains suspended midway; and that of a very old one floats on the surface. While the serpent is one of the three creatures which grow stronger with age (the other two being the fish and the swine), the intensity and deadliness of its poison decreases with advancing age ('Ab. Zarah 30b). The poison of the serpent is deadly ('Ab. Zarah 31b). If it is left in the wound it causes a burning pain, so that one sentenced to die by fire may be bitten by a snake instead (Soṭah 8b). The poison spreads through the whole body, and it is therefore dangerous to eat the flesh of an animal which was bitten by a snake (Ter. viii. 6), and even to wear sandals made from its hide (Ḥul. 94a, Rashi). If the bone of a snake enters the foot death may result (Pes. 112b). The snake alone of all animals harms without gain to itself, and is therefore compared to the slanderer (Ta'an. 8a et al.). It is also revengeful (Yoma 23a). Still, it seldom attacks unless provoked; and it gives warning by hissing (Ber. 33a; Shab. 121b). The snakes of Palestine were considered particularly dangerous (ib.); but it is mentioned as one of the perpetual miracles of Jerusalem that no one there was ever bitten by a snake (Ab. v. 5).
The flesh of the snake, mixed with other things, was considered the most effective antidote against the poison of the snake as well as of other animals (Shab. 109b). Other cures for snake-bite are: placing the bitten part into the body of a hen which has been opened alive; applying to the wound the embryo taken from the womb of a sound, white she-ass; and putting crushed gnats on the wound (Yoma 83b; Shab. 77b, 109b). A snake cooked in olive-oil was considered a curative for itch (Shab. 77b).Species or Varieties.
Probably the anaconda is referred to in Ned. 25a et al., where it is related that in the time of Shabur a serpent devoured the straw of thirteen stables. The ringed snake is mentioned under the name of (comp. Greek ἔχις, ἔχιδνα; B. ḳ. 17b and parallels) as encircling the opening of a cave. Of the "shefifon" it is said that it is the only snake which is solitary in its habits, that its poison is effective even after its death, and that its strength is mainly in its head (Gen. R. cxi. 2, cxiii. 3; comp. Yer. Ter. 45d). The period of gestation of the "ef'eh" is set at seventy years (Bek. 8a). The water-snake ("'arad" or "'arod") occurs in the miraculous story of Ḥanina b. Dosa (Ḥul. 127a), where Rashi explains it to be the hybrid of the serpent and toad. The anger of the wise is compared to the bite of the "saraf" (Ab. ii. 10). The dragon, finally, has its equivalent in , which, however, in some passages seems to designate some kind of worm, as, for instance, in Ber. 62b and Giṭ. 57a. Another name for the dragon is (Ket. 49b; comp. Targ. on Jer. x. 9).
A bad wife is called a snake in the proverb, "No man can live in the same basket with a snake" (Ket. 72a). But the appearance of a snake in a dream is of good omen (Ber. 57a). For the relation of the serpent to Adam and Eve see Shab. 146a.
- Tristram, Natural History of the Bible, p. 269;
- Lewysohn, Zoologie des Talmuds, p. 234;
- O. Günther, Die Reptilien und Amphibien von Syrien, Palästina, und Cypern, 1880.