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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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In Egypt and other oriental countries, a serpent was the common symbol of a powerful monarch; it was embroidered on the robes of princes, and blazoned on their diadem, to signify their absolute power and invincible might, and that, as the wound inflicted by the basilisk is incurable, so the fatal effects of their displeasure were neither to be avoided nor endured. These are the allusions involved in the address of the prophet, to the irreconcilable enemies of his nation: "Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken; for out of the serpent's roots shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent," Isaiah 14:29 . Uzziah, the king of Judah, had subdued the Philistines; but taking advantage of the weak reign of Ahaz, they again invaded the kingdom of Judea, and reduced some cities in the southern part of the country under their dominion. On the death of Ahaz, Isaiah delivers this prophecy, threatening them with a more severe chastisement from the hand of Hezekiah, the grandson of Uzziah, by whose victorious arms they had been reduced to sue for peace; which he accomplished, when "he smote the Philistines, even unto Gaza, and the borders thereof," 2 Kings 18:8 . Uzziah, therefore, must be meant by the rod that smote them, and by the serpent from whom should spring the fiery flying serpent, that is, Hezekiah, a much more terrible enemy than even Uzziah had been. But the symbol of regal power which the oriental kings preferred to all others, was the basilisk. This fact is attested by its Arabian name melecha, from the Hebrew verb malach, "to reign;" from its Greek name βασιλισκος , and its Latin name regulus: all of which, it is asserted, referred to the conspicuous place it occupied among the regal ornaments of the east. The basilisk is of a reddish colour, and its head is decorated with a crest in the form of a crown; it is not entirely prostrate, like other serpents, but moves along with its head and half the body erect; the other parts sweep the ground behind, And wind its spacious back in rolling spires.

All the other species of serpents are said to acknowledge the superiority of the real or the fabled basilisk, by flying from its presence, and hiding themselves in the dust. It is also supposed to live longer than any other serpent; the ancient Heathens therefore pronounced it immortal, and placed it in the number of their deities; and because it had the dangerous power, in general belief, of killing with its pestiferous breath the strongest animals, it seemed to them invested with the power of life and death. It became, therefore, the favourite symbol of kings; and was employed by the prophet, to symbolize the great and good Hezekiah, with strict propriety.

2. The cerastes, or horned snake. The only allusion to this species of serpent in the sacred volume occurs in the valedictory predictions of Jacob, where he describes the character and actions of Dan and his posterity:

"Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder, שפיפון , in the path, that biteth the horse's heels, so that his rider shall fall backward," Genesis 49:17 . It is indisputably clear, that the patriarch intended some kind of serpent; for the circumstances will not apply to a freebooter watching for his prey. It only remains to investigate the species to which it belongs. The principal care of the Jewish writers is to ascertain the etymology of the name, about which their sentiments are much divided. The Arabian authors quoted by Bochart inform us, that the sephiphon, is a most pernicious reptile, and very dangerous to man. It is of a sandy colour, variegated with black and white spots. The particulars in the character of Dan, however, agree better with the cerastes, or horned snake, than with any other species of serpent. It lies in wait for passengers in the sand, or in the rut of the wheels on the highway. From its lurking place it treacherously bites the horse's heels, so that the rider falls backward, in consequence of the animal's hinder legs becoming almost immediately torpid by the dreadful activity of the poison. The cerastes is equally formidable to man and the lower animals; and the more dangerous, because it is not easy to distinguish him from the sand in which he lies; and he never spares the helpless traveller who unwarily comes within his reach. Like the cerastes, Dan was to excel in cunning and artifice, to prevail against his enemies rather by his policy in the cabinet than by his valour in the field.

3. The seraph, or fiery flying serpent, to a Biblical student, is one of the most interesting creatures that has yet been mentioned. It bears the name of an order among the hosts of heaven, whom Isaiah beheld in vision, placed above the throne of Jehovah in the temple; the brazen figure of this serpent is supposed to be a type of our blessed Redeemer, who was for our salvation lifted up upon the cross, as the serpent was elevated in the camp of Israel, for the preservation of that people. It is the only species of serpent which the almighty Creator has provided with wings, by means of which, instead of creeping or leaping, it rises from the ground, and leaning upon the extremity of its tail, moves with great velocity. It is a native of Egypt, and the deserts of Arabia; and receives its name from the Hebrew verb seraph, which signifies to burn, in allusion to the violent inflammation which its poison produces, or rather to its fiery colour, which the brazen serpent was intended to represent. Bochart is of opinion, that the seraph is the same as the hydrus, or, as Cicero calls it, the serpent of the waters. For, in the book of Isaiah, the land of Egypt is called the region from whence come the viper and flying seraph, or burning serpent. AElian says, they come from the deserts of Libya and Arabia, to inhabit the streams of the Nile; and that they have the form of the hydrus.

The existence of winged serpents is attested by many writers of modern times. A kind of snakes were discovered among the Pyrenees, from whose sides proceeded cartilages in the form of wings; and Scaliger mentions a peasant who killed a serpent of the same species which attacked him, and presented it to the king of France. Le Blanc, as quoted by Bochart, says, at the head of lake Chiamay are extensive woods and vast marshes, which it is very dangerous to approach, because they are infested with very large serpents, which, raised from the ground on wings resembling those of bats, and leaning on the extremity of their tails, move with great rapidity. They exist, it is reported, about these places in so great numbers that they have almost laid waste the neighbouring province. And, in the same work, Le Blanc affirms that he had seen some of them of immense size, which, when hungry, rushed impetuously on sheep and other tame animals. But the original term מעופפּ? does not always signify flying with wings; it often expresses vibration, swinging backward and forward, a tremulous motion, a fluttering; and this is precisely the motion of a serpent, when he springs from one tree to another. Niebuhr mentions a sort of serpent at Bassorah, which they call heie thiare. "They commonly keep upon the date trees; and as it would be laborious for them to come down from a very high tree, in order to ascend another, they twist themselves by the tail to a branch of the former, which, making a spring by the motion they give it, throws them to the branches of the second. Hence it is that the modern Arabs call them flying serpents, heie thiare. Admiral Anson also speaks of the flying serpents that he met with at the island of Quibo, but which were without wings." From this account it may be inferred, that the flying serpent mentioned in the prophet was of that species of serpents which, from their swift darting motion, the Greeks call aconitias, and the Romans, jaculus. The original phrase will bear another interpretation, which, perhaps, approaches still nearer the truth. The verb עופ sometimes means to sparkle, to emit coruscations of light. In this sense, the noun חעפה

frequently occurs in the sacred volume; thus Zophar says: "The coruscation, תעפה , shall be as the morning." The word in the verse under consideration may therefore refer to the ruddy colour of that serpent, and express the sparkling of the blazing sunbeams upon its scales, which are extremely brilliant.

4. The dragon. In Hebrew, the word תנין signifies either a dragon or a whale. As the name of a serpent, it frequently denotes one of any species; as when the rod of Moses is said to have been turned into a serpent, לתנין . But, in its more strict and appropriate application, it is the proper name of the dragon, which differs from the serpent chiefly in its size. "Three kinds of dragons were formerly distinguished in India.

1. Those of the hills and mountains.

2. Those of the valleys and caves.

3. Those of the fens and marshes.

The first is the largest, and covered with scales resplendent as burnished gold. They have a kind of beard hanging from their lower jaw, their aspect is frightful, their cry loud and shrill, their crest bright yellow, and they have a protuberance on their heads, as the colour of a burning coal. Those of the flat country are of a silver colour, and frequent rivers, to which the former never come. Those of the marshes are black, slow, and have no crest. Their bite is not venomous, though the creatures be dreadful." This description agrees in every particular with the boa, which is justly considered as the proper dragon. But so great is the inconsistency of the human mind, that the creature which is now an object of universal dislike was, in early times, honoured with religious worship by every nation of the earth. Rites were devised and temples built to its honour; and priests were appointed to conduct the ceremonies. These miserable idolaters appeared before the altars of their contemptible deity in gorgeous vestments, their heads adorned with serpents, or with the figures of serpents embroidered on their tiaras, when the creatures themselves were not to be had; and in their frantic exclamations cried out, in evident allusion to the triumph which the old serpent obtained over our first mother, Eva, Eva. So completely was Satan permitted to insult our fallen race, that the serpent, his chosen agent in accomplishing our ruin, was actually raised to the first place among the deities of the Heathen world, and reverenced by the most solemn acts of worship. The figure of the serpent adorned the portals of the proudest temples in the east.

The serpent was a very common symbol of the sun; and he is represented biting his tail, and with his body formed into a circle, in order to indicate the ordinary course of this luminary; and under this form it was an emblem of time and eternity. The serpent was also the symbol of medicine, and of the gods which presided over it, as of Apollo and AEsculapius. In most of the ancient rites we find some allusion to the serpent, under the several titles of Ob, Ops, Python, &c. This idolatry is alluded to by Moses, Leviticus 20:27 . The woman of Endor, who had a familiar spirit, is called Oub, or Ob, and it is interpreted Pythonissa: the place where she resided, says the learned Mr. Bryant, seems to have been named from the worship then instituted; for Endor is compounded of En-ador, and signifies fons pithonis, the "fountain of lights," the oracle of the god Ador; which oracle was probably founded by the Canaanites, and had never been totally suppressed. His pillar was also called Abbadir, or Abadir, compounded of ab and adir, and meaning the serpent deity Addir, the same as Adorus. In the orgies of Bacchus, the persons who partook of the ceremony, used to carry serpents in their hands, and with horrid screams call upon Eva! Eva! Eva being, according to the writer just mentioned, the same as epha, or opha, which the Greeks rendered ophis, and by it denoted a serpent, and containing no allusion to Eve, as above conjectured. These ceremonies, and this symbolic worship, began among the magi, who were the sons of Chus; and by them they were propagated in various parts. Wherever the Ammonians founded any places of worship, and introduced their rites, there was generally some story of a serpent. There was a legend about a serpent at Colchis, at Thebes, and at Delphi; and likewise in other places. The Greeks called Apollo himself Python, which is the same as Oupis, Opis, or Oub. In Egypt there was a serpent named Thermuthis, which was looked upon as very sacred; and the natives are said to have made use of it as a royal tiara, with which they ornamented the statues of Isis. The kings of Egypt wore high bonnets, terminating in a round ball, and surrounded with figures of asps; and the priests likewise had the representation of serpents upon their bonnets. Abadon, or Abaddon, mentioned in the Revelation 9:11 , is supposed by Mr. Bryant to have been the name of the Ophite god, with whose worship the world had been so long infected. This worship began among the people of Chaldea, who built the city of Ophis upon the Tigris, and were greatly addicted to divination, and to the worship of the serpent. From Chaldea the worship passed into Egypt, where the serpent deity was called Canoph, Caneph, and C'neph; it also had the name of Ob, or Oub, and was the same as the Basiliscus, or royal serpent, the same as the Thermuthis, and made use of by way of ornament to the statues of their gods. Thee chief deity of Egypt is said to have been Vulcan, who was styled Opas; he was the same as Osiris, the sun, and hence was often called Ob-el, or Pytho, sol; and there were pillars sacred to him, with curious hieroglyphical inscriptions bearing the same name, whence among the Greeks, who copied from the Egyptians, every thing gradually tapering to a point was styled obelos, or obeliscus. As the worship of the serpent began among the sons of Chus, Mr. Bryant conjectures that from thence they were denominated Ethiopians and Aithiopians, from Ath-ope, or Ath-opes, the god whom they worshipped, and not from their complexion: the Ethiopes brought these rites into Greece, and called the island where they first established them, Ellopia, Solis Serpentis insula, the stone with Euboea, or Oubaia, that is, the Serpent Island. The same learned writer discovers traces of the serpent worship among the Hyperboreans, at Rhodes, named Ophiusa, in Phrygia, and upon the Hellespont, in the island Cyprus, in Crete, among the Athenians, in the name of Cecrops, among the natives of Thebes in Boeotia, among the Lacedaemonians, in Italy, in Syria, &c, and in the names of many places, as well as the people where the Ophites settled. One of the most early heresies introduced into the Christian church was that of the Ophitae, who introduced serpents emblematically among their rites.

This is seen in many of the medals, the relics of Gnosticism which are still preserved.

The form assumed by the tempter when he seduced our first parents, has been handed down in the traditions of most ancient nations; and, though animals of the serpent tribe were very generally worshipped by the Pagans, as symbols of the Agathodemon; they were likewise viewed as types or figures of the evil principle.

1. One of the most remarkable accounts of the primeval tempter under the shape of a serpent occurs in the Zend-Avesta of the ancient Persians.

2. To the dracontian Ahriman of the Persians, the malignant serpent caliya of Hindoo theology appears to be very closely allied. He is represented, at least, as the decided enemy of the mediatorial god; whom he persecutes with the utmost virulence, though he is finally vanquished by his celestial adversary.

3. The serpent typhon of the Egyptians, who is sometimes identified with the ocean, because the deluge was esteemed the work of the evil principle; and the serpent python of the Greeks, who is evidently the same as the monster typhon; appear to have similarly originated, in the first instance, from some remembrance of the form which Satan assumed when in paradise. Perhaps also the notion, that python was oracular,—a notion which caused the so frequent use of serpents in the rites of divination, may have sprung from a recollection of the vocal responses which the tempter gave to Eve under the borrowed figure of that reptile.

4. We may still ascribe to the same source that rebellious serpent whose treason seems to have been so well remembered among the inhabitants of Syria. Pherecydes, a native of that country, bestows upon him the Greek name of ophioneus, or the "serpent god;" which, in fact, is a mere translation of the Syriac or Chaldaic nachash. He represents him as being the prince of those evil spirits who contended with the supreme god Cronus, and who in consequence were ejected from heaven. Their happiness being thus justly forfeited, they were henceforth plunged in the depths of Tartarus, hateful and mutually hating each other. From Syria and the east the legend passed into Greece, mingled, however, with allusions to the deluge.

5. The same evil being, in the same form, appears again in the mythology of the Goths or Scythians. We are told by the ancient Scalds, that the bad principle, whom they denominate loke, unites great personal beauty with a malignant and inconstant nature: and he is described as surpassing all creatures in the depth of his cunning and the artfulness of his perfidy. Here the pristine glory and majesty of Satan, before the lineaments of celestial beauty were defaced by his rebellious apostasy, seem not obscurely to be alluded to; while the craft and malevolence, which mark his character as a fallen angel, are depicted with sufficient accuracy.

The most remarkable corroboration, however, of the Mosaic history is to be found in those fables which involve the mythological serpent, and in the worship which was so generally offered to him throughout the world. The worship of the serpent may be traced in almost every religion throughout ancient Asia, Europe, Africa, America. But how an object of abhorrence could have been exalted into an object of veneration, must be referred to the subtlety of the arch enemy himself, whose constant endeavour has been rather to corrupt than obliterate the true faith, that, in the perpetual conflict between truth and error, the mind of man might be more surely confounded and debased. Among other devices, that of elevating himself into an object of adoration, has ever been the most cherished. It was that which he proposed to our Lord: "All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me." We cannot, therefore, wonder that the same being who had the presumption to make this proposal to the Son of God, should have had the address to insinuate himself into the worship of the children of men. In this he was unhappily but too well seconded by the natural tendency of human corruption. The unenlightened Heathen, in obedience to the voice of nature, acknowledged his dependence upon a superior being. His reason assured him that there must be a God; his conscience assured him that God was good; but he felt and acknowledged the prevalence of evil, and attributed it naturally to an evil agent. But as the evil spirit, to his unillumined mind, seemed as omnipotent as the good agent, he worshipped both; the one, that he might propitiate his kindness; the other, that he might avert his displeasure. The great point of devil worship being gained, namely, the acknowledgment of the evil spirit as God, the transition to idolatry became easy. The mind, once darkened by the admission of an allegiance divided between God and Satan, became gradually more feeble and superstitious, until at length sensible objects were called in to aid the weakness of degraded intellect; and from their first form as symbols, passed rapidly through the successive stages of apotheosis, until they were elevated into gods. Of these the most remarkable was the serpent; upon the basis of tradition, regarded, first as the symbol of the malignant being; subsequently considered talismanic and oracular; and lastly, venerated and worshipped as divine.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Serpent'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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Serpent, Brazen
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