Adder, Viper – Day 25 of 30 Days [Biblically] Wild

Adder/Viper – שְׁפִיפֹן (shephiphon), כְשׁוּב (akhshuv), צִפְעוֹנִי (tsiphoni), פֶּ֫תֶן (peten), ἔχιδνα (echidna)

Common European Adder (Vipera berus). Image: Uncredited. Source: https://phys.org/news/2019-03-adders-extinction-britain-national-adder.html

I find the word ‘adder’ extremely evocative for a specific time and place. As soon as I hear or read it, I am immediately transported into the warmth of sunshine, the gritty, dusty feel of a sandy heath-land with gorse-scrub abd a hint of pine, and, above all, the rich, fresh tang of new-growth bracken.

As we are drawing into the final week of this 30 Days Wild challenge, if you have spotted – or if you do happen to spot – an adder you can count yourself very fortunate and lucky. Triply lucky really. Firstly, adders are becoming increasingly rare. Secondly, they are extremely shy creatures who excel at keeping out of sight. Thirdly, you really need warm dry day, as the times that you are most likely to spot one in the open is when it is drowsily sunning itself. In the rather damp and cool June of 2019, these types of days have been a rarity!

Humans tend to have a rather uneasy relationship with snakes. There seems to be an almost primal, instinctual shying away from them. However, it is not for this reason that I have delayed looking at a rather obvious ‘biblical animal’ – particularly one that occupies such a prominent role within one of the Bible’s most famous stories. The fact is, I am not quite sure I can do it justice in the short space of a blog – I am afraid that once I start I will not be able to stop! The place of the snake within biblical tradition, and its near eastern context, is complex and wide ranging, and demands a book to do it justice. Therefore, I am going to have to be deliberately brief and focus upon a fairly limited range of aspects relating its place within biblical literature.

Snakes galore

The Hebrew word for snake (generic) is נָחָשׁ (nachash) and appears 28 times within the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The generic term in Greek is ὄφις (ofis) and appears 14 times in the New Testament. The fact that within the biblical literature 11 other, more specific, names are also used suggests a great awareness of this particular creature.

One of them main problems that we face is that, generally speaking, in the past the way these different names have been translated into English has been far from consistent. We would therefore be wise to heed the advice of Canon Tristram (1898:269) when he suggests that it would be “easiest to consider the whole group together.”

The actual designation of the snake within Jewish classification. Slifkin (2015:42) notes that whether snakes should be classed as chaya (wild animals – the biblical ‘beasts of the field’) or sheratzim, the ‘swarming’ or ‘creeping’ creatures is far from clear and still open to dispute. For example, in the Perek Shirah it is classed among the lowly creatures.

The United Bible Societies (1980:72) states that there are 33 different species of snake that can be found in Palestine and neighbouring countries, 20 of which are poisonous. This is slightly at odds with other sources. For example, the a recent Times of Israel article reports 42 species of snake, of which 9 are venomous. Advice given about snake bites by the Hadassah Medical Centre states that there are 7 venomous species of which 3 are dangerous to people.

Michael Bright, a senior producer at the BBC Natural History unit, provides a bit of context and perspective:

In the Bible lands as a whole, snakes or serpents are not especially abundant, though there are several species commonly encountered, some harmless, others less so.

Bright (2006:272)

He notes that the most common snake is the harmless coin-marked snake (Hemorrhois nummifer) that can grow up to 5ft (1.5 meters) long. Bright (2006:273) goes on to state that, although it is not venomous, it is “very fast and aggressive, and is one of the few snakes that will stand and fight rather than slink away.”

Coin-marked snake (Coluber nummifer) or (Hemorrhois nummifer) in Ein Kerem a neighborhood in southwest Jerusalem, Israel. Image: Avi Nahmias Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ColuberNummifer(Jerusalem).jpg

In November 2018, the venomous Palestine viper (Daboia palaestinae) was declared as the official ‘Snake of Israel’ by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The snake, which can measure up to 5ft (1.5 metres) in length is responsible for the majority of snake bite cases recorded in Israel (some 300 per year). However, availability of serum means that fatalities are low.

Serpent in the garden

The earliest layers of biblical literature were produced within a subsistence agrarian economy (see Hiebert, 1996). Consequently, encounters with snakes (poisonous or otherwise) when tending crops, and possibly caring for livestock, would have not been unusual. It might, therefore, be not that surprising that, rather than generic references to groups of animals, the first non-human creature we meet in the Bible is the snake.

Now the serpent [ נָחָשׁ – nachash] was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ 

Genesis 3:1 (NRSV)

As we can see from the text, the word for ‘snake’ (or in the NRSV’s case ‘serpent’) is the generic term נָחָשׁ (nachash). This is probably deliberate. We are dealing with a trope rather than an actual animal. It helps to set up the often confrontational relationship between humankind and snake:

will put enmity between you and the woman,
   and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
   and you will strike his heel.’ 

Genesis 3:15 (NRSV)

So much could be said about this passage. There is clearly a link between the Genesis serpent and the snake within Egyptian culture – often associated with royalty, wisdom, but also chaos and an opponent of order/truth (Apep). However, the main point is the way the snake shares the punishment with humankind for the act of eating from the forbidden tree.

Yahweh’s curse has received a lot of attention. Alongside the enmity between it and humans, the text says:

The Lord God said to the serpent,
‘Because you have done this,
   cursed are you among all animals
   and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
   and dust you shall eat
   all the days of your life. 

Genesis 3:14 (NRSV)

While, from time to time, arguments are made that the Genesis serpent was originally winged, in the manner of some Egyptian depictions, this idea does not seem to be reflected in Jewish tradition. Whilst some streams do suggest that the snake was in some way royal (king of all animals), the assumption was that it had legs.

The Holy One said: I said that you should be king over all the animals and beasts, and now “you are cursed more than all the livestock and wild beasts.” I said that you should walk in an upright posture, and now “you shall crawl on your belly.”

Talmud, Sotah 9b

Furthermore, Slifkin (2009:411) cites another instance from Talmudic literature (Shabbos 104a) that argues a connection between the cursed (legless) snake and the concepts of truth and falsehood. It notes that each of the letters that make up the Hebrew word for ‘truth’, אֱמֶת, stands upright and is supported by two legs. However, the word for ‘falsehood’, שֶׁקֶר, all come to a point at their base and so, like the snake, cannot stand upright.

Slifkin (2009:414) also notes that other traditions have emphasised the snake’s loss of intelligence and the power of speech rather than its legs.

Mercy for the serpent

There is also sympathy for the snake that is expressed in post-biblical literature. One Talmudic source impresses the compassion of God in this curse.

Come and see how the way of God is not like the way of man. The way of man is that when he is angry with his friend, he takes it to the nth degree. But the way of God is not so. He cursed the snake; yet when it ascends to the roof, food is near it, and when he descends to the ground, food is near it.

Talmud, Yoma 75a

The point is clearly to show that the incident described in Genesis 3 should not be equates with a temper tantrum, but it also does suggest a concern for the snake’s well being.

Be like a snake

We have seen in many earlier posts that the biblical writers tended to reflect a very pragmatic view of their environment. If the snake was to be treated with care (in that it could possibly kill you), this did not necessarily make it bad.

Some references use the snake humourously or with a certain amount of acid-wit. One proverb very succinctly captures the experience of being hungover after a glass of smooth wine:

31 Do not look at wine when it is red,
   when it sparkles in the cup
   and goes down smoothly. 
32 At the last it bites like a serpent [ nachash],
   and stings like an adder [tsiphoni] . 

Proverbs 23:31-32

Other references suggest that there are aspects of the snake that we could learn from or emulate.

16 ‘Dan shall judge his people
   as one of the tribes of Israel. 
17 Dan shall be a snake by the roadside,
   a viper along the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
   so that its rider falls backwards. 

Genesis 49:16-17

Bright (2006:267) is undoubtedly right in that, in actuality, the viper does not seek to bring down the horse, it just happens to be hiding in the soft sand. Tristram (1898) provides an interesting account of this behaviour. Here he is describing the horned-snake (Cerastes hasselquistii):

Another peculiarity of the Cerastes assists us in identifying it with ‘shephiphon‘—its lying in ambush in the path, and biting the horse’s heels. Its habit is usually to coil itself on the sand, where it basks in the impress of a camel’s footmark, and thence suddenly to dart out on any passing animal. So great is the terror which its sight inspires in horses, that I have known mine, when I was riding in the Sahara, suddenly start and rear, trembling and perspiring in every limb, and no persuasions would induce him to proceed. I was quite unable to account for his terror, until I noticed a Castes coiled up in a depression two or three paces in front, with its basilisk eyes steadily fixed on us, and no doubt preparing for a spring as the horse passed. Bruce states that the Cerastes, when advancing to attack, moves sideways with great rapidity, with a gait differing from that of all other serpents.

Tristram (1898:274)

However, the point here relates to the careful use of stealth in the expansion of its territory, rather than the use of overt force. It is a really interesting reading and diverges from the traditional one of assuming the image of snake must connote treachery (see most commentaries and Goodfellow, 2015:109).

If we can take the Genesis reading to be advice rather than criticism, the instruction by the Matthean Jesus to his disciples is somewhat similar. The snake may be crafty, but that should not always be viewed negatively.

‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents [ὄφις – ofis] and innocent as doves. 

Matthew 10:16 (NRSV)

Healing of the rift

If the biblical archive begins with the broken relationship between humankind and snakes, there is also a strong theme that looks towards its healing.

The wonderful vision of a harmonious creation in Isaiah 11, tellingly culminates not with the big beasts like lions, but with snakes. The fact that it refers to specific (venomous) species is also suggestive:

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp [פֶּ֫תֶן – peten],
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s [צִפְעוֹנִי – tsiphoni] den. 

Isaiah 11:8 (NRSV)
Paul’s viper? The European ratsnake (Elaphe situla). Image: Atanas Grozdanov. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elaphe_situla.jpg

It is possibly to this prophecy that the writer of the Acts of the Apostles is alluding when we read of Paul’s encounter with a snake having being shipwrecked on the Island of Malta:

 3 Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper [ἔχιδνα – echidna], driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand.4 When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.’ 5 He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.

Acts 28:3-6 (NRSV)

Bright (2006:272) argues that the most likely candidate of the four species of snake that live in Malta would be the leopard snake (sometimes known as the European rat snake) (Zamenis situla). He states that, although not venomous, it is “a hefty snake and can give quite a bite.”

This motif is developed in a more explicit way in later biblical tradition. The longer ending of the Gospel of Mark, considered by most scholars to be a later addition, also refers to snakes:

18they will pick up snakes [ ὄφις – ofis] in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.’

Mark 16:18 (NRSV)

The usual interpretation of this verse argues that the person handling the snake will not be harmed by the venom incurred from being bitten – in the same way as ingesting poison. However, the text does not specifically state this. Perhaps a better reading would be that they will pick up snakes and not be bitten. In other words that enmity between snake and human has been healed in the same way that, at the very beginning of Mark (1:13), in the wilderness, Jesus was not harmed by the wild beasts as the Edenic harmony foretold by Isaiah had begun to be established.

The snake’s song

Having commenced the biblical story in its opening chapters as the main villain of the piece, one would have imagined that the place of the snake within the rest of the tradition would have been universally bad. However, we have noted that this is not the case. Whilst acknowledging that our encounters with each other are not always the most cordial, we nevertheless share the same world. There is a sense that this fractured relationship we have it does not need to continue for ever.

If the Bible hints at rehabilitation for the snake, later Jewish tradition helps this process along. In earlier posts we have come across the majestic Jewish hymn of creation, the Perek Shirah. It is good to see that here the snake too has a place within the choir. The song, it is given, taken from Psalm 145:14, in the mouth of the snake is particularly poignant and moving…

The Snake is saying: “YHVH supports all the fallen, and straightens all the bent.”

Perek Shirah 6:3
Prayers at the Western Wall were unexpectedly interrupted when a snake slithered out from stones above the women’s prayer section (11/2018). Source: Youtube

References

Bright, M. (2006) Beasts of the Field: The revealing natural history of the bible. London: Robson Books.

France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.

Goodfellow, P. (2015) Flora and Fauna of the Bible: A guide for Bible readers and naturalists. Oxford: John Beaufoy.

Hiebert, T. (1996) The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and religion in early Israel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Slifkin, N. (2009) Perek Shirah: Nature’s song. 2nd edn. Jerusalem: Zoo Torah.

Slifkin, N. (2015) The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom: Volume 1: Chayot/Wild Animals. New York: Biblical Museum of Natural History.

Tristram, H.B. (1898) The natural history of the Bible : being a review of the physical geography, geology, and meteorology of the Holy Land; with a description of every animal and plant mentioned in the Holy Scripture. 9th edn. London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.

United Bible Societies (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. 2nd edn. London: United Bible Societies.

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