The Serpent in Scripture


May/June 2016

Power Over Sin

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“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made” (Genesis 3:1 ESV).

Brian Jakubowski

 In scripture, the serpent or snake has the dubious distinction of being the only member of God’s creation to have been specifically cursed. Through the suggestion of the serpent, mother Eve was deceived into partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then she gave it to Adam and he did eat with the full realization that this was prohibited by God. Because of this, all of humanity was plunged into about 6000 years of sin, sickness, hardship, and death. Verse 14 of this same chapter describes our Heavenly Father’s pronouncement upon the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.”

Hebrew Words Translated Serpent

There are nine words in scripture that are translated as serpent or snake, six in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament. Three other words worthy of note are asp and cockatrice (or cobra).

The two most prevalent are the Hebrew words nachash and tanniyn. In the Old Testament, nachash is used to identify the serpent in Eden. In a number of places nachash is also used in conjunction with saraph to describe the vicious serpents in the wilderness. Nachash is always translated as serpent in the King James Bible.

The other prevalent Hebrew word, tanniyn, is also translated as whale, dragon, or sea monster throughout the Old Testament. In Exodus, the staffs of Moses and Aaron were turned into serpents, a nachash for Moses (Exodus 4:3), a tanniyn for Aaron (Exodus 7:9).

Genesis chapter three is not the first place in scripture where a type of “serpent” appears. Genesis 1:21 mentions the creation of the first forms of animal life. These were the great whales or sea creatures. The words “sea creatures” are a translation of tanniyn which can just as accurately be translated serpent. Thus, the pre-eminent mention of tanniyn in the creation of life may suggest why the adversary would select the serpent as his tool in the deception of Eve.

Serpent Symbolizing Power Over Sin

The symbol of a serpent played important and divergent roles in the religious and cultural life of ancient Egypt, Canaan, Mesopotamia, and Greece. It was regarded as a symbol of evil power and chaos as well as a symbol of fertility, life, and healing. Thus we find that in most ancient cultures, the serpent held a dualistic symbolic significance. This holds true even today, where the serpent is regarded as being symbolic of evil or sin, as well as of healing. For example, the Greek god Asclepius, who was associated with healing and medicine, had a serpent-entwined rod. The serpent continues to be used in modern times, where it is associated with medicine and health care.
In scripture the serpent might more accurately represent the “power over sin or evil.” In the Genesis account of the fall of man the serpent was not evil, but was used by the adversary to entice disobedience in father Adam and to introduce sin into the world.

In Exodus 7:8-13 we find the account of Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh. “Now the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, Work a miracle, then you shall say to Aaron, Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent. So Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and thus they did just as the LORD had commanded; and Aaron threw his staff down before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers, and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same with their secret arts. For each one threw down his staff and they turned into serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.”

This passage pictures the serpent as “the power over sin.” Aaron, who was to become the first High Priest of the nation of Israel, was commanded to throw down his staff and it became a serpent. The “wise men and sorcerers” of Egypt were able to duplicate this miracle, but Aaron’s serpent swallowed up their serpents. The sorcerers’ ability to transform their staffs into serpents may picture counterfeit religion’s claim to have authority over sin. This is especially true with Catholicism’s claim that its priests do indeed have the power to absolve sin. Other religions have varying theories including reincarnation, pilgrimages, and various forms of penance, which are similarly presented as instruments to remove or lessen the punishment for sin.

Aaron’s serpent swallowing up the counterfeit serpents pictures how God’s plan and remedy for sin will prevail over all the offerings of various religions.
In Numbers 21, the people of Israel became impatient and discouraged because of the hardship of the desert through which they travelled. “The people spoke against God and Moses, Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food. The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us. And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live” (Numbers 21:5-8 NASB).

In this account we see the serpent as wielding the power over sin. The poison of the serpent caused the death of a great many of the people, and they appealed to Moses to intercede with God on their behalf. Truly did the Apostle Paul state in Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death.”

Serpent Symbolizing Jesus

Moses was instructed to make a copper serpent and set it on a standard. After that, if a serpent bit any man, he was to look to the copper serpent and he would live!

John 3:14,15 says that this copper serpent was a type of our Lord. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”

Here again the serpent represented “the power over sin.” Even though the poison of sin was introduced to man by the serpent in Eden, it was the copper serpent lifted up on a standard that pictured Jesus being lifted up on the cross, and willingly providing the ransom sacrifice for Adam and all of his progeny. This great sacrifice will nullify the effects of the curse by removing sin, and returning the entire human race to perfection.

About 700 years later this copper serpent was still around and righteous King Hezekiah was compelled to institute a religious reform. “He also broke in pieces the bronze (1) serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan” (which means, “the copper serpent of the desert”) (2 Kings 18:4-6 NASB). The copper serpent had become an idol, thus showing the craftiness and the subtleness of the adversary. He uses these serpent-like characteristics to become a snare and a stumbling block.

(1) The Hebrew word means copper, which may have been alloyed with tin to make bronze. As in the Tabernacle, copper represents the perfect humanity of the man Christ Jesus.

Characteristics of a Serpent

The craftiness and subtleness of the serpent is also shown when the patriarch Jacob, at the end of his life, pronounced blessings upon his twelve sons. Dan was given a rather strange blessing: “Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a horned snake in the path, that bites the horse’s heels, so that his rider falls backward” (Genesis 49:17 NASB).

The horned snake referred to in this passage is likely the desert viper which possesses a subtle nature. This serpent is incredibly flexible — so much so that it was thought to have no spine. It hides its head in the sand with only the horns protruding out of the surface, to deceive other animals into thinking it is food. When an unwary animal approaches, the viper promptly kills it.

Many commentators suggest that this pronouncement by Jacob was intended to signify the subtlety of that tribe, which would conquer its enemies more by craft than by strength or military might. By the art of surprise it would gain advantage against them, like a serpent suddenly biting the heels of a traveller. And we might draw an additional parallel between this specific serpent and sin. In Romans 7:7-25, the Apostle Paul discusses the subtlety and the deceptiveness of sin. He writes that sin dwells within us, deceives us, and the end result is death (Romans 7:11).

The thoughts, attitudes, and intents of the heart are “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our thoughts and attitudes are radically depraved. Like the desert viper, sin lies in wait, ready to ambush, to injure, and to kill. The nature of sin deceives us into not recognizing the deceitfulness of sin.

Other References

There are other Old Testament passages where serpents are mentioned, but these do not play a pivotal role. In these passages the serpent is used metaphorically to describe the adversary. “In that day the LORD will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, with His fierce and great and mighty sword, even Leviathan the twisted serpent; and He will kill the dragon who lives in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1 NASB).

This verse pictures the destruction of Satan who is likened to a fleeing serpent, a twisted serpent and a dragon. It was he who used the serpent to introduce sin into the world and he will ultimately be held responsible for his actions.

This description of Satan being likened to a serpent is reiterated in the New Testament. “And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Revelation 12:9 NASB). It is repeated in Revelation 20:1,2, where an angel comes down from heaven, holding the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand, “And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan” (NASB).

The serpent is also used to describe wickedness and evil. “The wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from birth. They have venom like the venom of a serpent; like a deaf cobra that stops up its ear” (Psalms 58:3,4 NASB). This connection to wickedness and evil is reiterated in King David’s prayer for protection from evil men; “Rescue me, O LORD, from evil men; Preserve me from violent men who devise evil things in their hearts; they continually stir up wars. They sharpen their tongues as a serpent; poison of a viper is under their lips” (Psalm 140:1-3 NASB).

Other scriptures refer to asps and vipers, and in most cases these are references to the actual snake and the poison they naturally possess. We can be sure that these passages include some significant symbolism.
Isaiah 11 provides us with a beautiful picture of the Millennial reign of our Lord. We find that the serpent, in one of its varying forms, appears even here. Verses 8 and 9 tell us, in that day “The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain” (NASB). Then the serpent will no longer hold “the power over sin.” No longer will its poison sting injure and kill humanity. No longer will its craftiness and subtleness deceive man. “For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9 NASB).

Categories: 2016 Issues, 2016-May/June