The serpent is a fascinating biblical symbol. While more than 40 species of snakes are found in Syria and Arabia today, Sir William Smith, British lexicographer and editor of "Smith’s Bible Dictionary," notes that serpents were not particularly abundant in Palestine during biblical times, but they do feature prominently in a number of different stories and texts. There are 11 Hebrew and four Greek names used for serpents in the Bible, according to James Orr, late professor of theology at Free Church College and general editor of the "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia," and nearly every reference occurs in passages where poisonous character is expressed or implied. Despite that, a few diverging passages do provide the symbol with depth and intrigue.
A Symbol of An Enemy or Satan
Perhaps most common is the portrayal of the serpent as an enemy in general, or as Satan in particular. Matthew George Easton, Scottish Presbyterian preacher and editor of "Easton’s Bible Dictionary," says the first biblical reference to a serpent is found in Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve are tempted by a serpent in the Garden of Eden and ultimately fall victim to sin. While the serpent is not expressly linked with Satan in the Genesis story, a number of New Testament authors both directly and indirectly state that it was Satan who seduced Adam and Eve into sin. Smith notes that the serpent became the emblem of the spirit of evil throughout the East as a result of the tradition of the fall of mankind, and so the wicked and enemies in general are often likened to venomous serpents in the Psalms.
A Symbol of Wisdom
One of the most interesting serpent stories in the Bible is found in Numbers 21, where God punishes the Israelites by sending poisonous serpents among them. Moses, following their repentance, made a bronze serpent and set it up on a pole, and whoever was bitten by a serpent could look up at it and live. Even more fascinating is Jesus’ self-comparison with the same serpent in John 3:14-15, foreshadowing his own death on the cross and offer of salvation. Sir William Smith thus sees the serpent as a symbol of wisdom, which, apart from obedience to God, degenerates to cunning and poisons man’s nature, but when subjected to the divine law is the source of healing restoration.
A Symbol of Treachery
Related to the idea of two-sided wisdom, serpents may also be seen to represent shiftiness and the expression of dual natures. Jonathan Pageau, editor of "Orthodox Arts Journal," sees that duality in the same story from Numbers, where the serpent is both the disease and cure. Similar to the way that a vaccine is made from the disease, looking to the bronze serpent that was raised up cured the Israelites from the serpents that bit them down below. The duality is further expressed later on in the biblical narrative, when the same bronze serpent raised up as a healing device was torn down by the righteous king Hezekiah after it became an idol and a snare for the people.
While several themes do appear in relation to serpents, many standalone passages list other qualities associated with the reptiles. Sir William Smith points to passages which describe snakes as subtle, cunning, poisonous, sharp-tongued, tamable, and wonderful. The last descriptor seems to stand out from among the list; the author of Proverbs in Chapter 30, verses 18 and 19, lists “the way of a snake on a rock” as something that is too amazing or wonderful for him to understand. Indeed, the wide variety of metaphors and symbolic language associated with serpents in the Bible does lead to an appreciation for their unique character and broad range of attributes.