Adders, Asps, Dragons, Serpents and Vipers

May 9

Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps.

(Deuteronomy 32:33)KJV

There are many ways to study the Bible, there’s a time and a place for all of them. One of them is to study sentence structure.

Hebrew sentences are frequently written as couplets: two phrases separated by punctuation, and either side of the punctuation is functionally equivalent. It’s similar to a mathematical formula where either side of the [=] sign has to be exactly the same, even though it may be written in a different form. If the short passage above is a couplet, then the poison of dragons is the equivalent of the venom of asps. Therefore, in our taxonomy Dragon is equivalent to Asp: families in the suborder Serpentaria.

The technique of Bible study that we want to describe goes like this: If we start with dragon and see that it’s the equivalent of asp, what will we find if we look at all of the other times asp occurs in the Bible? This type of Bible study we like to call running a rabbit trail. We find that the word asp in a couplet with viper:

He shall suck the poison of asps: the viper’s tongue shall slay him.

(Job 20:16) KJV

We find viper in a couplet with serpent:

The burden of the beasts of the south: into the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent, they will carry their riches upon the shoulders of young asses, and their treasures upon the bunches of camels, to a people that shall not profit them.

(Isaiah 30:6) KJV

A fiery flying serpent? What could be more dragon-like than that? Most commentaries consider the fiery nature of the serpent to be the effect of its venomous bite. However, we have already seen in the case of Leviathan that breathing fire is a physical trait. We also see serpent in a couplet with adder in several places:

Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward.

(Genesis 49:17) KJV

Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear;

(Psalms 58:4) KJV

They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips. Selah.

(Psalms 140:3) KJV

At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.

(Proverbs 23:32) KJV

We also see adder in a couplet with dragon which completes the trail in that direction:

Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

(Psalms 91:13) KJV

The different English words used to describe types of serpents are translated from an even larger variety of Hebrew words. A partial list is given below.

Hebrew Words for Serpent

EnglishHebrewTransliterationMeaning
Adderשְׁפִיפֹ֖ןshephiphonhorned viper
Adderפֶ֥תֶןpethen (python)translated (a venomous serpent) perhaps cobra but phonetically the word sounds like python.*
Adderעַכְשׁ֑וּבakshubasp, viper
Adderוּֽכְצִפְעֹנִ֥יtsephaadder
Aspפְּתָנִ֖יםpethen
(python)
(a venomous serpent) perhaps cobra but phonetically the word sounds like python.*
Cockatriceצֶ֔פַעtsephaadder (identification dubious; (‘possibly’) daboia xanthina, a venomous viper, but vipers do not lay eggs; Furrer proposes ailurophis vivex.)
Dragonתַּנִּינִ֖םtanninserpent, dragon, sea monster
Serpentוְשָׂרָ֣ףsaraphserpent (a flying serpent, or dragon)
Serpentנָחָשׁ֙nachasha serpent
Serpentכְּנָחָ֣שׁnachasha serpent
Viperאֶפְעֶֽהepheh(a kind of) viper (snake)

* Howard Bass personal communication Streams in the Negev

We have a closed loop which shows us that a variety of words refer to the same idea: Serpents are a suborder in the Class of Reptiles, and there are different kinds of Serpent. There are a couple of things in this list that are worthy of further study. We’ll pick our way through them in the days to come and find out what the Lord wants us to know about the creation of dragons, serpents and flying fiery reptiles.

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