by Ronald P. Millett and John P. Pratt.
Illustrated by Randal Baker
Reprinted from Meridian Magazine (June. 9, 2000)
©2000 by Ronald P. Millett. All rights Reserved.
|1. Serpent on the Staff|
|2. Clues to Identification|
|2.1 Inhabit Arava Valley|
|2.2 Prefer Rocky Terrain|
|2.3 Deadly poisonous|
|2.4 Extremely dangerous|
|2.5 Painful "fiery" bite|
|2.6 Slow acting venom|
|2.7 Reddish "fiery" color|
|2.8 Lightning fast strike|
|2.9 Leaping, "flying" strike|
|2.10 Death by internal bleeding|
|3. Possible Candidates|
Jesus testified that "as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up" (John 3:14) on the cross. Nephi the son of Helaman explained further that "as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit might live, even unto that life which is eternal" (Helaman 8:14). Elder Neal A. Maxwell commented on the depth of the symbolism: "Divinely deliberate and serious symbolism is involved. . . . The symbolic emphasis in this episode is upon both the necessity and the simpleness of the way of the Lord Jesus. Ironically, in Moses' time many perished anyway."
What species of snake had the distinction of being raised on a pole to symbolize Jesus Christ being raised on the cross? Commentators who have attempted to identify the species have suggested that it may have been an Egyptian cobra. The purpose of this article is to perform a more in-depth study of the clues provided in the Bible, combined with evidence from the Book of Mormon.
2.1 Inhabit Arava Valley. At the time of Moses the serpent in question inhabited the Arava Valley. While it is not an absolute requirement, one would expect the serpent to still inhabit that area today.
2.2 Prefer Rocky Terrain. Why did the Israelites only run into these serpents during the difficult journey through the rocky Arava valley area? They had no such problems in the sandy valley areas of the Sinai where the Israelites probably camped during much of their travels. This suggests a snake which prefers rocky terrain.
2.3 Deadly poisonous. The venom from the serpent was apparently extremely poisonous because it caused so many deaths, and apparently needed miraculous intervention to prevent death.
2.4 Extremely dangerous. Those who study serpents make a distinction between "deadly" and "dangerous." Deadly refers to how poisonous the venom is, whereas dangerous means that the snake actually causes many fatalities every year. Most of the world's snakes with the most deadly venom are not classified as the world's most dangerous snakes. Australia is home to several snakes with the most deadly venom in the world. The aggressive Inland Taipan is considered to be the most "deadly snake" in the world, but it is found in such remote areas of Australia that bites and fatalities from this snake are rare. Other Australian snakes frequent populated areas but are secretive or only inject venom in about 10% of their bites. These facts plus the miracle of modern treatments limit fatalities in Australia from snake bite to about five per year.
The world's most dangerous snakes, the ones that cause the most fatalities year after year, are common in populated areas, will attack when not provoked, and also inject a powerful venom. They include the Egyptian cobra, saw-scale viper, puff adder, Asian cobra and Russell's viper. The serpents in the account seem to fit all these criteria to be classed a very dangerous snake.
2.5 Especially painful "fiery" bite. The word translated "fiery" means "burning." Most translators agree that in this context it refers to the burning pain of the bite..
2.6 Slow acting venom. Some poisonous snakes have a venom which kills the victim within minutes or hours. The serpent in this account most likely had a slow acting venom which takes days to cause death because it would take time both to make the brazen serpent and also for so many people to be able to look upon it.
2.7 Reddish "fiery" color. While the principal meaning of "fiery"most likely refers to the burning pain, it also can refer to a fiery, reddish color. One Hebrew dictionary notes that the same word is used for the seraphs seen by Isaiah (Is. 6:2) "from their copper color." One clue that this was the color of the serpent in question is that the image of the serpent was made of brass (or copper or bronze), which is reddish in color.
2.8 Lightning fast strike. Now let us look what the Book of Mormon adds. Whereas the Bible says only that they were fiery serpents, Nephi records that they were "fiery flying serpents" (1 Nephi 17:41). That phrase is also used in Isaiah 14:29 and Isaiah 30:6. A better rendition would be "flying fiery serpent," that is, a fiery serpent which is flying. What does it mean for a serpent to fly? One Bible dictionary explains that the word "flying" is still used in modern Arab usage to "refer to the speed with which such reptiles may strike, as though 'winged'."
2.9 Leaping, "flying" strike. Another possible interpretation of "flying" is that it refers to certain serpents which strike with such speed and power that they actually do fly through the air.
2.10 Death by internal bleeding. Different snakes have very different venoms. The cobra family inject nerve poisons, whereas some vipers inject poisons which cause internal bleeding. Elder James Talmage pointed out that the actual cause of the Savior's death was probably "a physical rupture of the heart" as indicated by the outrush of blood and water when the soldier's spear pierced his side. He also bled from every pore in Gethsemane, so blood is closely tied to the suffering of the Savior. Because the serpent in question represents the Savior, it would seem more likely that a serpent with this type of venom might be chosen to make the symbolism perfect in all details.
None of these ten clues is absolutely required because the Lord could always perform a miracle in his own manner, but these are all indications of the kind of serpent which it might have been. Now let us briefly look at the possible candidates to be the fiery flying serpent.
It would not be expected to find one snake which fits all of the possible criteria because there are only a four or five species of venomous snakes that live in the Arava valley, and the Egyptian cobra is not one of them. The candidates are the Israeli saw-scale viper, the black desert cobra and the horned viper and its relatives. The accompanying table summarizes the data for each.
|Description||Israeli Saw-scale viper||Horned viper and relatives||Black desert cobra||Egyptian cobra|
|1. Inhabit Arava Valley||x||x||x|
|2. Prefer rocky terrain||x|
|3. Deadly poisonous.||x||x||x|
|4. Extremely dangerous||x||x|
|5. Especially painful "fiery" bite||x||x|
|6. Slow acting venom||x||x|
|7. Reddish "fiery" color||x|
|8. Lightning fast strike||x||x|
|9. Leaping, "flying" strike||x|
|10. Death by internal bleeding||x|
Surprisingly, one of those choices, the Israeli saw-scale viper, fits all the criteria. Hence, it is the clear front runner and most likely was the serpent which attacked the Israelites. Let us briefly consider just how well it fulfills the given requirements.
First it inhabits the Arava Valley. In fact, it was still in the area several centuries later when Isaiah warned of them as living on the way south to Egypt:
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 ... (Isaiah 30: 6)
This scripture warned Israel against seeking to ally themselves with Egypt. The Lord explains that on the way south to Egypt is through the dangerous area of the "lion, the viper and the fiery flying serpent." The Hebrew word translated viper in this verse refers to the desert horned viper. We propose that the fiery flying serpent refers to the saw-scale viper.
Saw-scale vipers are on the "top ten" list of the snakes with the most deadly venom, being even more poisonous than the better-known coral snake. But what is amazing is that one species of saw-scale viper is also generally considered to be the "world's most dangerous snake." That means that it is believed to cause more of the estimated 25,000 to 50,000 deaths worldwide from snakebites each year than any other snake. It is only about two feet long, but "they have a huge range, are fairly prolific and common where they occur, and have an exceedingly toxic hemmoragic venom [blood destroying, anticoagulant] coupled with an often highly aggressive temper."`The Israeli saw-scale viper, echis coloratus, is not as deadly as that species and is mainly confined to lightly populated desert areas, but is still qualifies as deadly and dangerous. In a well documented case, one bit three soldiers and all of them died. No other snake native to this desert area has the reputation of being a very dangerous snake.
How could there be enough deadly snakes in this desolate wilderness to be a major health concern for the Israelites? The very arid Arava Valley is not normally able to support much life. However, during this period, the people of Israel were fed miraculously by manna in the desert and provided with sufficient water and occasional meat supply by the Lord (Exodus 16:13, 15). As mice, lizards and birds multiplied, so would their natural predators, including snakes. Under these conditions, it would certainly be possible for thousands of deadly snakes to threaten the people in their journey.
As for the bite burning, the venom of vipers makes for an especially fiery bite that has been compared to being cut with "red hot pliers". This is contrasted with the bite from a cobra that involves more paralysis than fiery burning.
What about how long it takes for the venom to take effect? A cobra's neurotoxic venom often paralyzes the victim's breathing ability within hours. This would leave little time for all who were bitten in the giant camp of Israel to look on the brass serpent on the pole. The blood and tissue destroying venom of the saw-scale viper takes days to be fatal and would fit the time frame required.
As for the possibility that "fiery" also refers to a reddish color, it turns out that the Israeli saw-scale viper is colored pink or red, as can be seen in photographs on the Internet.
One of the most interesting characteristics of the saw-scale viper is its lightning fast "jumping, leaping strike." When disturbed it coils and rubs its rough saw-scales together to create a rasping or buzzing warning. It then will leap toward the intruder with great energy and speed at a distance that is much greater than its small size would indicate. "They can actually 'leap', putting so much effort into a strike that they actually leave the ground - forwards and up." This behavior, not demonstrated by any other snakes in the area, makes the "flying"of the "fiery flying serpent" description a reality.
A Roman text dated 22 A.D. about the deserts of Arabia where the saw-scale viper is found indicated that "there are snakes also of a dark red color, a span in length, which spring up as high as a man's waist, and whose bite is incurable." A "span" is about nine inches and even small saw-scale vipers are known to be deadly. With its leaping strike from a hiding position in a bush, the viper could reach the upper body and inflict a fatal bite. The saw-scale viper has the habit of lying in wait in the small bushes of the desert to ambush birds, lizards or rodents. When given a choice the Israeli saw-scale viper actually prefers to eat birds. The illustration shows the Israeli saw-scale viper attacking one of its favorite foods, a North African sparrow. Since sparrows would be extremely hard for a snake to catch, having a lightning fast, long reaching leaping strike would be very advantageous for this snake.
The flying serpent symbolism also brings to mind the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, the ancient American symbol of the white and bearded god who visited the Americas in the first century AD That tradition seems to clearly refer to the visit of Jesus Christ after his resurrection.
And finally, the venom of the saw-scale viper seems to link to the blood symbolism of Christ's atoning sacrifice especially well. This snake is known for having one of the most powerful blood and tissue destroying venom of any snake. "Within 24 to 36 hours, bleeding occurs from the gums, kidneys, nose etc. Death may follow days later due to complications. ... The constitutional symptoms are characterized by hemorrhages, both external and internal. Hemorrhages in the abdomen are responsible for pain, tenderness and vomiting. Death is due to heart failure, there is no paralysis."
One interesting related note is that even as the Savior has healing in his wings (Mal. 4:2), so also does the saw-scale viper have great healing powers. A new preventative heart medicine has been developed from the anti-clotting proteins of saw-scale viper venom.
The central symbol of Christ's atoning sacrifice is his suffering, bleeding and dying for the sins of the world both in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. If a bitten Israelite would only look on the symbol of the Redeemer on the staff, the Israelite's excruciating suffering and possible death by internal bleeding would be healed. In exchange, the Savior would suffer an excruciating death also involving terrible bleeding and He would extend not only the opportunity of physical healing but the promise of spiritual healing and eternal life.
The story of the "fiery, flying serpent" in the Old Testament and the simple yet powerful method the Lord provided to heal the Israelites of these deadly snake bites increases our understanding of the reality and power of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The description and symbolism of healing and salvation takes on even deeper symbolism with the understanding that this snake was most likely the deadly Israeli saw-scale viper.