"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." John 3: 14, 15
The first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Pentateuch, contain several references to serpents, or to creatures often interpreted as serpents, using different Hebrew terms. The significant passages include the serpent in the Garden of Eden tempting Eve in Genesis, chapter 3; Jacob's blessing on Dan in Genesis 49:17, that he would be a "serpent by the way;" the miraculous sign given to Moses and Aaron when their rods are turned into serpents in Exodus, chapters 4 and 7; the fiery serpents of Numbers, chapter 21, who bite the children of Israel, and the bronze serpent that brings them healing.
Moses was born in Egypt and grew up in the royal household of Pharaoh. The first part of Acts 7:22 states "And Moses was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians." The Hebrews who left Egypt with Moses in the exodus were also familiar with Egyptian culture and life. A look at the use and meaning of serpents in Egyptian beliefs will help in bringing us a deeper understanding to the Biblical passages that refer to serpents in light of Moses' background and the Egyptian milieu of the Israelites.
Several different Hebrew words that are translated as "serpent" or "snake" are used in the Pentateuch. The most common term is nahash, used in Genesis 3:1, 2, 4, 13, 14; Genesis 49:17; Exodus 4: 3, 7:15; and Numbers 21: 7, 9.1 It is found at least 30 times in the Old Testament,2 and means "to make a hissing sound," as well as a "venomous reptile with deadly fangs."3
A more ambiguous term is tannin, which can also be translated "monster," "dragon," "sea serpent," "crocodile," and can mean any large sea creature or reptile, as in Job 7:12.4 It derives from the Ugaritic tnn, referring to mythological sea monsters. This word is found in the creation account in Genesis 1:21, where it is usually translated as "sea monsters;"5 in Exodus 7: 9, 10, and 12, where Aaron's rod turns into a tannim, and is usually translated there as "serpent;" and in Deuteronomy 32:33, where God pronounces judgment on Israel's betrayal of Yahweh, saying that their wine is the "venom of serpents" and "the deadly poison of cobras," (New American Standard Bible translation, hereafter referred to as NASB).
Outside the Pentateuch, tannin is also used to represent the foes of God. In Jeremiah 51:34, it is used of Nebuchadnezzar, and it refers to Egypt as a dragon (in several translations) in Isaiah 51:9. In Ezra 29:3, God calls Pharaoh "the great monster that lies in the midst of his rivers, that has said, ‘My Nile is mine, and I myself have made it,'" (NASB), a clear reference to the deity claimed for Egypt's pharaohs. Tannin is again used to rebuke Pharaoh in Ezra 32:2 as "the monster in the seas," (NASB).6
Saraph is most well known in the Pentateuch in Numbers 21:6 and 8, as the description of the "fiery serpents" who bit the children of Israel in the wilderness.7 According to Egyptologist John D. Currid, this term comes from the Egyptian noun, srf, meaning "warm" or "hot," from the verb that means "to heat up," or "to inflame."8 This word is a noun, not an adjective, and means a poisonous snake."9 These serpents may have been called fiery due to their painful bite, which injected poison and possibly caused a burning fever.10 The name also could have referred to a shiny appearance11 or to the puff adder, which has yellow, flame-type markings.12 The term saraph is used again in Deuteronomy 8:15, referring to the episode in Numbers, chapter 21.
In the passage of the fiery snakes, Moses is instructed by God to make a bronze serpent and set it on a standard. The Hebrew word for bronze, nehoshet, comes from Egyptian thst, meaning copper, and often referred to mountings on a flagpole or standard.13 It is interesting to note that nehoshet is similar to the word used for snakes in this passage, nehasim, which may mean the serpents were a bronze color.14 This could also be a play on words between the words for "bronze" and "snake" in verse 9 of Numbers 21 (n'has n'hoset).15
In Deuteronomy 32:23, the term zahal, means "to shrink back," "crawl away," or "crawling thing."16 God is passing judgment on Israel for their unfaithfulness, announcing that they will suffer "the teeth of beasts," and "the venom of crawling things of the dust," a reference to venomous snakes.17
According to Currid, the author of Exodus and Numbers was familiar with Egyptian practices and beliefs; the Exodus and Numbers accounts dealing with serpents "properly reflect ancient Egyptian customs" of the New Kingdom period.18
Information on Egyptian religion is very uneven, with more data from later periods and from higher social stratas. There are also difficulties in understanding the religious literature; therefore, no one can know for sure how specific Egyptian beliefs were followed and practiced.19 Egyptian gods varied over the centuries and according to the ruling Pharaoh's preference of a particular deity. Local gods were worshiped only in certain regions, while other gods had widespread acceptance throughout Egypt. Local gods would sometimes rise in importance, and become adopted in other areas. Additionally, gods often were merged with each other, and merged with gods of other cultures; therefore, the blending of various gods over time and in different regions complicates the process of discovering consistent universal gods for study20
Egyptian religion was polytheistic, honoring animals as gods, and worshiping gods that personified forces of nature and that embodied abstract concepts such as wisdom and justice.21 Animals were also used to represent various attributes of the gods, such as the falcon for Horus, the cow for Hathor, the jackal for Anubis, and the crocodile for Sobek.22