2 Comments on "Fiery Serpents" K Straughen
3 Response on "Fiery Serpents" Anonymous
4 Regarding Fiery serpents K Straughen
5 Fiery Serpents Treatment Anonymous
(Investigator 98, 2004 September)
SCRIPTURE AND SCIENCE
Kirk Straughen says concerning these verses:
As can be seen, the image of the serpent acts as a talisman, and is based on a principle of magic – that like not only causes like, but can also propitiate it. Fortunately, we now know that antivenin is the only effective cure for snakebite, and that magic images – bronze serpents or otherwise – could not effect a cure.
MOSES' SERPENT – BRASS OR BRONZE?
The King James Bible says "brass serpent"
rather than bronze but the latter is probably the more accurate:
Copper is reddish alloy.
Bronze is a reddish brown alloy of copper and tin.
Brass is a yellow alloy of copper and zinc.
The "fiery serpents" occurred north of the Red Sea in the Arabah valley area. The Hebrew for serpent in Numbers 21 is "nachash". This was a general term for snakes and other reptiles.
Straughen suggests "fiery" means venomous. (Of 3,000 known species of snake about 500 classified into five families are venomous.)
"Fiery" translates the Hebrew "saraph". It occurs seven times in the Old Testament – Numbers 21:6, 8; Deuteronomy 8:15; Isaiah 6:2, 6; 14:29; 30:6.
The Companion Bible marginal note says: "These fiery serpents may have been so-called for the burning sensation of their bite, or from their vivid, fiery colour."
"Fiery" may, alternatively, refer to the color of the inflammation. (Ashley 1993)
The Egyptian cobra is venomous but is not found around the Arabah. Furthermore, its neurotoxic venom would paralyse breathing muscles and kill within hours. The venom of the "fiery serpents" was slow-acting venom – since it would take time to make the bronze serpent.
Another desert cobra, Walterinnesia aegyptian, occurs around the Arabah but is not dangerous to humans.
This leaves us with the family Viperidae or vipers. The Arabah has two species of Sand Vipers and two species of Saw-scaled Vipers.
Cerastes cerastes is a Sand Viper; adults average 45cm
Cerastes vipera is a Sand Viper reaching about 40cm.
Sand Vipers match the brown/reddish desert sand in color and hide by burrowing into sand during the day. They come up at night to feed on small rodents and lizards. The venom is hemotoxic causing bleeding and severe damage to tissue.
These vipers have two curved fangs against the roof of the mouth, hollow and needle-sharp. The bite of the larger viper, C cerastes, is dangerous to humans but not necessarily lethal.
The Arabah also has two species of Saw-scaled vipers, the genus Echis:
The adults are about 70cm long. The genus occurs from West Africa to Central Asia. The color varies from grey to pink to light brown. When coiled the snake rubs it scales together making a sound resembling the rattle-snake. Echis can project itself or "leap". If it's on a bush it can bite a person's upper body.
Echis kills more people in Africa than all other snake species combined and is the "world's deadliest snake".
Both Echis species are easily provoked. The bite may cause intense pain or little pain. The venom is potent and breaks down small blood vessels, ruptures blood cells and stops blood coagulating. Bleeding from the gums occurs within a day or two. Death is by internal haemorrhage leading to heart failure and takes several days but may be avoided subject to the severity of the bite, health of the victim and other factors discussed below.
E carinatus is more dangerous than E coloratus. The Israelites probably did not distinguish Echis down to the species level and so both species may be the "fiery serpents".
However, we didn't rule out the less
sand vipers, genus Cerastes. It's possible that "fiery
refer to all four species.
MOST SNAKEBITES NOT LETHAL
Most snakebites – even by venomous snakes
– do not kill:
…a large number of poisonous species also often do not cause symptoms. In a study of 432 snake-bites in North India, Banerjee noted that 80% of victims showed no evidence of envenomation. This figure correlates almost exactly with a more recent observation from Brazil. Reid also states that over 50% of individuals bitten by potentially lethal venomous snakes escape with hardly any features of poisoning. This is corroborated by Saini's study of 200 cases in Jammu region in India, in which only 117 showed symptom/sign of envenomation…
On an average cobras and sea snakes
in about 10% mortality ranging from 5-15 hours following bite. Vipers
a more variable mortality rate of 1-15% and generally more delayed (up
to 48 hours). (Gera & Mathew)
About 50% of bites by Malayan pit vipers
and Russell's vipers, 30% of bites by cobras and 5-10% of bites by
vipers do not result in any symptoms or signs of envenoming.
Therefore, antivenom is indicated only if
serious manifestations of envenomation are evident viz coma,
hypotension, shock, bleeding, DIC, acute renal failure, rhabdomyolysis
and ECG changes. (Gera & Mathew)
Snakebite victims' emotional reaction,
panic or calm, is often decisive:
Boyce (1999) estimates that in the Californian earthquake of 1994 over 100 people died:
Thus terror alone can kill.
Moses required the snakebite victims to gaze at the bronze serpent for some time.
The Hebrew word for "look" in Numbers 21:9 is "nahvat". The Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance (pp 783-784) lists all occurrences of "nahvat" in the Old Testament. The word is variously translated as "look", "look upon", "have respect", "consider" and "behold". Young's Concordance translates it "behold attentively".
Ashley (1993) similarly states:
What Moses did – getting snakebite victims to view a metal replica of the snake that bit them – was effective treatment especially when the people were ignorant, superstitious and suggestible.
The scientific explanation therefore is:
The Bible does not state the number of
victims or how many viewed the bronze serpent. If the numbers were
then the psychological explanation I've outlined might alone suffice.
the numbers were large, e.g. hundreds, it's unlikely that psychology
explains why every viewer lived and every non-viewer died. In that case
the low probability of the result, the statistical anomaly, would be
Ashley, T R 1993 The New International
on the Old Testament, The Book of Numbers, Eerdmans, USA, pp 405-406
Boyce, N Fear Itself, New Scientist, March 6, 1999, p. 35
Cansdale, G S 1970 Animals of Bible Lands, Paternoster Press, Great Britain, pp 202-208
Gera, T & Mathew, J L Ophitoxaemia:
The Companion Bible 1972, Bagster & Sons, Britain
Unger, M F 1983 Unger's Bible Dictionary, Complete and Unabridged, Moody Press, Chicago, p. 733
WHO Regional Office for South East Asia:
Comments on "Fiery Serpents"
(Investigator 99, 2004 November)
I read Anonymous' article Fiery Serpents (Inv. 98, page 11), and am unable to agree with certain aspects of his essay.
Numbers 21:84 says in part: "and every one who is bitten, when he sees it [the image], shall live."
This is an unqualified statement, and therefore the question to be addressed is this: If a person were envenomed with a fatal dose of toxin, would looking at an image of a serpent prove an effective antidote?
In my opinion, Anonymous has not presented sufficient evidence that it would.
He argues that looking at the image would keep victims calm and immobile, thus slowing down the spread of the venom. The problem is that the advice to make the image is attributed to God (an allegedly all-wise being), yet there is a simpler and more effective method capable of immediate application that makes use of a compression bandage wrapped firmly around the bitten limb, which is then immobilized with a splint.
Based on what has been presented I am
to conclude that the story of the bronze serpent appears more magical
RESPONSE ON "FIERY SERPENTS"
Straughen suggests a compression bandage and splint would have been simpler (#99 p. 46) than Moses' method of calming bite victims by requiring them to gaze at a "bronze serpent".
Given the 15 variables, Straughen's claim is only a guess. Considering the state of stress, ignorance and terror the Israelites were under – when stress and terror alone can kill – something out of their experience like compression bandages might have made matters worse.
One possible explanation, given 15 variables, is that the snakebite survivors had "dry bites" from the less dangerous species and those who died had venom injected by the more-lethal species. And there are innumerable other possible explanations.
Incidentally, if we regard the account as a "miracle" story, then that's the word Straughen should use – "miracle" rather than "magic".
REGARDING FIERY SERPENTS
(Investigator 101, 2005 March)
The combination of a compression bandage and splint is recommended as first aid for snakebite because of its proven effectiveness, whereas looking at a bronze serpent is not.
Human physiology is universal, irrespective of a person's race or the age in which they live. Therefore, what is effective first aid for us would also be effective first aid for the ancient Israelites.
Were the alleged cures due to natural or supernatural causes? There is no independent verifiable evidence proving the events outlined in the Bible occurred as described. Perhaps they did, perhaps again they didn't. There is simply no way of knowing.
Therefore, Anonymous' arguments relating
to the efficacy of bronze serpents as a treatment for snakebite
to remain unsupported and unproven speculation at best.
FIERY SERPENTS – TREATMENT
(Investigator 102, 2005 May)
I agree with Mr Straughen (#101) that compression bandage and splint is ordinarily the correct treatment for snakebite. But not if the bite was a “dry bite”, and the victim knows nothing about compression bandages and how they work, and he is dying of fear and stress.
In such cases calm inspired by faith may be more effective.
I've shown previously that fear can kill.
Another example is the voodoo-type death of some native Australians:
The Israelites who encountered the "fiery serpents" had, according to the Bible, fled centuries of slavery in Egypt. They were ignorant, superstitious and influenced by Egypt's idolatry. Intellectually they were more like the "boned" Aboriginal than like Mr Straughen. In their situation any treatment that calmed fear would have been helpful – including viewing a "bronze serpent".
How far this scientific explanation accounts for the snakebite deaths and cures in Numbers 21 is unclear due to the brevity of the Bible's report. If the victims were few then it might be a complete explanation. If the victims were numerous (and if the story is true) then it's a statistical anomaly, perhaps a miracle.