Five articles appear below:

1 Fiery Serpents                               Anonymous
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)


And the Lord said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:8-9)

Kirk Straughen says concerning these verses:

Scripture was written in a pre-scientific age…hindered by inaccurate knowledge… 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.

Let's investigate.



The King James Bible says "brass serpent" rather than bronze but the latter is probably the more accurate:

"Brass…should in the Scriptures be generally rendered bronze, or sometimes copper. Brass, the alloy of copper and zinc, is largely a modern material, while bronze (copper and tin) was used to an enormous extent in ancient times… The bronze, however, varied a great deal in composition, and some contained an admixture of zinc, approaching more to brass…" (Unger 1983)

[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 dangerous sand vipers, genus Cerastes. It's possible that "fiery serpents" refer to all four species.


Most snakebites – even by venomous snakes – do not kill:

Swaroop reported about 200,000 bites and 15,000 deaths in India due to snake bite poisoning as far back as 1954…

…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 result in about 10% mortality ranging from 5-15 hours following bite. Vipers have a more variable mortality rate of 1-15% and generally more delayed (up to 48 hours). (Gera & Mathew)  

A WHO website says:

In 1991, there were [in Burma] 14,000 bites with 1,000 deaths and in 1997, 8,000 bites with 500 deaths… About 50% of bites by Malayan pit vipers and Russell's vipers, 30% of bites by cobras and 5-10% of bites by saw-scaled vipers do not result in any symptoms or signs of envenoming.

  Many snakebites, possibly one-third, are "dry bites" – no venom is released. Many bites are superficial with minimal injection of venom. In other cases venom is spewed out before the fangs reach the skin. Other factors effecting the outcome are:   

Clearly, many factors influence the outcome besides whether antivenene is administered. Indeed antivenene can itself be dangerous:

There are specific indications for use of antivenom. Every bite, even if by poisonous species does not merit its use. This caution against the empirical use of antivenom is due to the risk of hypersensitivity reactions.

Therefore, antivenom is indicated only if serious manifestations of envenomation are evident viz coma, neurotoxicity, hypotension, shock, bleeding, DIC, acute renal failure, rhabdomyolysis and ECG changes. (Gera & Mathew)


Snakebite victims' emotional reaction, whether panic or calm, is often decisive:

… the most common and earliest symptom following snake bite (poisonous or non poisonous) is fright, particularly of rapid and unpleasant death. Owing to fright, a victim attempts ‘flight' which unfortunately results in enhanced systemic absorption of venom. These emotional manifestations develop extremely rapidly (almost instantaneous) and may produce psychological shock and even death. (Gera & Mathew)

Boyce (1999) estimates that in the Californian earthquake of 1994 over 100 people died:

Not because they were crushed by houses or struck by debris, but because they literally died of fight…
If you are terrorised by a God-awful stress, it can take you out…
Accounts of death from fear fill the anthropological literature, as Walter Bradford Cannon pointed out more than forty years ago in a remarkable paper called "Voodoo Death" (American Anthropologist, vol 4, p 1).

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:

In the two verses two different words for "to see" are used, perhaps for literary variety, but also to stress that it was necessary to do more than simply "see" or "catch a glimpse of" the copper serpent; one actually had to "fix one's gaze" or pay attention to" this figure – a definite act of will – if one wanted to be healed.

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:

  • Since up to four species of snake were involved, most snakebites may have been from the less-poisonous species;
  • Numerous variables besides poison effect snakebite outcome;
  • Moses' bronze serpent promoted calm and lessened fear – potentially life-saving variables;
  • The Israelites who rejected Moses' treatment and perhaps fled would have had greater absorption of poison and also suffered from "God-awful stress" – which alone even without poison can kill;
  • If other background stories such as Ten Plagues of Egypt, the smoke and rumbling of Mount Sinai and the drowning of an Egyptian army are anywhere near accurate the Israelites would have been highly suggestible.


    The Bible does not state the number of snakebite victims or how many viewed the bronze serpent. If the numbers were small then the psychological explanation I've outlined might alone suffice. If the numbers were large, e.g. hundreds, it's unlikely that psychology alone explains why every viewer lived and every non-viewer died. In that case the low probability of the result, the statistical anomaly, would be the "miracle".


    Ashley, T R 1993 The New International Commentary 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"

    Kirk Straughen

    (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 forced to conclude that the story of the bronze serpent appears more magical than scientific.





    (Investigator 100, 2005 January) 

    I listed some fifteen variables that effect the outcome of snakebite. (#98)

    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".




    Kirk Straughen

    (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 continues to remain unsupported and unproven speculation at best.





    (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 man who discovers that he is boned by an enemy is, indeed, a pitiable sight. He stands aghast with his eyes staring at the treacherous pointer, and his hands lifted to ward off the lethal medium, which he imagines is pouring into his body. His cheeks blanch, and his eyes become glassy, and the expression of his face becomes horribly distorted. He attempts to shriek but usually the sound chokes in his throat, and all that one might see is froth at his mouth. His body begins to tremble and his muscles twitch involuntarily. He sways backward and falls to the ground, and after a short time appears to be in a swoon. He finally composes himself, goes to his hut and there frets to death.
    (Basdow, R H 1925 The Australian Aboriginal, Adelaide)

    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.



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