The opening books of the Old Testament plunge the reader into a world of talking serpents, shepherd’s staffs turning into hissing cobras, poisonous serpents killing Israelites in the desert, and Moses making a bronze serpent and fixing it on top of a staff. The book of Job describes large sea dragons (the leviathan), and in Revelation, a ten-headed dragon rises out of the sea to wreak havoc and death on the earth.
To best understand the meaning of the dragon-serpent imagery in the Bible, we need to understand the cultural world, and historical context of the Old Testament writers, since it is the foundation of the New Testament. There are two approaches scholars have taken when it comes to understanding the historical and cultural background of the Bible:
- The Comparative Approach
- The Polemical Approach
Old Testament Comparative Studies
The comparative approach recognizes that various cultures which populated the ancient world can be, and indeed are very different: the Egyptians are not like the Hittites, the Assyrians are not like the Romans, and so on. However, throughout a study of the ancient Near East, scholars have also discovered many similarities and commonalities between cultures as well. When it comes to the Old Testament, comparative scholars, such as John Walton focus on the similarities between the biblical writers with the cultures in which they are situated historically.
One of the driving questions of the comparative approach is, “What exactly is the relationship between the Old Testament and other ancient Near Eastern cultures and literature?” Did the biblical writers borrow, utilize, or directly copy themes and concepts from neighboring Near Eastern cultures? How are they alike? How are they different? Between those last two questions, comparative scholars tend to focus more on how the biblical writers utilize terms and cultural concepts which other cultures also used, focusing primarily on their similarities. The ultimate goal of Old Testament comparative scholars to understand the original historical context of Scripture – which a foundational principle in sound hermeneutics.
Old Testament Polemical Theology
Another approach which brings illumination to what the biblical writers are attempting to communicate (especially when it comes to dragons and serpents), is called the polemical approach or polemical theology. Polemical theology, according to John D. Currid,
…is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common on ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning. The biblical writers take well-known expressions and motifs from the ancient Near Eastern milieu and apply them to the person and work of Yahweh, and not to the other gods of the ancient world. Polemical theology rejects any encroachment of false gods into orthodox belief, there is an absolute intolerance of polytheism. Polemical theology is monotheistic to the very core.
The primary purpose of polemical theology is to demonstrate emphatically and graphically the distinctions between the world view of the Hebrews and the beliefs and practices of the rest of the ancient Near East.
Whereas the comparative approach tends to focus on the similarities between other ancient Near Eastern culture’s with the biblical writers, the polemical approach emphasizes how they are radically different, emphasizing YHWH’s uniqueness, and power over all other gods. The difference between the two approaches can be especially seen when it comes to understanding the significance, and meaning of dragons and serpents in the Old Testament.
THE BABYLONIAN DRAGON: TIAMAT & GENESIS
One of the earliest dragons recorded in history was Tiamat. Tiamat was first recorded in an ancient cuneiform text called, Enûma elish, after the first two words that appear; “when on high.” The poem has also been called “The Epic of Creation.” The Hebrew book of Genesis also has a similar title: בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית, berē(ʾ)·šîṯʹ, or, beginning, what comes first; starting point, or “in the beginning.” In Mesopotamian myth, the dragon Tiamat is closely related to chaos, and to the chaotic salty waters of the sea. Perhaps it is even a vague allusion to the great flood mentioned in Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis 6-10? It appears that dragons have been connected to chaos ever since.
The Enûma elish and Tiamat are part of a larger body of creation stories called, cosmogonies which tell about the origins of the cosmos (and cosmic order), and theogonies which describe the origins and relationships of the gods. In the Enûma elish (or, Epic of Creation), as well as other ancient theogonies, one god rules over the cosmos imposing his rule and order over it. In the Enuma Elish, Tiamat gives birth to the first gods, including her husband Apsu (symbolized by fresh waters). Other gods created by Tiamat become jealous of Apsu and plot to kill him and usurp his throne. After doing so, Tiamat becomes enraged at them and takes the form of a sea dragon to avenge her husband’s death. Tiamat is then slain by the god Marduk, and with her blood he created the cosmos, monsters and the very first dragons.
In his excellent book on the Enûma Elish, titled, The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation (originally published in 1942), Alexander Heidel states:
Our examination of the various points of comparison between Enûma Elish and Gen. 1:1-2:3 shows quite plainly that the similarities are not really so striking as we might expect, considering how closely the Hebrews and Babylonians were related. In fact, the divergences are much more far-reaching and significant than the resemblances, most of which are not any closer than what we should expect to find in any two more or less complete creation versions (since both would have to account for the same phenomena and since human minds think along the same lines) which might come from entirely different parts of the world and which might be utterly unrelated to each other.
There is also a possibility that some of the biblical writers were familiar with at least the basic elements of the Marduk and Tiamat confrontation from Mesopotamia through Ugaritic inscriptions excavated at Ras Shamra in Syria. The lines,
When thou shalt smite Lôtan, the fleeing serpent,
(And) shalt put an end to the tortuous serpent,
Shalyat of the seven heads. . .
seem to have been utilized by, or influenced the writer of Psalm 74:4, referring to “the heads of Leviathan,” and Isaiah 27:1:
In that day the Lord with His severe
Sword, great and strong,
Will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
Leviathan that twisted serpent;
And He will slay the reptile that is in the sea.
With regards to the Enûma elish and the Genesis creation account, Heidel states, “…I reject the idea that the biblical account gradually evolved out of the Babylonian; for that the differences are far too great and similarities far too insignificant. In the light of the differences, the resemblances fade away almost like the stars before the sun.”
THE SERPENT/DRAGON IN ANCIENT EGYPT AND THE PENTATEUCH
When the Greek writer Herodotus stated that “Egypt is a gift of the Nile,” it was no exaggeration. Most Egyptians lived along the narrow, fertile banks of the Nile which flows northward and empties into rich Delta, and eventually the Mediterranean. Ancient Egypt was actually two lands. They called the northern part of their country KMT, or KeMeT – “the black land,” referring to the dark alluvial soil which was the result of the annual flooding of the Nile. The desert, they called Dashre, or “the red land.” The largest percentage of landmass in Egypt is desert, and to the west of the Nile lies the Libyan desert, and to the east, the Arabian. Not surprisingly, Egyptians interacted with all sorts of animals who also lived along these marginal zones near river and desert (jackals, hippos, crocodiles, and snakes, etc…).
Snakes were common in Egypt, and it seems as though the ancient Egyptians were both terrified by them because of their venomous bites, but also intrigued by them for their ability to strike fear. Not surprisingly, archaeologists have discovered numerous spells and charms in ancient texts called The Pyramid Texts with the purpose of warding off snakes and their venomous bites. Naturally, this resulted in the worship of many varieties of snakes as gods in ancient Egypt. Many snake cults in Egypt date back to their earliest history in the predynastic (ca. 3,000 B.C.) and early dynastic periods (ca. 2920-2575 B.C.). In Egyptian mythology, Apophis (a serpent god) was one of the main enemies of Horus, Re and Osiris, three foundational gods in the Egyptian pantheon.
In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which outlines a litany of magic spells to protect the pharaoh in the afterlife, the primordial snake-god, Nehebkau appears in spell 48. Although Nehebkau originally appeared in Egyptian mythology as an evil spirit, in the Book of the Dead he is viewed as one who “bestows gifts,” and/or “that which gives ka (life-force, or spirit). When the pharaoh’s heart would be weighed by Anubis against ma’at (truth), Nehebkau was one of forty-two gods who would sit in judgement over the pharaoh. As such, he was worshiped and revered in tomb inscriptions.
Throughout its history the image of the serpent-dragon would evolve to become the very national emblem of ancient Egypt itself. Because Egypt was understood by the Egyptians as a unity of desert land (Dashre), and the fertile Nile valley (KMT), their tutelary gods were consequently, the goddess of upper Egypt, Nekhbet symbolized by a vulture, and Wadjet, the goddess of lower Egypt, symbolized by a cobra. The two gods could be found on the very crowns of the pharaoh’s, and were thought to imbue him with magical powers. As Near Eastern scholar, Henri Frankfort remarks, “The crowns, then, were objects charged with power and were, in fact, not always distinguished from the goddesses themselves, as is shown by a collection of hymns addressed to the crowns.”
To wear the cobra (Wadjet) crown of lower Egypt then, was to be a representative of the (snake) goddess on earth. In fact, according to the Pyramid Texts, as a new pharaoh was coronated, and epithets were recited by both the priest and new pharaoh, “…one phrase spoken by the king indicates that the coronation, his assumption to royalty, is like a rebirth of kingly power and, at the same time, a rebirth of the goddess (‘when thou art new and young’). The goddess is simply the personification of power of royalty, ‘The great magician,’ and hence is immanent in the crown.”
Additionally, the serpent goddess Wadjet, of upper Egypt was most often one of the five royal names given to the pharaoh. From about the Middle Kingdom onwards in ancient Egypt, royal pharaonic names contained five titles, or five names (with variations over time). For example, a pharaoh from the 18th dynasty, named Thutmose IV is also titled, “…as the Two Ladies, that is, the vulture and cobra representing Upper and Lower Egypt.” With this understanding of the deep connection of the serpent goddess in Egyptian culture and national identity, we can now begin to see how the biblical writers (i.e., Moses) employed and utilized the polemical use of serpent imagery to highlight Yahweh’s confrontation between himself and the Egyptian gods and to pharaoh.
The Transmogrification of Moses’ Staff into a Snake
One of the very first confrontations between Moses and pharaoh is the episode of Moses’ staff turning into a serpent. Interestingly, two Hebrew words for serpent are utilized in the pericope: tannin and nāhāš. Some Hebrew scholars hold that biblical author utilized the word tannin when they wanted to portray a larger reptile like a dragon or crocodile. “The Septuagint translates tannin into the Greek drakōn (“dragon, large reptile”), it also applies to drakōn to numerous instances of nāhāš (eg., Job 26:13; Isa. 27:1, Amos 9:3). If anything, the Septuagint supports the idea that the two Hebrew words are often being used synonymously.” As was indicated above, the polemical angle, and ironic imagery of this episode is very powerful. When Moses and Aaron cast down the staff which transformed into a poisonous serpent, they utilized the very emblem of Egypt and royal pharaonic authority as a cosmic confrontation between God and Egypt (both Pharaoh and his gods). As Old Testament scholar, John Currid states:
When Moses and Aaron fling the rod-snake before Pharaoh, he was directly assaulting that token of Pharaonic sovereignty – the scene was one of polemic taunting. When Aaron’s rod swallowed the staffs of the Egyptian magicians, Pharaonic deity and omnipotence were being denounced and rejected outright. Pharaoh’s cobra-crested diadem had no power against Yahweh. Its magic was wanting and weak. It afforded no protection in the face of the reproach of the Hebraic God. Clearly, Yahweh alone was in control of the entire episode.Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 93-94.
In addition to the polemical use of the Egyptian serpent (nāhāš) imagery in Exodus, it is utilized again in Numbers, to illustrate God’s salvation through grace and faith.
THE SERPENT IN THE WILDERNESS: Symbol of Egypt, Slavery & Death
From a study of Egyptian culture and history, it is clear that the imagery of the venomous serpent played a vital role in Egyptian national identity, religion and as an emblem of royal pharaonic power. After their miraculous deliverance from Egypt, the Israelites became very discouraged and began to complain and speak out against Moses and against God. They desired to return to Egypt where the food was plenteous. So, in an ironic twist, God grants their wish and sends them “Egypt” in the form of “fiery serpents,” who began to bite and kill them. God’s solution to their plight was probably one of the strangest episodes in the Old Testament, when it is divorced from its historical-Egyptian context. God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and place it on a staff (a pole), so that “…everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when it looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”
In a well-known (New Testament) conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus actually refers to this episode when Nicodemus asked “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus pointed Nicodemus to this exact event in Israel’s history. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The implications of Christ’s statement are staggering. Christ became a serpent (the symbol of evil) for our salvation. In C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Eustace turns into a dragon, Aslan scratches the scales off and has Eustace bath in water, but in the New Testament Christ literally becomes a serpent/dragon for those whom he loves.
As the Apostle Paul writes, “
For He [God] made Him who knew no sin [Christ] to be sin for us [a serpent the very emblem of evil], that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21)”
THE GREAT DRAGON OF GENESIS & REVELATION AND THE EUCHATASTROPHE OF CHRIST’S SECOND COMING
At the beginning of human history, in the book of Genesis, Eve is tempted when Satan (in the form of a serpent) tempts her in the Garden (Gen. 3). After bringing chaos, sin and death into the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the world was changed. Sin and death entered the world, and paradise was lost. In Revelation, the closing book of the New Testament, we see the end of the dragon and the chaos and death he has been sewing since the dawn of human history. Among Christians today there is a wide variety of views on eschatology [end times]. What Christians through the centuries are in agreement on is the fact that Christ will indeed return (physically, and bodily) to destroy evil and bring everlasting peace. As the Nicene Creed states:
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead. His kingdom will never end.
The final act of history will be a cosmic confrontation between the ultimate dragon (Satan) and Christ. The best way to understand this is through J.R.R. Tolkien’s trope of the eucatastrophe. Tolkien brilliantly uses the eucatastrophe throughout his Lord of the Rings trilogy and Middle Earth legendarium. Tolkien coined the term from two Greek words – Greek ευ- “good” and καταστροφή “sudden turn.” A eucatastrophe, then is when things look their absolute worst, like all hope has been lost, there is a sudden turn for the good.
The book of Revelation paints a picture of a world that has been ravaged by “the great dragon – the beast.” But, in a flash, when the world is plunged in darkness Christ will return in brilliant light. He will utterly smite the dragon with the breath of His mouth, and bring everlasting peace.
NOTE: This article is an adaptation of another article I published in An Unexpected Journal in 2022 which explores more of the literary, and philosophical aspects of dragons in the Bible, and throughout history.
 John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018).
 John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Wheaton: IL: Crossway Books, 2013) 25 [emphasis mine].
 Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), esp. 228-38.
 Ibid., 249-277. Incidentally, Marduk becomes one of the chief gods in Mesopotamia.
 Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963), 130.
 Ibid, 138.
 Ibid., 138-139.
 See, Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (London: Oxford University Press, 1976 reprint), 27.
 See, Peter F. Dorman, “The Origins and Early Development of the Book of the Dead,” in Foy Scalf, Editor, Book of the Dead: Becoming God in Ancient Egypt (The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: The Oriental Institute Museum Publications 39, 2018), 29-39. Also, E.A.W. Budge, Egyptian Magic (Evanston, Il.: University Books, 1958 reprint).
 John D. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 88.
 Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 107.
 For much more detail on this see, Marc Van De Mieroop, A History of Ancient Egypt (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell), 16-19.
 Exodus 7:8-13
 For example, Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1983), 94.
 John Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament, 87.
 Numbers 21:4-5 (NKJV)
 Numbers 21:8-9 (NKJV)
 John 3:3 (NKJV)
 John 3:14-15 (NKJV)
 http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Eucatastrophe (accessed, 15 May, 2022)
 See Revelation 17-19