What Fiery Flying Serpent Symbolized Christ?


When Moses led the children of Israel into the rugged land of Edom after their journey through the desolate Sinai desert, they had an experience with deadly venomous snakes that has become one of the most powerful types and shadows of the mission of Jesus Christ. But just what kind of serpent was it? The scriptures give several clues, which indicate that it most likely belonged to the deadly saw-scale viper family, considered by many scientists to be “the world’s most dangerous snake.”

The Serpent on the Staff

The scriptures tell us that during the difficult journey through what has been identified as the Arava Valley 1, the Israelites rebelled against Moses. The Bible states that “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, and much people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6). After the people repented, the Lord instructed Moses, “make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole, and it shall come to pass that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21:8–9). Even though many did look on the brazen serpent and were healed, Nephi adds, “because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished” from the bite of these serpents (1 Nephi 17:41, see also Alma 33:19–20).

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.” 2

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. 3 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. Clues to Identification

There are at least ten clues in the scriptures to help identify the serpent lifted up in the wilderness. Let us consider each of them.

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. 4

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. 5.

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.” 6 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 7), 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’.” 8>

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. 9 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.

3. Possible Candidates

The deadly Egyptian cobra is mentioned by commentators as a good candidate for the “fiery serpent.” Cobras do cause many fatalities in the world but the Egyptian cobra is not found today in the Arava valley, the Sinai desert or the surrounding desert areas. The only cobra-like snake of the area, the black desert cobra, is rare and not known as a dangerous snake. 10 Cobras also do not have a lightning-fast striking, which is why a mongoose is able to kill them.

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. 11 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”
8. Lightning fast strike x x
9. Leaping, “flying”
10. Death by internal


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. 12 We propose that the fiery flying serpent refers to the saw-scale viper.


Israeli Saw-Scale Viper’s Flying Attack

The saw scale viper prefers rocky terrain and is quite numerous in the Arava valley. It does not prefer the sandy valley areas of the Sinai where the Israelites probably camped during their travels. The other candidates are found in the sandy valley areas but not in the rocky mountainous terrain described in the Bible where the fiery serpents bit the Israelites. 13

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. 14 But what is amazing is that one species of saw-scale viper is also generally considered to be the “world’s most dangerous snake.” 15 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. 16 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.” 17`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. 18 No other snake native to this desert area has the reputation of being a very dangerous snake. 19

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”. 20 This is contrasted with the bite from a cobra that involves more paralysis than fiery burning. 21

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. 22 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, 23 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.” 24 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.” 25 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. 26 When given a choice the Israeli saw-scale viper actually prefers to eat birds. 27 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 28 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.” 29

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. 30

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.


During this study we have appreciated the assistance of several experts on middle east snakes who were kind enough to answer questions via email. They include Dr.Wolfgang Wüster (University of Wales, UK) , Dr. Alan E. Leviton (California Academy of Sciences, USA),, Dr. Yehudah Werner (Hebrew University, Israel), and Ph.D. graduate student Gergely Babocsay (Hebrew University, Israel). In addition Dr. Jacob Steiner (Hebrew University, Israel) provided assistance in word meanings in the Hebrew Bible.

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  1. Or Araba Valley. See Map 3 in the L.D.S. Bible.
  2. Neal A. Maxwell, Plain and Precious Things, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 1983, p.22
  3. M.G. Easton, Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, 1897, “Serpent, Fiery.”
  4. Bush, “Australia’s Venomous Snakes: The Modern Myth or Are You A Man Or A Mouse?“: “Figure 2 is from Sutherland (1992 & 1994), media reports and other sources to 1999. It presents the causes of snakebite believed to have resulted in 33 deaths in the past 19 years in Australia. Remember also that Australia’s snakes rarely envenom when biting defensively. Envenomation occurs in less than 1 in 10 bites …”
  5. LDSWorld.com Infobases Online, Link for Scriptures “fiery serpents,” Numbers 21:6.
    “saraph {saw-rawf’} Hebrew: noun masculine. Possible Definitions: 1) serpent, fiery serpent 1a) poisonous serpent (fiery from burning effect of poison) 2) seraph, seraphim 2a) majestic beings with 6 wings, human hands/voices in attendance upon God.”
    See also: E-mail from Gergely Babocsay to author February 25, 2000 quoting Dr. Jacob Steiner. “the text in Hebrew doesn’t refer to the colour of the snakes. This morning I received from him [Dr. Steiner] an E-mail . . . . The Hebrew text mentions nechasim sarafim (nachash=snake, saraf= burning, stinging, referring to the feeling they cause). . . . . Dr. Steiner also cited an interpretation from Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzak from the 11-12nd century, who interprets the text as the snakes that cause the burning pain with their teeth.”
  6. James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible, MacDonald Publishing, word 8314, “saraph.” p. 121.
  7. Brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, is not believed to have been known until after the time of Moses. Many modern translations render the word bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, which sometimes can be mined already mixed (Deut. 8:9). The Hebrew word may also have meant simply copper (as translated in Ezra 8:27) according to Easton, op. cit. under heading “Brass”.
  8. New Bible Dictionary, “Serpent,” Tyndall House, 1982, p. 1091.
  9. James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1964, p. 668.
  10. Jürg Meier and Julian White, Handbook of Clinical Toxicology of Animal Venoms and Poisons, 1995, p. 467.
  11. The snakes in the area are the Israeli saw-scale viper, echis coloratus, desert horned viper and close relatives, cerastes cerastes, cerastes vipera, and pseudocerastes persicus fieldi, and the desert black snake or black desert cobra, walterinnesia aegyptia. See Alan E. Leviton, Steven C. Anderson, Kraig Adler, and Sherman A. Minton, Handbook to Middle East Amphibians and Reptiles, 1992, pp 110-114. See also: J. N. Barnes, Serpents & Sand: The Snakes of Dhofar, – select “subjects” then “reptiles” and then “Serpents and sand” article. Entry for “carpet viper.” “Carpet viper [saw-scale viper] (Echis carinatus, Echis coloratus, Echis pyramidum) – 76 cm. A very dangerous snake possessing one of the most toxic venoms of all land snakes. Found in rocky places or areas with vegetation around wadis and hillsides, sometimes in large numbers. Although rarely seen, carpet vipers can be aggressive and will strike after loudly rasping their scales together as a warning.”
  12. Comptons Online Encyclopedia, M.G. Easton, op. cit., heading for “viper”
  13. H. Mendelssohn, “On the Biology of the Venomous Snakes of Israel,” Israel Journal of Biology, Vol 14, 1965, p. 188.
  14. Black Hills Reptile Gardens, The Deadliest Snakes in the World, 1999. The “most deadly snakes” in order are: (1) Inland Taipan, (2) Australian Brown Snake, (3) Malayan Krait, (4) Common Taipan, (5) Tiger Snake, (6) Beaked Sea Snake, (7) Saw Scaled Viper (“Saw Scaled Vipers kill more people in Africa that all the other venomous African snakes combined. Its venom is 5 times more toxic than that of the cobra and 16 more toxic than the Russell’s Viper.”), (8) Coral Snake, (9) Boomslang, and the (10) Death Adder (Numbers 1, 2, 4, 5 and 10 are from Australia).
    See Also: Steve Irwin of Croc Hunter on Animal Planet used a segment with the saw-scale viper to promote the episode of Africa’s Deadliest Snakes. This is an interesting choice since the very deadly Egyptian cobra and black mamba are also included in the episode.
  15. Chris Mattison, Encyclopedia of Snakes, 1995, p. 168. Note how many sources rank the saw-scale viper, also called the carpet viper, as number one:
    “The saw-scaled viper … is usually regarded as the world’s most dangerous species.” Eric Ethan, Vipers, Gareth Stevens Publishing, Milwaukee: 1995, p. 16.
    “Saw-scaled vipers have a very strong venom and are said to be the most deadly snakes in the world.” Tony Phelps, Poisonous Snakes, Blandford Press, Poole, Dorset, UK: 1981, p. 91-92.
    “[The saw-scale viper] is considered to be probably the most dangerous snake in the world.” G. S. Cansdale, West African Snakes, 1961, p. 64.
    “[The] Carpet Viper … is probably the most dangerous of all the poisonous snakes.”
  16. “The saw-scaled vipers … may cause more human fatalities than any other snake in the world.” Leviton, op. cit., p. 204. “The Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper … kill more people than any other snakes.” Eric Ethan, op. cit., p. 20. For estimates of snake bite numbers, see Brian Bush, op. cit.: ” … the Russell’s Viper (Daboia russelli) found from Pakistan to China and Indonesia; the “lance-headed” group of pit-vipers (Bothrops spp.) of South America, the “saw-scaled” vipers (Echis spp.) Of northern Africa, the Middle East, India and Sri Lanka are believed responsible for up to 50,000 deaths each year (Swaroop & Grab, 1954) . . .”
    Phelps, op. cit., p. 162: “Estimated annual mortality of 30,000 to 40,000”
    Mattison, op. cit., p. 169: “25,000 deaths per year from snake bites.”
  17. Allen Hunter, Saw-scale Viper Info, The Online Guide to Echis Vipers: 1999. Contains pictures by Dr. Wolfgang Wüster.
  18. Stanley S. Flower, “Notes on recent reptiles and amphibians of Egypt,” Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1933. In modern times with the miracle of antivenin treatments and hospitalization in countries such as Israel, documented fatalities from echis coloratus bites are rare. Most snakebite fatalities today occur in remote areas and the saw-scale viper is blamed for many thousands of deaths annually especially in Africa. The most relevant example to this study in the barren Arava valley area of the “fiery serpents” of a documented fatal echis coloratus bite is this account. Three British soldiers were bitten by the same echis coloratus snake in the Arava valley in 1918. All three soldiers died.
  19. Leviton, op. cit., p. 226, (Cerastes) “What [information about bites] there is indicates it is not highly dangerous.” (walterinnesia aegyptia), “There is almost no information on bites by the … desert blacksnake”.
    Dr. Wolfgang Wüster, email to author, November 5, 1999. “Fatalities are apparently rare, these snakes (cerastes) are definitely less lethal than saw-scaled vipers.”
    Dr. Yehudah Werner, email to author, February 27, 2000, “Walterinnesia bites would be rare because (a) the snake is conspicuous, (b) in daytime it is not aggressive.”
    Barnes, op. cit., entry for Sand or horned viper (Cerastes cerastes gasperetti)
    “The most commonly seen viper . . . .Usually inoffensive (unless trodden on), they give plenty of warning by rasping their scales together and making many dummy strikes when approached too closely.”
  20. www.kingsnake.com/dvs/sitemap.htm, select “Bite Account.” The account is of a rattlesnake bite, which is a viper with venom producing very similar pain.
  21. Ernst, op. cit., p. 134. Meier, op. cit., p. 461.
  22. Terence M. Davidson, M.D., F.A.C.S., UCSD Department of Surgery, “Immediate First Aid for bites by Indian or Common Cobra” www-surgery.ucsd.edu/ent/davidson/snake/naja2.htm.
  23. Hunter, op. cit., www.kingsnake.com/saw_scale/coloratus.html Email from Gergely Babocsay to author February 24, 2000, “He [Dr. Yehudah Werner] also mentioned that the ‘red’ Echis coloratus in Israel only exist in the granite mountains edging the southern Arava valley near Eilat and also in South Sinai. Some animals tend to be pinkish in the southern Arava valley too.”
  24. Hunter, op. cit., www.kingsnake.com/saw_scale/capt.html.
  25. Ancient History Sourcebook: Ancient Accounts of Arabia, 430 BCE – 550 CE. Strabo: Geography, c. 22 CE. XVI.iv.19, www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/arabia1.html#Strabo.
  26. Email from Gergely Babocsay to author February 23, 2000, “it is known, that this species (echis coloratus) often ambushes on bushes during the night waiting for rodents passing by below them or possibly migrating birds landing on the bushes to rest. This way they can bite high body parts of humans walking close by bushes.”
  27. Mendelssohn, op. cit., p. 189.
  28. Wallace E. Hunt, Jr., “Moses’ Brazen Serpent as It Relates to Serpent Worship in Mesoamerica,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2, p.121.
    B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, Vol.3, p.43-46.”It is probable that Quetzalcohuatl whose proper name signifies “feathered serpent,” was so called after the brazen serpent which Moses lifted up in the wilderness, the feathers perhaps alluding to the rabbinical tradition that the fiery serpents which God sent against the Israelites were of a winged species.” LDSWorld Infobase Gospel Library, Philip C. Reynolds, Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Science and Literature among the Nephites, Notes on Striking Passages in the Book of Mormon, “Fiery Flying Serpents.”
  29. “Saw-scale viper”Meier, op. cit., p. 472-474.
  30. “FDA approves ‘super asprin’ for certain heart patients.” www.canoe.ca/HealthNews/980515_heartasprin.html, May 15, 1998: “Some of the one million Americans hospitalized each year with a dangerous type of chest pain soon may get a “super asprin” to help prevent them from going on to suffer a heart attack. . . . Merck modelled the drug (named Aggrastat) on snake venom, because doctors knew that some snakebite victims bleed to death because the venom contains powerful anti-clotting proteins. Merck and researchers from Temple University isolated one of those proteins from an African snake called the saw-scaled viper. Then Merck literally built the Aggrastat molecule to mimic the snake venom’s anti-clotting effect without the toxins.” [Editor’s note: the link is this footnote is no longer working, but similar ones are currently at: www.bio.davidson.edu/biology/kabernd/seminar/studfold/MUVT/development.html, www.sciam.com/explorations/2001/040901drugs/, and www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,93970,00.html.]

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