Flying Snakes in the Bible

November 16, 2009 at 7:41 am 7 comments

Herodotus_The Histories

In the fifth century BC—a time when several Old Testament books were composed—there lived a Greek historian called Herodotus. His books The Histories are, among other things, an extremely interesting read about the various countries, cultures and exploits of the ancient world. They are a great source of information on a bygone time.

However, I would advise every reader to take certain accounts with a grain of salt. Not everything in Herodotus is accurate by a modern historian’s standard. His books often blend fact with legend—sometimes clearly stating that it is a legend, but at other times not. Some of his accounts are twisted by Greek prejudice; others contain scientific inaccuracies. The modern reader should be aware of these and read the books accordingly.

For instance, in Book II of The Histories, Herodotus reports on the existence of flying snakes in Egypt, getting there from the East. Now as far as we know, there was never any such thing as a flying snake. It must have been a legend which Herodotus believed because he did not know any better. And when, in addition to our scientific knowledge on the non-existence of flying snakes, archeologists tell us that they have found pictures of flying snakes on Egyptian monuments,[1] we have found a probable source for Herodotus’ account.

He simply followed common belief. This is quite excusable, since we often do the same. But it is, nonetheless, (as far as we know) scientifically inaccurate.

If we approach the books of the Bible in the same way that we approach Herodotus and we found a report of flying snakes there, we would have to draw the same conclusion that we did in Herodotus’ case. We cannot have a double standard. We cannot brand Herodotus’ account of the flying snakes as scientifically inaccurate, but explain the Bible’s account away. If one is scientifically inaccurate, so is the other.

Are there, then, biblical references to flying snakes in Egypt? Yes, there are. The prophet Isaiah writes: “Through a land of trouble and distress, of lioness and roaring lion, of viper and flying serpent, they carry their riches on the backs of donkeys, and their treasures on the humps of camels, to a people that cannot profit them. For Egypt’s help is worthless and empty, therefore I have called her, ‘Rahab who sits still’” (italics mine).[2]

From these verses we have to conclude that Isaiah, like Herodotus, held to the inaccurate belief that there are flying snakes. Otherwise he would not have included it in his oracle. This means that if the oracle was inspired by God, then God did not attempt to correct Isaiah’s false assumption about flying snakes.

One could, of course, also endeavor to explain the flying snakes by saying that they were another term for locusts or a similar flying animal. But the main point is that we have to interpret Isaiah the same way that we do Herodotus. And since I, at least, find the explanation most convincing that Egyptian paintings and a common belief suggested the flying snakes to Herodotus, I am forced to adopt the same explanation about Isaiah’s flying snakes.

[1] See John Marincola’s notes on The Histories by Herodotus.

[2] Isaiah 30:6-7. The Hebrew word which is here rendered “flying” is עוּף (“oof”), which, as far as I understand with my limited grasp of the matter, quite clearly implies that the said serpents had wings. Some translations render it to mean “darting,” but such a translation seems to stem from the presupposition that the text cannot contain any scientific inaccuracies and therefore has to mean something reasonable.

Entry filed under: Bible, History. Tags: , , , , , .

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. botox4thebrain  |  November 16, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    So, Herodotus believes there is flying snakes.
    Isaiah believes there is flying snakes.
    We have archeological drawing of flying snakes.

    Modern Historian do not believe in flying snakes.
    Science do not believe in flying snake.
    I have not seen flying snakes.

    Therefore there is no flying snakes.

    How about the resurrection of Jesus?

    But I do argee: “We cannot brand Herodotus’ account of the flying snakes as scientifically inaccurate, but explain the Bible’s account away. If one is scientifically inaccurate, so is the other.”

    However, I still think the Bible is approached in a different way than other history books. Isn’t it a misleading of the historical-critical reading to read the Bible like any other book? You write, “If we approach the books of the Bible in the same way that we approach Herodotus and we found a report of flying snakes there, we would have to draw the same conclusion that we did in Herodotus’ case.”
    But we do not (or maybe should not) approach the Bible in the same way. At least, a few of the Father did read the Bible differently than other book, trying to look at spiritual meaning…

    What do you think?

  • 2. jacobschriftman  |  November 16, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    Thanks for your comment! I can see now how this post might be a bit misleading. Perhaps I shouldn’t pull individual passages out of my books and post them on my blog:). In the book, I build an argument that spans several chapters, and in the beginning of the argument I approach the Bible like any other book. I’m not saying that once you are a believer, you cannot treat the Bible differently than other books. Sorry for not making this clear.

    As for comparing the existence of flying snakes to the resurrection of Christ, however, I’m not sure that’s the same thing. In the first, we are talking about the existence of a whole species for which there either is indisputable scientific evidence or there isn’t. If the scientific community discovers that flying snakes actually exist or have existed, I’ll be happy to believe in them – just like I’d be happy to believe in the yeti or unicorns, if there is indisputable evidence for them.

    The resurrection of Christ, on the other hand, was (if it happened) a one-time event in history. Science cannot indisputably prove a one-time event in history that left no hard evidence except for human testimony and the impact of those humans on later history, but science can indisputably prove the existence of an animal species. In the first, you cannot completely rule out the role of subjective faith; the latter is simply a matter of evidence.

  • 3. botox4thebrain  |  November 18, 2009 at 2:57 am

    Thanks for the clarifications. Greatly helpful.

  • 4. Jonathan Whitcomb  |  March 29, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Why assume that the Hebrews (or Herodotus or other ancient historians) were referring to animals that modern biologists classify as snakes? Consider recent research and investigations regarding the “fiery flying serpens” of the Old Testament:

  • 5. Gale  |  March 7, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    Here is a thought. There are 5 specie of flying snakes in Asia. Chrysopelea. The fly by flattening out the body and sail through the air for considerable distance. They like the crowns of palm trees. Herodotus states that they lived in trees and flew through the pass into Egypt. The Egyptians carried Ibis in basket to feed on the snakes. Perhaps there was a variety of this snake in ancient Saudi Arabia that was blown from the palm trees by major storms. They would be blown along with the winds through the Egyptian passes as described. No unlike the swarms of locusts that come from the east also. The Chrysopelea is mildly venomous but perhaps the Arabian was more deadly.

  • 6. jacobschriftman  |  March 8, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Interesting point, and it might well be that the Chrysopelea are ultimately the source for the Egyptian belief in flying snakes. As for the theory of them being blown over by the wind, however, I must say I’m skeptical. That’s certainly not what it sounds like in Herodotus. Chrysopelea (without the aid of a storm) can fly up to 100m by (as you say) flattening its stomach and gliding down from a high tree. In contrast, Herodotus tells us that the flying snakes actually have wings like a bat and fly (fly, not being blown!) in spring all the way from Arabia to Egypt. To me it seems clear that Herodotus had quite a different creature in mind than the gliding snakes of Asia, even if the latter are the ultimate source for his belief.

  • 7. reptile breeding racks  |  March 1, 2013 at 11:02 pm

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