Flying Serpents? -- By: D. J. Wiseman

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 23:1 (NA 1972)
Article: Flying Serpents?
Author: D. J. Wiseman

Flying Serpents?

D. J. Wiseman

The expression שָׂרַף מְעוֹפֵף occurs only twice in the Old Testament. In both instances in Isaiah the current interpretation, which implies the existence of semi-mythological creatures, is open to question.1 In Isaiah 14:29 the ‘fiery flying serpent’ (AV; ‘flying serpent’, NEB) is part of a description of punishment to come upon the Philistines. The ‘flying serpent’ is said to be the offspring of a viper (צֶפַע) which, though the word occurs only here, is not an unusual species of snake.2 In Isaiah 30:6 the שרף מעופף is listed after the אֶפְעֶה and usually taken to be the sand-viper (cf. Is. 59:5; Jb. 20:16). Since the sand-viper, the lion and the lioness which inhabited the Negeb are cited as a common danger to passing donkey and camel caravans coming from Egypt, it is surprising to find an otherwise unknown species of ‘venomous flying serpent’ (NEB) associated with them.3

The generally accepted interpretation of ‘flying snake’ appears to rest almost wholly on the winged serpents of Arabia described by Herodotus (iii, 107): ‘The trees which bear the frankincense are guarded by winged serpents, small in size and of varied colours, whereof vast numbers hang about every tree. They are of the same kind as the serpents which invade Egypt and there is nothing but the smoke of styrax which will drive them from the trees.’4

Herodotus, however, expressly notes that, contrary to other snakes which are harmless, these lay eggs and hatch a vast

number of young. ‘These winged serpents are nowhere to be seen except in Arabia where they all congregate together. This makes them appear so numerous’ (iii, 109). He had earlier told how ‘in the spring the winged snakes come flying from Arabia towards Egypt but are met in the gorge (near Buto) by the birds called ibis who foil their entrance and destroy them all’ (ii, 75).

It is uncertain whether these winged creatures are to be identified as snakes. Though there are occasional reports of terrestrial snakes which abnormally leap through the air...

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