Michael Harvey
Recovering Former Congregational Rabbi

Dragons in the Bible!

This week we read from parsha Eikev, deep in the last speeches from Moses to the Israelites. If you read Eikev all the way through, you’ll find the blessings (and curses) God will bestow upon the Israelites, and you’ll hear the recap of the wilderness sojourn including what happened to the Israelites as they traveled from place to place throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Within the recap, you’ll hear this:

Take care lest you forget Adonai your God and fail to keep God’s commandments, rules, and laws, which I enjoin upon you today… beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions.

And there, friends, is the buzzword of the day: seraph. I’d define it for you but, according to our scholars, the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain. There are, as there always is in Judaism, some suggestions. First, let’s review the scene. When Moses speaks about the seraph serpents from the wilderness, he is referencing an incident that took place in Numbers, Chapter 21, within one of our “complaint” scenes. Like the other complaint scenes, our Israelite ancestors are kvetching to Moses, asking why he made them leave Egypt only to die in the wilderness. In verse 6, it gets interesting. In order to punish the Israelites for this behavior,

Adonai sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned by speaking against Adonai and against you. Intercede with Adonai to take away the serpents from us!” And Moses interceded for the people. Then Adonai said to Moses, “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover.” Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.

Now, this scene is problematic for a lot of reasons, most notably because God is basically telling Moses to be a serpent charmer or soothsayer, which, according to Deuteronomy, is an abhorrent practice of neighboring nations. More important to our study tonight is the fact that this passage doesn’t help us understand what a seraph is, only that they bit the people and people died, and that to fix the problem, Moses needed to construct a copper serpent staff for people look at to be healed.

After scouring the many commentaries and works of exegesis by noted scholars, the most common explanation I could find was that the word seraph has the same root as the word saraph, which means “it burned.” Most therefore infer that the word seraph means “burning one.” Well, now we’re getting somewhere. Kind of. Dr. Jeffrey Tigay, a biblical scholar who edited the JPS commentary on Deuteronomy, defines seraphim as “fiery serpents,” which are “apparently serpents whose bite causes a burning sensation.” This idea was also held by the commentators of the Jewish Study Bible, and by Gunther Plaut in his commentary on the Torah, stating that the word seraph can be defined as “fiery” which is “a presumed reference to snake bites that caused an inflammation of the skin.” So what we have, then, according to the commentators, is a snake.

But, the word Seraph appears elsewhere. Let’s turn to our friend Isaiah, who, in chapter 6, has a vision of God sitting on a throne. Many of you may be somewhat familiar with this passage, as it is the origin for the liturgical phrase “kadosh kadosh kadosh Adonai Tvaot.” Here is the scene Isaiah describes:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my God seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of God’s robe filled the Temple. Seraphs stood in attendance on God. Each of them had six wings: with two it covered God’s face, with two it covered God’s legs, and with two it would fly.

Let’s pause for a moment. Isaiah the prophet’s vision of God is that God sits on a high throne, and standing all around God are seraphs. Seraphs, apparently, have six wings and they can fly. Hold that thought. The passage continues:

And one would call to the other,

‘Holy, holy, holy!

The LORD of Hosts!

His presence fills all the earth!’

The door posts would shake at the sound of the one who called, and the House kept filling with smoke.

Let’s remove the fact that the seraph can talk, and think about what image you conjure up when you hear this scene. This isn’t like in Numbers or Deuteronomy where the word seraph simply precedes the word “serpent,” and leaves out the rest. No, in this scene, we get a mental image of what a seraph is. A seraph is a creature with wings, big enough to cover God’s face. When you combine that with the root of the word, meaning “burning one,” or “fiery,” we get a fiery creature with wings. And when we combine that image with the idea of a serpent, we get a flying fiery serpent. Or, what many of us might call…a dragon. No wonder Isaiah saw a room full of smoke! When you have dragons, you have breathing fire, and when you have breathing fire, you have smoke.

If we go back and test our theory in this week’s parsha, we can certainly see why God would use this creature as punishment against the Israelites, and certainly why a bite from a seraph serpent caused Israelites to die. Not because of a burning sensation, but because dragon bites probably hurt. And the threat of a dragon served well for intimidation purposes. Now, I’ve read the scholarship, the etymology of the word seraph, the idea of angelic beings in hierarchies, but the truth is, the answer was right in front of us.

And it’s a simple one: dragons in the Bible!

As it turns out, dragons appear in the speeches of a few of our prophets. While Isaiah certainly talks about them the most, Jeremiah compares the attack by Nebuchadrezzar as being “swallowed…like a dragon,”[1] Ezekiel compares Pharaoh of Egypt as “the dragon in the seas,”[2] and Job asks God, “Am I the sea or the Dragon that You have set watch over me?”[3] In the Near East literature, Ugaritic, Mesopotamian, Canaanite, dragons run rampant in poetry, some with seven heads. In fact some Canaanite gods, such as Baal, who end up in our Bible by the way, are told to be born of dragons. Imagine the rabbit hole we could go down with more investigation and study! Alas, no time tonight for that.

But in the meantime, this week, when you read about how Moses is recapping the dangers the Israelites encountered in the wilderness and the plague of seraph serpents, at the very least, now you can think bigger than snakes and snake bites. You can let your imagination run wild at the possibility our Israelites knew our God sat on a throne guarded by dragons, and that when they had sinned, God sent those dragons to attack. Not the kind of story you’ll hear in Yeshiva, but the kind that reminds us how fun Torah can be.

[1] Jeremiah 51:34

[2] Ezekiel 32:2

[3] Job 7:12

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Harvey is a recovering former congregational rabbi, thankfully no longer in the toxic environments of small synagogues. Ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR and after, Rabbi Harvey served congregations, small and large, in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Indiana. Rabbi Harvey was admitted to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program.
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