Here, I offer a rough sketch of the dense, multifaceted typology surrounding serpents and dragons in Scripture. If any of the associations in this sketch strike like a viper at the reader’s sensibilities, then simply crush its head and move on to the next.
Terminology and Contextual Usage
The Hebrew language is rich with terms for serpents and dragons — a fact in itself that suggests a relative emphasis on the subject.
The word nahash comes from a root meaning whispering or muttering. By implication, this word refers to a serpent’s hissing or enchanting. This same root is used in words for sorcerers and sorceresses.
The word saraph comes from a root meaning burning or fiery. Referring to a serpent, it connotes its venomous bite and also its polished copper color. This is also the word for the seraphim, the six-winged attendants in the Lord’s temple (Isa. 6:1-13).
The word tannin comes from a root meaning elongate or stretched out. It is the common word for a crocodile and is properly rendered dragon in every usage. One instance of this term is the confrontation between the Egyptian magicians and the Hebrew mouthpieces in Pharaoh’s court (Exo. 7:10-12). At Mount Sinai, Moses’ staff became a nahash (Exo. 4:3), but in Egypt it became a tannin.
The word pethen comes from a root meaning twisting. By implication, it’s a reference to the slithering or side-winding locomotion of serpents.
The word aspis comes from a root meaning round. By implication, it refers to the coiled posture of serpents at rest or huddled defensively.
The word epheh comes from a root meaning breath. By implication, it’s a reference to the hissing of serpents (as nahash is) but from a different point of view — that of exhalation rather than enchantment.
The word behemoth is used only once in Scripture (Job 40:15) and appears to be derived from the same root as “cattle” (behema) or otherwise from an unrelated Egyptian root word. If the former is the case, it appears that both words originate in an unused root referring to their lowing and lumbering behavior.
The word leviathan comes from a root meaning wreathed, entwined, or knit together and refers to the armored or chainmail appearance of a dragon’s protective coat of scales.
The Creator and Great King placed dominion of the creation into the hands of his human vicegerents who were made in his image (Gen. 1:26-28). The serpent comes as an agent of shrewdness or prudence as if to challenge and instruct the humans. But instead of taking dominion over the wily instructor and its instruction, the man subjugated himself to the lesser creation (“creeping things”) over which he was to rule (Gen. 3:1-6). In doing so, he overturned the ordained authority structure given to him by God. He placed the law of God beneath himself and lifted up the serpent and its law above him. God’s wrath has enshrined this idolatry in fallen man (Rom. 1:21-25), where he exchanges the glory of the incorruptible God for that of creeping things. He serves and bows the knee to creatures rather than the everlastingly blessed Creator.
Interestingly, in the creation account God only “creates” three things. The most common word used in the account is asah, which means to make or appoint. But the word bara (create) is used only in connection with the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1), mankind (Gen. 1:27), and the tannin or sea serpents (Gen. 1:21). The distinction between bara and asah should not be stretched excessively, but the use of bara still sets the great sea serpents in a special position within the narrative.
A similar thought can be seen in the culture of the ancient Near East with the mythology of the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Akkadians, and the Sumerians—all from the cities and cultural descendants of Nimrod who opposed the true God and labored against him (Gen. 10:8-12). The various Semitic groups and their spoken languages, including Israel from Ur of the Chaldeans (Gen. 11:31), are related to this culture.
In the Babylonian tale, Tiamat is the wild and tempestuous dragoness of the seas. She is eventually slain by Marduk, who becomes the patron god of the Babylonians. Marduk himself was even depicted as having a pet dragon: Mushhushshu (or splendor serpent). Interestingly, the Akkadian word Tiamat and the Hebrew word tehom appear to have the same root. Tehom (abyss) is the name of the great sea created on the first day (Gen. 1:2). The Spirit of God broods over the tehom like a mother bird nurturing her hatchlings as they mature. God begins with the tehom he created in disordered and unpopulated state, and he rules over it bringing form and content to the creation. A crucial distinction from the Babylonian tale is that the Creator is not a finite god emerging and rising to power in the primordial chaos taming the wilds as he goes; he is the Sovereign Lord who creates and then forms demonstrating his omnipotence.
Wisdom and Sorcery
The Lord Jesus told his disciples he was sending them out as sheep amidst wolves; in the wilderness of the world they were to conduct themselves as innocently as doves yet as shrewdly as serpents (Matt. 10:16). Here, Jesus draws upon the biblical and historical connotation of the serpent with shrewdness or prudence — a particular subcategory of wisdom. It appears with the first occurrence of the serpent; the serpent was shrewder than any other beast of the field that Yahweh God made (Gen. 3:1a). Shrewdness is technically morally neutral but often has a dishonest hue to it. Thus, Jesus includes the imperative qualifier that his disciples are to be as innocent as doves in the exercise of serpentine shrewdness. Jesus also praised the value of shrewdness in an uncomfortable parable about a dishonest estate manager (Luke 16:8).
One scriptural situation where the twin serpentine qualities of wisdom and sorcery collide like two sides of a coin is the battle between Pharaoh’s magicians and Aaron the mouthpiece of Moses (Exo. 7:8-12). Both contenders have dragon-staffs in their hands as weapons of political shrewdness. Aaron does Yahweh’s will by throwing down his staff, which transforms into a dragon and displays the might of Yahweh. Jannes and Jambres respond in kind by transforming their staffs into dragons as a display of Pharaoh’s power, but Aaron’s dragon devours the dragons of the magicians. Yahweh is vindicated in the eyes of Pharaoh and Egypt, showing that he is the true Great Dragon who breathes out wisdom like fire against the sorceries of Pharaoh the false god. Yahweh’s dragon-like characteristics (i.e. smoke pouring out of his nostrils and devouring fire gushing out of his mouth) are shown elsewhere as he’s clothed in darkness and riding on a cherub like a warhorse (Ps. 18:6-15).
The Heavenly Beings and the Old World Order
Scripture directly connects the Devil and Satan with the dragon and the “ancient serpent” of Genesis (Rev. 12:9; 20:2). Furthermore, Satan has angels loyal to him (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 12:7) making him a captain of an army of heavenly beings, though one who is defeated by Michael and his angels. Additionally, venomous serpents and Yahweh’s attendants in the heavenly temple share the same Hebrew name (saraphim). The biblical ties between serpents and angels are rather strong.
The typology of God the Son or the Word (the Second Person of the Trinity) incarnate as the second Adam is strong and explicit in Scripture. Christ the Lord, the new Adam, is head of the new covenant, father of the new humanity, and king of the new world order. But what is not so explicit yet present in Scripture is the Second Person appearing as the second “Lucifer” of the old world order. That’s an odd and provocative way of putting it, but bear with me. Taking the form of the Angel of Yahweh, the Second Person was chief of the angelic administration over the old creation. The Angel of Yahweh is himself God and speaks as God (Gen. 16:7-14; 22:10-18; Exo. 3:1-4; Num. 22:22-35; Jdg. 2:1-4). And the Angel of Yahweh is Michael the chief angel or archangel. This is less clear but quite defensible (Zech. 3:1-2 cf. Jude 1:9). With that connection, the pattern comes full-circle: Michael and his angels fight the dragon and his angels in the old world order (Rev. 12:7).
With the transgression of Adam and the advent of death, humanity became enslaved to the devil-serpent (Heb. 2:14-15). God in his grace appointed his angels as guardian and administrators of immature humanity; they mediated his law to the people of God until the time came for the mature Adam and his people to inherit the promises (Gal. 3:19-25; Heb. 1-2) and start a new world order. In Christ’s death upon Calvary (or Golgotha—the Place of the Skull), he crushed the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15) and brought an end to the old order. The new world order inaugurated in Christ’s blood was not subjected to oversight by angels but by exalted humanity (Heb. 2:5).
The Harbinger of Cursed Man’s Death
The serpent-dragon started as upright but was cast down on his belly to the ground and made to eat the dust (Gen. 3:14). The serpent became a dust eater, and furthermore Adam was made of dust and destined to return there (Gen. 3:19). Under the curse, humanity is serpent food. Furthermore, serpents slither along hugging the ground (man’s gravesite) as harbingers of cursed man’s end. From the dusty borderlands of death, serpents strike out at the heels of men.
The Mariner King of Prideful Offspring
The most extensive section in Scripture dealing with dragons (Job 41:1-35) is part of the background to the second most extensive section of Scripture speaking about dragons (Rev. 12:1-13:18). Yahweh confronts Job (a king or prince of Edom) with an interrogation concerning an untamable fire-breathing sea-dragon called Leviathan. After a thorough exposition on the beast’s great size, fierce appearance, scale armor, smoking nostrils and fiery breath, God makes the following summation concerning Leviathan: “On earth there is none like him, a creature without fear. He sees everything that is high; he is king over all the sons of pride” (vss. 34-35). This creature is a king over all the “sons of pride” (the offspring of unfaithful self-exalting Adam), and he beholds (and thus renders judgments or accusations) against every exalted thing. This is typological of Satan the slanderous accuser or adversary. The Book of Job opens with God questioning Satan about Job and closes with God questioning Job about Satan.
Yahweh is portrayed as the Great Dragon Slayer hunting Leviathan, slaying him and crushing his head(s) like the Seed of the Woman crushing the head of the serpent who strikes at his heel:
Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You split open springs and brooks; you dried up ever-flowing streams. Yours is the day, yours also the night; you have established the heavenly lights and the sun. You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth; you have made summer and winter.
In that day, the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea. (Isa. 27:1)
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.
In Psalm 104:26, the phrase “play in it” is also suggestively translated “play with” but in fact there is no preposition in the Hebrew specifying the object of the word “play” thus yielding the phrase “which you formed to play.” The word “play” here is rendered “mock” just as easily and often. The Leviathan is that which the Lord has formed to mock.
Intriguingly, Psalm 74:14 speaks of Yahweh crushing the plural “heads” of the singular Leviathan, as though but one of these dragons had many heads. It is a link to Revelation, where Satan is presented as a hydra, a multi-headed sea-dragon. He appears casting down stars (rulers) and seeking to devour the kingly child (Christ) born of the woman clothed in the sun, standing on the moon, and crowned with twelve stars (Israel via Joseph’s dream). His attack against the child is thwarted, and he is cast out of heaven. He persecutes the woman and the saints of God with a flood of slander and accusations from his mouth. He stands on the seashore and watches the beast (the Roman Empire) rise up from the sea (cf. Dan. 7:1-28). He gives to the beast all of his power and authority. The beast receives it in contrast to Christ who would not take it from the hand of Satan when it was offered in the wilderness bypassing the Cross (Matt. 4:8-11; Luke 4:5-8). The great red dragon is incarcerated during the rule of Christ and his saints (Rev. 19:1-6 cf. Mark 3:22-27; Luke 11:14-22; John 12:31; 16:8-11) and ultimately expelled into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:7-10).
Culmination in the Cross of Christ
The Israelites who wandered in the wilderness complained against Yahweh ten times, and he brought judgment upon their unfaithfulness. “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6). They also happened in order to communicate Christ to the Israelites in types and shadows.
And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless manna.” Then Yahweh sent venomous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many of Israel died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned; we have spoken against Yahweh and against you. Pray to Yahweh, so that he would take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. Yahweh said to Moses, “Make a venomous serpent and set it on a pole. The one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. If a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
Jesus Christ drew upon the imagery of this event in the history of Israel as typological of his work on the Cross when he conversed with Nicodemus who sought him out by night.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that he who believes in him may have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that he who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned. He who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed upon the name of the one and only Son of God.”
At the Cross of Christ, the imagery of the old world order comes to a head (one that gets crushed) and to an end. For our sake, God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). In becoming sin upon the Cross, Christ became that which is most symbolic of diabolical evil—the serpent lifted up on the pole.
Christ the true and faithful king of the world, noble knight, and lord of the covenant slew the dragon with his execution stake. The seven-headed hydra that empowered the evil empires of this world was defeated, and Christ was given the kingdom and the power.
Christ the author of life triumphed over death. He rose from the dead and was vindicated in his conquest of death on the Cross. He crushed the head of the serpent in his death at the Place of the Skull and purchased freedom from the fear of death, whose harbinger was the serpent.
Christ stood where Adam fell. When Adam disobeyed and ate from the tree of judicial knowledge, the old world order was subjected to the administration of angels—the elect and faithful heavenly army who ministered God’s grace to humanity and the reprobate minions of Satan who imprisoned men with their sins. Christ obeyed faithfully, suffered patiently, and matured. He partook of his own tree of judicial knowledge (the Cross) as God commanded him (Rom. 5:19). In doing so, the administration of angels in the old world order symbolized by serpents—saraphim tending Yahweh—came to an end. The new world order of redeemed and exalted humanity in Christ began.
God the Father placed us in union with Christ, and he made Christ into wisdom on our behalf (1 Cor. 1:30). The quality once characteristic of the serpent was now the quality of Christ, and he has empowered, commissioned, and sent forth his people into the world to be “as innocent as doves” and yet “as shrewd as serpents” in their ministry to the nations. We are now “clothed in serpent skin” of wisdom as trophies of Christ’s victory.
Christ now rules and reigns and is exerting his authority in the wilderness of the whole world, slowly bringing all earthly beast-realms fully under his dominion and making his enemies into his footstool (Psalm 110:1; 1 Cor. 15:22-28). The serpents and dragons of the wilderness were conquered. Leviathan was the fleeing serpent who departed in fear of the righteousness of Christ. Leviathan has been “played with” and made a mockery, and his heads have been crushed.
The fact that the dragons of the land and the sea have been done away with is no surprise at all. These creatures typologically occupied the first place on heaven’s holy hit-list, and mankind has driven them to the brink of extinction in enacting the symbology of slaying dragons and crushing serpents.