|'Rev Dr' Lenny Flank
<quote>For example, the bit about Elijah and the priests of Baal apparently relates to the fact that, if you hit two pressure points on a snakeâ€™s neck, itâ€™ll stiffen up and look like a stick. Elijahâ€™s triumph wasnâ€™t that he could turn a stick into a snake; it was that he was willing to risk playing with a bigger and nastier snake than the Baalites. (Note: Iâ€™m not sure about the accuracy of this - can anyone confirm?)</quote>
Snakes don't stiffen when handled, but have long been depicted, symbolically, as staffs, arrows or spears -- long thin objects capable of causing death.
Snakes were (as are most dangerous animals) potent symbols in the ancient world, and are used as such throughout the Bible. "My snake is bigger than your snake, and I can control it safely" is indeed a powerful religious, political and social statement. Snake-handlers of many countries have, of course, been taking advantage of this for several thousand years.
Take the story of Moses and Pharoah. Pharoah's priests cast down a stick, which turns into a snake. Moses' priest casts down a stick, which not only turns into a bigger snake, but that snake then eats Pharoah's snake. The symbolism is potent. The Egyptian cobra was the royal symbol of Egypt (the crown worn by Pharoah incorporated an image of a rearing cobra). So the symbolism of this story is crushingly obvious ---- the Jews would beat Egypt.
Most commonly in the Bible, the snake was used as a symbol for heresy or unbelief. Adam and Eve lost their faith in Eden because of a snake. During the Exodus, the people of Moses suffered from many snakebites, and were "cured" by the symbol of a brass serpent carried by Moses. When Paul was preaching to the Melitans, he was bitten by a snake, and shook it off unharmed.
Such stories, although intended as symbolism and not actual descriptions of actual events, do demonstrate a knowledge of snake habits and biology. Cobras do indeed make a habit of eating other snakes, including other cobras. As for all the "miraculously-cured" snakebites, it is a little-known fact that, about half the time, venomous snakes which strike in self-defense will not actually inject any venom, a phenomenon known as a "dry bite". Snakes, particularly desert snakes, may encounter prey only once a month, and their life depends on having sufficient venom resources to obtain it. They therefore are extremely reluctant to use venom for self-defense purposes.
And even if a snake gives a defensive bite with a full load of venom, the death rate for untreated snakebites is no more than 50%, depending on the species. Hence, if you are bitten by a cobra or viper and do nothing at all whatsoever to treat it, you'll still recover about half the time. That is why, throughout history, people have invented all sorts of silly "snakebite cures", none of which work any better than doing nothing at all, but all of which will still "work" about half the time.