Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The root-verb שרף (sarap) means to burn, and this always in a literal sense. HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament reports that there are up to fifteen words in Hebrew that mean to burn, but sarap is used mostly in the sense of consuming or destructive burning (of a house, Judges 12:1; city, Joshua 6:24; idols, Exodus 32:20; dead people 1 Samuel 31:12; people executed, Joshua 7:25). In the rare cases that this verb is used in a sacrificial way, it still deals with destruction rather than with sacrifice (the refuse of a sacrificed bull, Exodus 29:14; the red heifer, Exodus 19:5).
The only, curiously, exceptional use of this verb is found in the scene where the men of Babylon "burn" bricks in order to make their tower (Genesis 11:3). The Hebrew seems to imply that the bricks were burned to destruction, or rather burned to produce something the way the burning of the red heifer produced ashes.
The verb sarap yields the following derivatives:
- The feminine noun שרפה (serepa), meaning a burning (Isaiah 9:5, Amos 4:11).
- The feminine noun משרפה (masrepa), also meaning a burning (Jeremiah 34:5, Isaiah 33:12).
- The masculine noun שרף (sarap) denotes a fiery serpent and is used five times: Numbers 21:6 and 21:8, Deuteronomy 8:15, Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6. The exact same word is used in Isaiah 6:2 to describe the angelic beings known as Seraphim.
How a word that means viper came to be derived from a verb that means to burn isn't clear. BDB Theological Dictionary proposes that it is due to the burning effect of a snake's poison, but that seems far-fetched. Snake poison ingress doesn't feel like burning, and not the poison but the snake is called burner. Perhaps it is because of the fiery patterns on a snake's skin, or perhaps because its long slithery body resembles a flame.
But whatever the true etymology, vipers in the Bible are associated with fire, and fire is associated with revelation and light. Here at Abarim Publications we like to believe that in the Bible vipers show up in stories that are metaphors for people struggling with faulty convictions or temptations to believe the wrong thing. Even the devil, after all, resembles an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14).
Also see our article on the noun נחש (nahash), the Bible's most common word for snake.