There are several places in the Old and New Testaments as well as in the Book Mormon where the incident between the camp of Israel, Moses as intermediary, and the fiery flying serpents is described: Numbers 21:6-8, Isaiah 14:29, Isaiah 30:6, John 3:14-15 (indirectly), 1 Nephi 17:41, 2 Nephi 25:20, Alma 33:19-22, Alma 37:4-6, Helman 8:14-15. The Hebrew word used here does not mean serpent at all. The word is saraph (pronounced saw-rawf') and means consuming, burning, or a burning one or fiery being. The plural, seraphim, means burning or noble ones, referring to ministering beings with perhaps a serpentine form or a glowing quality about them. In other words, destroying angels.
The Greek word ophis (pronounced of'-is) is used exclusively for serpent in the New Testament. The root of this word, optomai (pronounced op'-tom-ahee), means to gaze with wide open eyes, as at something remarkable. Optomai does not mean to merely voluntarily observe or use vision mecahnically, casually, or passively. Ophis, for serpent, through the idea of sharpness of vision, means sly cunningness and artful malice, referring to satan.
Most references to serpents in the scriptures are referring to something evil, if not to satan himself. Christ referred to the scribes and pharisees as serpents and vipers. The scriptures refer to the treachery, venom, poison, skulking, and murderous proclivities of the serpent frequently, which represents sin, evil designs, and hatefulness.
There are two times in the scriptures in which the term serpent is used in a sense that is not evil. The first is in reference to the brazen serpent spoken of above. Moses was instructed to raise a brazen serpent that the camp of Israel was to look upon in order to avoid destruction. This was symbolic of the means provided by Heavenly Father to save His children from sin through the sacrifice (atonement) and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From John 3:
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.The second place in the scriptures where the term serpent is used in a positive sense is when the Lord is teaching His disciples about how to conduct themselves when performing in their ministries. There are two verses that describe their conduct in a similar fashion:
Matthew 10:16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
Doctrine & Covenants 111:11 Therefore, be ye as wise as serpents and yet without sin; and I will order all things for your good, as fast as ye are able to receive them. Amen.Thus, we are counseled to be wise as serpents in our service to the Lord. What does a serpent do that makes it wise? What sort of wisdom does a serpent possess? How does one be wise, yet avoid becoming serpent-like (evil)? These issues will be explored in the next posts.