LITERAL OR FIGURATIVE?
As Christians, we often have to defend our belief that the Bible should be taken literally. The writers of the Bible present much of the information as historical truth, and Christians need to accept certain claims of the Bible as fact to be true Christ-followers. For example, the apostle Paul wrote that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then our faith is false (1 Cor. 15:14–19). Often, orthodox Christians find themselves battling against the idea that the claims of the Bible are purely symbolic of spiritual truths. One must believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead to be a Christian.
Yet, we also have to accept that the Bible is a work of literature, and sometimes the writers of the Bible do, in fact, use symbolic language and metaphor. By identifying the genre of the book of the Bible, this becomes clearer. For instance, the Psalms are poetic songs. The Book of Revelation is a highly symbolic style of ancient writing called apocalyptic literature. So, both Psalms and Revelation use figurative language much more than other books of the Bible. Often, we have to ask about any given verse in them: Are we to take this literally or figuratively?
On the other hand, works like 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, the four Gospels, and Acts are historical narratives, so we take them as factual history. Yet, even these historical narratives have non-literal elements. For instance, Jesus often teaches in parables. We all know parables are short fictional tales to teach a lesson. Jesus also uses metaphors when he teaches. He calls himself a door and bread and a shepherd, but even the most uninformed reader understands that he’s speaking metaphorically.
As a former high school English teacher, I enjoy learning about the often-overlooked literary elements of the Bible, including symbolic themes—elements that may not be so obvious to modern readers but repeat throughout God’s Word. The Serpent and the Serpent Slayer by Andrew David Naselli is part of a series called Short Studies in Biblical Theology. It’s a quick read exploring the symbolism in Scripture of the serpent and dragon.
THE SERPENT (AND DRAGON) AND THE SERPENT (AND DRAGON) SLAYER
Naselli writes of the love of dragon-slaying stories throughout history, all of which he sums up with a pithy explanation: “Kill the dragon, get the girl.” He claims this is the theme of the Bible as well: Satan is the villainous serpent/dragon; the damsel in distress is God’s people; and the serpent slayer is Jesus. This may seem like a stretch, but once we consider the symbolism of the snake and dragon in Scripture—as well as the Church as the Bride of Christ (Rev. 19:7–9, 21:1–2; Eph. 5:25–32)—it might not be so far fetched.
Even someone with a cursory understanding of the Bible knows that Satan, as a serpent, tempted the first humans to rebel against God. Less known is that just after this, God declares the coming of the one who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). Though Genesis 3 doesn’t anywhere call the serpent Satan, the writers of the New Testament certainly connected the two (Rev. 12:9, 20:2; Rom. 16:20). Michael S. Heiser, in his book The Unseen Realm, makes the case that the Hebrew word for serpent (nachash) in Genesis 3 is a play on words pointing towards a spiritual being. Regardless, the serpent was definitely “representative of someone or something” bigger, something “beyond this particular snake” .
Some of the same passages that equate Satan with the serpent also equate him with the dragon of the Book of Revelation:
And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:8–9)
And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years (Revelation 20:2)
Naselli explains that the snake and the dragon express the two sides—or two strategies—of Satan. The snake is the deceiver. The dragon is the destroyer. He writes, “Snakes deceive; dragons devour. Snakes tempt and lie; dragons attack and murder. Snakes backstab; dragons assault.”
THE LEVIATHAN AND SEA
Understanding the symbolic nature of the snake and dragon (which is just a huge, winged snake) opens up the possibility of the mysterious “flying fiery serpent” of Isaiah (30:6–7) being a poetic symbol. Similarly, the presence of the Behemoth and Leviathan in Chapters 40–41 of the Book of Job have been a topic of debate. Some Young Earth Creationists claim these are dinosaurs. Others have tried to explain them as commonly known animals. I have to admit that the description of the Behemoth certainly sounds like a sauropod dinosaur. Some have argued it’s a hippopotamus, but a hippopotamus doesn’t have “a tail stiff like a cedar” (Job 40:17).
Yet, an argument for the Leviathan being symbolic is more easily made. First, the language describing the Leviathan in Job appears to be highly poetic. The fact that it’s described as breathing fire (Job 41:18–19) may be a clue that this is a mythical creature. This certainly seems to be a creature that’s more than a common crocodile, as some have proposed. Secondly, the Leviathan appears elsewhere in Scripture in poetic contexts (Ps. 74:14, 104:26; Isa. 27:1; Job 3:8). Finally, we need to consider that the sea—not just this sea monster—is a common symbol of evil, chaos, and death both in the Bible (Dan. 7:2–3) and in the cultures surrounding Israel. At the Second Coming of Jesus, when he renews all of creation and ends evil, we’re told,
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. (Revelation 21:1)
I don’t think this means the New Heaven and New Earth won’t have any oceans! And I do think the ancient readers would’ve understood what the sea represents here. Both the sea and the Leviathan represent “evil, primordial, cosmic, chaotic forces.”
THE SERPENT SLAYER
The writers of the Bible often practiced appropriation, borrowing symbols and language from neighboring cultures and adapting them to their biblical worldview as a polemic against the pagan religions. In a sense, they’re saying “You know that language you use about your god? Well, we’re going to apply it to our God, the only true God!” With the Leviathan specifically, the biblical writers are essentially saying, “You know that sea monster you all fear—the one your gods can’t even stop? Our God, the true God, can catch it like a minnow on a hook.”
Interestingly, in Job, God describes the Leviathan’s armor-like scales, a common characteristic of dragons. Naselli points out two times the Bible writers refer to evil humans as having scales. First, he language describing Goliath’s armor reflects this. The NASB tells us “he was clothed with scale-armor” (1 Sam. 17:5). (The NIV translation also reflects this scale language.) Secondly, notice how God describes the Pharaoh in this passage from Ezekiel:
“Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt,
the great dragon that lies
in the midst of his streams,
that says, ‘My Nile is my own;
I made it for myself.’
I will put hooks in your jaws,
and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales;
and I will draw you up out of the midst of your streams,
with all the fish of your streams
that stick to your scales…
To the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the heavens
I give you as food. (Ezekiel 29:3–5)
So, the symbol of the serpent, the dragon, and Leviathan become much clearer.
Take note, a serpent isn’t always a negative symbol in Scripture. After all, Jesus told his disciples to be as wise as serpents (Matt. 10:16). But, as we’ve seen, the serpent usually represents evil (Ps. 58:3–5, 140:3), and Christ is the one who will smash the serpent/dragon. In the New Heaven and New Earth, the serpent will no longer be a threat, not even to children (Isa. 11:6–9; 65:17–25). With this, as God’s people, the Church is to participate in the defeat of the serpent/dragon. Naselli’s writes, “God is the one who ultimately crushes serpent heads, and he ordains that his people participate in the head-crushing.” (Ps. 91:13; Luke 10:19; Acts 28:3–4.)
 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol.2, Genesis by John H. Sailhamer.