Ugaritic liturgy against venomous snakes (Numbers 21)

Illustration: Canaanite offering stands with snakes on.

Poisonous snakes posed a serious and ever-present threat to people in the ancient world. Three texts from Ugarit, all of which address this problem, suggest that the typical pagan solution was to search for a magic formula to couter the result of the venom. One of these texts is but a fragment, another a mythical narrative and thr third a magical incantation.

In the myth (second text), twelve different deities are asked for a cure for snakebite. Eleven respond with an ability to charm the serpent, but only one, Horanu, successfully neutralizes the venom. He counteracts the poison by casting trees into the Tigris River, ritually enacting the manner by which he will weaken the venom as if diluting it in water.

The third text, written for the benefit of a high official, is an incantation employing a ritual similar to Horanu’s to protect both against serpents and the sorcerers who used them.

The Israelites, like the inhabitants of Ugarit, feared the lethal snakes so abundant both in the wilderness and in the land of Canaan. God’s snake-related punishment recorded in Numbers 21:6-9 demonstrated that only the Lord has ultimate power over serpents (and, indeed, over all evil). Not only did He send enomous snakes to punsih the Israelites because of their ingratitude, but He also provided the means of cure (i.e. the bronze snake) when His people repented and sought His mercy. It is noteworthy that, although the Israelites were required to gaze up at the bronze serpent in order to receive restoration, the Biblical text mentions no magical ritual or incantation.

To learn more about the role of the snake in the ancient Near East, see my short archaeological piece on Genesis 3 (The serpent motif in other ancient Near Eastern literature).

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