14 Oct 2014 by Yeo Teck Thiam-
I think most of us grew up listening wide-eyed to tales of heroes fighting dragons and rescuing beautiful damsels. Of course, these stories are romantic and always have a good ending, and most children love the beauty and simplicity of these romances. The stories may be fantasies, but the teaching and moral of these traditional stories are usually wholesome.
Most children don’t think very much if dragons really exist because no one has seen any, for sure. This is unlike the images of dinosaurs that we learnt from documentaries, or from visiting a museum. We know that dinosaurs existed because we have fossils, even though these awesome creatures are now extinct.
I think the contrasts for dragons and dinosaurs are features to resolve for modern education, as it is necessary to separate reality from fantasy. This is true especially for bringing up children in contemporary cultural context.
What I consider also, is that nowadays, we have sci fi movies like Jurassic Park that imagine dinosaurs are restored to life, and we also have fantasy creatures and aliens like E.T. from outer planets. These are captivating and exciting stories, but the moral element in these stories are minimal or largely absent. Hence, in one contrast, I think of their worth as stories for children.
In like manner, I think also, whether it is worthwhile to consider, if the Bible has anything to say about these awesome or monstrous creatures. So then, does the Bible speak of dragons and dinosaurs? What do we know about such creatures?
It is probably best not to be dogmatic, or to declare that the Bible does not speak of any creatures like the dinosaur. What I mean is that the word, “dinosaur”, was coined only within the last 180 years. So it is certainly not possible to search for an equivalent word for “dinosaur” in the Bible.
Besides, even today, we have not quite established beyond dispute whether dinosaurs were reptiles or otherwise. Here, our perception is, of course, severely limited to one group of extinct creatures.
Nevertheless, fossil specimens of many creatures are unearthed, and it may not be quite proper to label every fossil as a reptile. No respectable scientist would risk his reputation to give such a declaration unless he has indisputable and overwhelming evidence for his case. So then, I leave to the experts to explain these details.
To this end, it seems difficult for us to read Scripture and define a dinosaur specifically, and the Christian is best to acknowledge this. So it seems best also that for factual evidence relating to science, the Christian acknowledges God’s revelation for our understanding of His Creation.
We read God’s word to hear what God has to teach us how to live in this life. So, if we seek God’s guidance and instruction, I think we will gain wisdom from this scientific knowledge. Hence, what I think is useful, is to consider if Scripture speaks of awesome creatures that are only generally mentioned.
In particular, I think of Scripture texts that speak of creatures that are not described exactly with our present knowledge. It is not always possible for us to identify precisely.
I think there are a number of such instances in Scripture, and worth examining. However, the condition and proviso remains that we do not know exactly what creatures are specified, since our knowledge is incomplete.
The word “dragon” is in sharp contrast to the meaning for dinosaur. Certainly, in the New Testament, the Greek word ‘drakon’ is used to describe Satan, as in Revelation.
The dragon, therefore, is a creature that seems to be known from ancient times, though no such creature is identified today. Since no one has seen a dragon, it is prudent not to describe how it looks like, exactly. All we may infer is that it has serpent characteristics, but with other features that are distinct from the common snake we see.
This is seen in Revelation 20:2, “He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.”
Scripture gives us a symbolic representation of the dragon to Satan, and it is this aspect that we ponder God’s word in the New Testament.
Nonetheless, Scripture does provide an interesting detail. It is that the dragon is an ancient serpent. There is the implication that the modern serpent is not the same as the dragon. Hence, we have the notion that the dragon, the ancient serpent is no longer seen, but rather only its modern form as the snake.
To this end, we have a comparison for the dinosaur and the dragon. Both are no longer seen, for the dinosaur is extinct. Instead, the reptile is the modern form of a large group of dinosaurs. In a similar fashion, the dragon is a specific creature that is no longer seen, except as its modern representation as the snake.
This can be graphically presented as:
No longer seen — dinosaur — dragon
Modern specimen — reptiles, birds, mammals — snake
About Serpents and Snakes in Old Testament
In the Old Testament, the common Hebrew word for snake or serpent is “nachash”. This is used for the serpent that appeared in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:1-15. As the biblical account tells us, the creature is called a serpent. This is because it had features besides those of the snake. The serpent had certain other features until it was condemned for its sin.
The serpent only had features that we associate with the snake when it was punished in Genesis 3:14. So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.””
The serpent has symbolically sinister meaning, especially in a spiritual context. This is not always the case for the meaning of a snake, as we often associate it as a present day reptile, though also with undesirable characteristics.
Besides this, the asp, adder, cobra and python are specified in Scripture. Thus it seems well that we retain the meaning of serpent for most instances when the general word “nachash” is used in Scripture. This upholds a greater spiritual consideration when we read God’s word.
A Further Word On Snakes, Serpents and Dragons
For those who read from King James, the English word “snake” is not used in the Old Testament. It shows how times have changed in our use of a language!
However, King James Version uses the words, serpents and dragons, in the Old Testament. This brings a curiosity. Are there different Hebrew words used in Scripture?
The answer is yes. In specific, the English word in translation depends on the context. We see this in Moses’ encounter with Pharaoh, and God’s instructions for Moses.
Moses had protested to God that the Pharaoh may not believe his words. So in Exodus 4:2,3, the LORD God asked Moses what was in his hand. Moses said it was a rod, and God asked Moses to cast it on the ground.
When Moses cast the rod down, King James Version says it became a serpent and Moses ran away from it. In the NIV, the serpent is here described as a snake, and this is also correct as the Hebrew word used is “nachash”.
However, then in Exodus 7:9-12, Moses and Aaron appeared before the Pharaoh. Aaron cast down his rod to declare to the Pharaoh that God had sent them, and the rod became a serpent. Likewise, Pharaoh’s magicians did also, and their rods became serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. Here, in Exodus 7:9-12, the Hebrew word for serpent is “tannyin”.
The word “tannyin” is generally used to mean an awesome monster, or also a monstrous sea creature. It is used to mean a serpent as well. It is also the Hebrew word translated as “dragon” in King James for the Old Testament.
We see that in the presence of Pharaoh, his magicians were able to cast creatures that were monstrous serpent-like, and Aaron’s rod was similarly a “tannyin”. I think the different words used indicate that “tannyin” is not exactly a snake. Thus “serpent” seems the preferred English description, but this is in absence of specific knowledge.
Rather, I think also, the different words used in Exodus 4:3 as compared to Exodus 7:9-12 showed clearly that Pharaoh’s magicians had great occult powers, and that Aaron’s rod was intended likewise to overcome their “tannyin” monsters.
God provided Moses only a “nachash” serpent. But because Pharaoh’s magicians could invoke evil occult to bring about the “tannyin”, God’s power was shown to Pharaoh to remind him that God is Sovereign.
For this reason, in many Old Testament passages, we must reckon with an awesome creature that was often serpent-like or dragon in characteristics, even though we have no exact picture of the creature.
This is in contrast to the snake that we know today, as the snake we see is the one that has been cursed, and crawls on the ground.
Nevertheless, the word in a passage does depend on the context. So it is best we leave this to translators and experts for the passage. Words do have more than one meaning in a language.
Creation and Awesome Creatures
To this end, we find that at Creation, KJV describes in Genesis 1:21, “And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth”. The Hebrew word translated as whales in KJV, is again “tannyin”.
For Genesis 1:21, NIV describes these as “great creatures of the sea”.
As this word generally means awesome creatures, we have to wonder what these creatures were. “Tannyin” seems to describe awesome creatures generally, but also a specific creature that is serpent-like and dragon-like.
This description comes after God had said, “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that hath life” in Genesis 1:20.
Does “tannyin” also describe awesome creatures such as we know today as dinosaurs? I will have to leave to scientists and scholars to decipher this!
For the present, it is also good to know that the Hebrew word “tan” means jackal. So in some passages, this meaning is preferred. One passage is in Isaiah 13:22 where “tannyin” is rendered as the plural for jackal.
The Christian seeks the Lord for guidance and wisdom to understand His word. I shall also like to consider the implication of “tannyin” as dragons separately, because of its spiritual symbolism. I think, herein, lies important things Scripture has to tell us, beyond mere literal word meanings.
Note: Mr Yeo Teck Thiam is a retireer who used to work as a chemical engineer, specializing in food and perfume chemistry for an international food company and perfumer. His other main interest is astronomy and other mathematical matters, relating to the Biblical passages.
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