International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
poi'-z'-n (chemah, ro'-sh; thumos, ios): Residents in Palestine must, from the first, have been acquainted with venomous serpents. Six species of these are widely diffused in the land, and at least three of them are fairly common in places. Besides, there are scorpions, centipedes and the large spider, which are as much dreaded by the fellahin as are the serpents, not to speak of the minor but very serious discomforts of mosquitoes, sandflies and ticks, some of which were credited with lethal powers. In The Wisdom of Solomon 16:9 the Revised Version (British and American) we read that "the bites of locusts and flies did slay, and there was not found a healing for their life." There are also many poisonous plants, such as belladonna, henbane, thorn apple, and the opium poppy. None of these is mentioned in the Bible; the only names found there are the hemlock (Conium maculatum) of Hosea 10:4, the poisonous gourd (Citrullus colocynthis) of 2 Kings 4:39, and the grapes of gall, probably the fruit of Calotropis procera, the apples of Sodom of Josephus (BJ, IV, viii, 4). Some, however, believe that these are poppyheads. Poisonous waters are referred to at Marah (Exodus 15:23) and Jericho (2 Kings 2:19). There are no direct records of any person dying of poison except in 2 Maccabees 10:13, where the suicide of Ptolemy Macron is related. our Lord's promise in the appendix to Mark 16:18 shows, however, that poisons were known and might be administered by way of ordeal, as was the unknown "water of jealousy" (Numbers 5:17). In this connection the story in Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica, III, 39) is interesting, that "Justus surnamed Barsabbas, though he drank a deadly poison, suffered no injury, through the grace of the Lord." The passages in which poisonous serpents are mentioned are Deuteronomy 32:24, where serpents (the Revised Version (British and American) "crawling things") of the dust, probably Cerastes hasselquistii, the little horned vipers, are mentioned, and in Deuteronomy 32:33: "poison of serpents, and the cruel venom of asps." The asp may be the cobra Naia haje, not uncommon on the borders of the wilderness to the South. Psalm 58:4 mentions the poison of serpents. Psalm 140:3, "They have sharpened their tongue like a serpent; adders' poison is under their lips," indicates, what is still a common belief, that the forked tongue of the snake is the poison-bearer. This is referred to in James 3:8. That it was the fang and not the tongue which carried the poison was known to Pliny (xi.62). This verse of Psalm 140 is given in Paul's composite quotation in Romans 3:13. There may be a reference to the giving of an intoxicant poison in Habakkuk 2:15, where the Revised Version (British and American) reads "that addest thy venom." The prophets speak in several places of God's wrath as a cup of trembling (the Revised Version (British and American) "staggering"), e.g. Isaiah 51:17, 22, probably suggested by the fact that chemah primarily means "fury" and is used in that sense in more than a hundred passages. In Zechariah 12:2 Jerusalem is to be such a "cup of reeling unto all the peoples round about."