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Encyclopedia Judaica: Poison

POISON (Heb. חֵמָה, לַצֲבָה, מְרֵרָה, רֹאשׁ [רוֹשׁ], רַעַל, תַּרְצֵלָה; Akk. imtu, martu; Ug. ḥmt). The biblical terms for poison are derived mainly from two sources: types of poisonous plants and the poisonous venom of snakes and other reptiles. Many attempts have been made to identify the specific plants involved based on the translations of these terms in the Septuagint and the other ancient versions, but any conclusions based on this evidence must be considered extremely uncertain. The Bible itself offers no evidence whatsoever, since its usage of these terms is generally metaphorical, offering no identifying characteristics. Therefore, when discussing these various terms, this article will deal with the biblical usage and its ancient Near Eastern parallels rather than attempting to arrive at specific identifications.

Laʿanah, Rosh

The terms rosh ("gall") and laʿanah ("wormwood") are often found in synonymous parallelism (Jer. 9: 14; 23:15; Amos 6:12) or in hendiadys (Deut. 29:17; Lam. 3:19). They are most often used metaphorically to represent the concepts of poison and bitterness. As her punishment for disobeying the Lord, Israel is forced to consume bitter food and drink (Jer. 8:14; 9:14; 23:15; Lam. 3:15), while a psalmist contends that his enemies are giving him such a hard time that he feels that he is being given bitter food (Ps. 69:22). Another common theme for which these terms are employed is the turning of justice into bitterness (Hon. 10:4; Amos 5:7; 6:12). The especially general nature of the term rosh, "gall," in the bible may be demonstrated by its usage in contexts referring to snake venom (Deut. 32:33; Job 20:16) and grapes (Deut. 32:32).


The biblical term most commonly employed for the venom of snakes and other reptiles is ḥemah. In the Song of Moses, the calamity which befalls Israel as a result of God's judgment takes the metaphorical form of ḥamat zoḥalei ʿafar, "the venom of snakes" (Deut. 32:24; for the meaning of zoḥalei ʿafar cf. Micah 7:17), while later in the same chapter, rosh and ḥemah, which are parallels, are again used metaphorically: "the venom (ḥamat) of serpents is their wine, and the poison (rosh) of vipers …" (Deut. 32:33). Elsewhere ḥemah is used for snake poison in Psalm 58:5 and for the venom of an unknown reptile (ʿakhshuv) in Psalm 140:4.

Both Akkadian (imtu) and Ugaritic (ḥmt) utilize an etymological and semantic equivalent of חמה as one of their regular words for "poison." The usage of Akkadian imtu is very close to the usage of biblical ḥemah. The following two passages illustrate the usage of imtu as "snake venom":

1. azzūzâ izarri imta ana sursurru
izarri imta
imat ṣēri imassu
imat zuqaqīpi imassu

She [Lamaštu] spits venom now and then,
she spits venom suddenly,
her venom is snake venom,
her venom is scorpion venom (A. Falkenstein, Literarische Keilschrifttexte aus Uruk (1931), 33:21ff.).
 2. patûni šapti šinnašunu našâ imta
[Their] lips are open, their fangs carry venom (Enūma eliš, 4:53; Ps. 140:4).
Two Ugaritic texts (Ugaritica, 5 (1969), nos. 7, 8), which appear to be "serpent charms" contain, for the first time in Ugaritic, the substantive ḥmt, "poison, snake venom." This substantive is found more than 25 times in these two texts whose provenance has already been compared to such biblical passages as Jeremiah 8:17; Psalms 58:5; and Ecclesiastes 10:11. In the first of these two texts, an incantation formula consisting of six lines is repeated 11 times, each time invoking a different deity. While the translation of all the lines of this incantation is far from certain, the lines containing the noun ḥmt, while not without their difficulties, are relatively clear:

lnh mlhs/aʾbd
lnh ydy hmt

From him [the serpent], the conjurer shall destroy,
from him, he shall remove the venom (Ugaritica, 5 (1969), 7: 5–6, 10–11, 16–17, 21–22, 27–28, 32–33, 37–38, 42–43, 47–48, 53–54, 59–60).

There are many biblical passages (e.g., Isa. 51:17, 22; Jer. 25:15; Job 21:20) where the substantive ḥemah is employed to evoke a double entendre based on its most regular meaning of "wrath" (e.g., Gen. 27:44–45; Deut. 29:22, 27; Isa. 63:3, 6; Jer. 21:5; aʾf, "anger") and its less common denotation of "poison, venom" (see above). This usage is further demonstrated by the occurrence of such idioms as the "pouring out of God's wrath/poison" (e.g., Isa. 42:25; Jer. 10:25; Ezek. 7:8; Ps. 79:6) and "full of God's poison/wrath" (e.g., Isa. 51:20; Jer. 6:11). While there are no Akkadian passages where imtu could be translated "wrath," The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (7 (1960), 139) defines imtu in one of its meanings as "poisonous foam, slaver produced from the mouth of angry gods, demons, humans, and animals." (For a full discussion of the semantic range of words for "anger, wrath" in Semitic languages, see H. Cohen , in bibl.)


The substantive mererah ("poison, venom, gall") is obviously connected with the root mrr, "to be bitter," and is generally used in the same way as ḥemah (see above). This is demonstrated by the Akkadian lexical equation imtum = martum (malku = šarru, 8:124; where martum is the Akkadian etymological and semantic equivalent of Hebrew mererah) as well as by the following biblical passages:

Their grapes are grapes of poison (rosh); Their clusters are venomous (merorot) (Deut. 32:32; cf. Deut. 32:33 quoted above); The venom serpents (merorat petanim) is within him (Job 20:40; cf. all examples for ḥemah, "snake venom" quoted above); He pours out my gall (mererati) upon the ground (Job 16:13; cf. the idiom לשפך חמת יהוה quoted above); He has filled me with poison (merorim), sated me with wormwood (laʿanah) (Lam. 3:15; cf. the idiom "the pouring out of God's wrath/poison" quoted above).

The Akkadian substantive martu, "gall," is used in the same way as imtu, ḥemah, and mererah, as may be seen from the following proverb which is somewhat parallel to Deutero nomy 32:32 (see above):

ina nāri tabbaššîma mūka daddaru
appūnāma ina kirî tabšîma suluppaka martum

When you are in \a canal, the water around you is foul-smelling;
Furthermore, when you are in a palm grove, your dates are gall (W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (1959), p. 244, lines 19–24).

Thus, the biblical ḥemah (in its meaning of "poison, venom") and mererah must be considered poetic synonyms like the Akkadian imtu and martu.

Raʿal, Tarʿelah

The exact meaning of raʿal and tarʿelah is unknown. That it must refer to some kind of poison is clear from Isaiah 51:17, 22, where tarʿelah parallels ḥemah. The occurrence with yayin ("wine") in Psalm 60:5 (yayin tarʿelah) also fits in well with the usage of ḥemah and mererah as stated above. The other few passages (Isa. 3:19; Nah. 2:4; Hab. 2:16 [read והרעל, as in 1Qp-Hab]; Zech. 12:2) in which this substantive or its denominative verb occurs are far from clear, however, and offer nothing in the way of identification. What is clear from the little evidence is that the biblical raʿal cannot be derived from Aramaic rʿl ("to reel, tremble") because its usage is identical with that of two known biblical words for poison, ḥemah and mererah. While the etymology of the Modern Hebrew raʿal ("poison") is unclear (raʿal "poison" is almost nonexistent in the Talmud and Midrash), because its usage in modern Hebrew appears consistent with biblical usage, it is more likely that it is derived from the biblical term than from the Aramaic rʿl.


Loew, Flora, passim; N.H. Tur-Sinai, The Book of Job (1957), 114–7; R.H. Harrison, Healing Herbs of the Bible (1966); A.L. Oppenheim, et al. (eds.), The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 7 (1960), 139–41; W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (1960); M.C. Astour, in: jnes, 27 (1968), 13–36; C. Cohen, in: Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University, 2 (1969), 25–29.

[Chayim Cohen]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.