BLAME THE TRANSLATORS
The original Hebrew refers to tsepha, which, based on the context, is clearly some sort of nasty, poisonous animal. Several English translations of the Bible (Wycliffe, 1382; Coverdale, 1535; Geneva, 1560; and King James, 1611) chose to translate this word as “cockatrice.”
This was the nastiest and most poisonous animal the translators could think of, and one that loomed large in the English psyche during that historical period (as can be seen by their appearances in Chaucer and Shakespeare’s writings).
But as our knowledge of ancient Israel has improved over time, so has our ability to translate ancient Hebrew. We now know that cockatrices didn’t exist in ancient Israel (or anywhere else for that matter) and that they weren’t even part of the Israelites’ mythology, so modern translators recognize that that’s not what tsepha means. As such, today’s English translations of the Bible (the New International Version and the English Standard Version) translate tsepha as “viper” or “adder.”
The “flying fiery serpents” of Isaiah are a different story. The Old Testament routinely refers to venomous snakes as “fiery serpents” – their bites feel like fire in the veins. As for flying, one possible explanation is that a coiled snake that lashes out certainly seems to fly from the perspective of the victim.
SNAKES REPRESENT FOES
This oracle occurs during a transition in Judah and the surrounding region. A king has died, either an Assyrian or King Ahaz of Judah. Philistia sees a time-sensitive weakness to exploit and contemplates a revolt against the forces that threaten them.
The prophet Isaiah, however, chastises them for rejoicing. Their upcoming adversarial king(s) will be worse than the last, enabling an Assyrian northern aggression to devastate the Philistines.
According to John Sawyer’s commentary, “Isaiah: The Daily Study Bible Series: Vol. 1,” the snakes described are assembled in order of lethality. The first is the most generic, encompassing all cunning figures. The cockatrice, or adder, with its venomous bite, follows. The final figure is a compilation of the first two. It exhibits the cunning of the first snake, the venom of the second, and is fiery and winged.
The Assyrians used winged serpents in their iconography and would already have been familiar with this imagery. Even though the Assyrians remained a growing threat to Philistia and Judah, Isaiah urges people to depend all the more on God alone who will handle destructive forces and bring about true peace.