Green Mamba Venomous Snake

Answer by Diane Eager

We need to start by asking: What is venom?

Venom is any harmful substance secreted by one animal and injected into another by biting or stinging.

Now to ask: what is snake venom?

It is a secretion from the salivary glands of snakes, which they use primarily for digesting things.  The chemical composition of this varies enormously in different snakes, but the chemicals that are dangerous to us are mainly enzymes that break down proteins and other biological substances found in your body tissues. They cause much damage if injected into your tissues or blood, because one of their effects is to start to digest you, i.e. break down your cells and tissues.  That also causes a lot of pain in addition to the pain from the bite.

But that means snakes are only dangerous if they bite you, because the venom is only a problem if it gets into the wrong place e.g. snake venom is not problem on your skin, but only after it gets under your skin. The same is true for many substances you produce in your own body.

Consider this: your stomach secretes an acid strong enough to burn a hole in carpet, so why doesn’t it burn a hole in you? Answer: because it is normally kept in the right place.  The lining of the stomach is well designed to protect the living tissue that makes up the wall of the stomach from the acid. But if the acid gets into a wrong place, where it is not meant to be, it will cause many problems.  In the same way, snake venom only causes problems if a snake injects it into you.

Now consider what the world was like when everything was very good, as God declared it to be (Genesis 1:31). There are two aspects of the very good world that ensured Adam and Eve did not have to fear venomous snakes.

The first is that God created all animals to eat plants (Genesis 1:30). The very good world contained plenty of nutritious plant food for all animals.  Snakes would have eaten fruit and other plant foods, just like any other animal.

Now consider how snakes eat. They have sharp teeth, good for grabbing and piercing whatever they want to eat, but they do not and cannot chew their food.  They swallow it whole.  Once swallowed, the food has to be broken down to extract nutrients.  In order to do this all animals secrete substances named digestive enzymes, which are designed to break down proteins, carbohydrates and fats.  For snakes this digestive process starts in the mouth.  Their salivary secretions contain many enzymes that break down proteins and other biological substances.  Many snakes have teeth with grooves that help convey salivary secretions into the food.  For an animal that swallows its food whole, injecting digestive enzymes into the food is good design that enhances the digestive process.  If it didn’t do this then any large food in the stomach would rot long before enzymes acting on the outside of the food could process it, and that could kill the eater.  But as long as snakes were eating only plant food, their salivary secretions were no problem for people or animals.

The second aspect of the very good world we need to consider is that God made human beings to be rulers over the animals, including snakes (Genesis 1:28). No animal would have dared bite Adam or Eve.

Sadly, the world did not stay very good. After man sinned and God judged the world, everything went downhill, and God eventually sent the Flood, which devastated the environment.  After this God gave people permission to eat animals (Genesis 9:2-3), and animals have followed suit in their struggle to survive, especially in places where vegetation became sparse.  Animals have learned to use whatever inbuilt resources they had to find food and eat it as best they could.  Therefore, snakes, with their sharp teeth and quick reflexes were able to catch and eat other animals.  The enzymes and other chemicals already present in snake salivary secretions meant they could kill and digest animal food more easily.

Sadly the world after Noahs flood became a dog eat dog place. Kill or be killed increasingly became the norm. So if snakes were disturbed or attacked by other creatures, including humans, they could defend themselves with any pre-existing feature that could be used as a weapon – usually their teeth, which happen to be designed to inject salivary secretions. Interestingly, snakes do have some control over whether they inject venom when they bite, and reports downunder record children in particular escaping after receiving non-venomous bites. Therefore we know that not every snake bite is meant to kill.

In summary, snake venom is not intrinsically bad. It had a useful function in the very good world, where it was only used for good purposes.  The world is no longer good, and snakes use whatever resources they have to find food and defend themselves.  It is the behaviour of snakes as well as people in this fallen world that makes venom a problem for humans, and don’t forget there are many snakes whose saliva is venomous but they are not a problem, because their type of teeth make it impossible for them to inject you.

As an aside: the terms “poisonous” and “venomous” are often used to mean the same thing.   “Poison” can be used as a catch-all term for any harmful substance, but in biology the term also refers to substances that are toxic if they are eaten or otherwise absorbed, e.g. breathed in.  The vast majority of snakes can be eaten without any harmful effects, provided you remove the head before cooking them, because the poison is only in the salivary glands.  The rest of the snake is not poisonous.  However, don’t try making sushi from Japanese grass snakes – they really are poisonous.  See our report Snakes Recycle Poison here.

Related question

SNAKES: If the world was created good, why are creatures like snakes so well designed to hunt prey? Answer here.

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About The Contributor

Diane Eager