[A]nd the people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food." The Eternal sentseraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned by speaking against the Eternal and against you. Intercede with the Eternal to take away the serpents from us!" And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Eternal One said to Moses, "Make aseraph figure and mount it on a standard. And anyone who was bitten who then looks at it shall recover." Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when bitten by a serpent, anyone who looked at the copper serpent would recover. (Numbers 21:5-9)
This strange story appears amid noteworthy events: Miriam dies suddenly at Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin (Numbers 20:1). The community rails against Moses and Aaron because there is no food or water, and Moses commits the famous sin of striking the rock to produce water (Numbers 20:2-13). Moses seeks to traverse Edomite territory and is refused passage (Numbers 20:14-21). Suddenly Aaron dies and is mourned for thirty days (Numbers 20:22-29). Now Moses is the sole survivor leading the people, and the people are still complaining.
How can God break through the continuous complaining and get the Israelites to focus on their journey? What will cause the Israelites to repent their sinful speaking out against God and Moses? How are we modern readers to understand these magical serpents that kill and the copper serpent that heals? Does God provide an idol in this story to save the people?
The magical homeopathic therapy for these snakebites is troubling for us modern monotheists. Did the authors of the Torah believe in the curative power of looking at snakes?
Snakes were associated with healing in many cultures, especially Egypt. The Greek god of healing is pictured as a snake in the caduceus insignia of the medical profession. Snakes were also regarded in other contexts: winged snakes are mentioned by Isaiah (14:29 and 30:6), and erect cobras symbolizing Egyptian royalty were surely well-known to the Israelites.
In this story, God sends n'chashim has'raphim, "seraph serpents," perhaps fiery snakes, and the antidote for their bite is a n'chash n'choshet, "copper serpent." Most likely the healing serpent was bronze, not copper; archaeologists have found examples of bronze serpents in the Middle East. Were they cultic objects, idols of the people?
So it would seem. We read that King Hezekiah "abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars. . . . He also broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nehushtan" (II Kings 18:4).
How, then, can we understand this symbol and this story, we who are cautioned so strictly against idolatry?
Over the years I have visited many patients in Catholic hospitals, which usually display a crucifix on the wall of each room. Some congregants have joked about the symbol in "their" room; others have expressed discomfort about it; a few have asked that it be removed. Perhaps they find it insensitive for non-Christian patients. Perhaps they view it as a talisman they do not believe in. Perhaps they want their healing to come from the medical staff and not the statue on the wall. Most of us would agree.
What is the difference between the serpent and the crucifix? How can we understand the serpent in this story in Numbers? The Mishnah tells us that looking at the serpent was not what cured the Israelites. Rather it was the act of looking up to God that cured them (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 3:8).
Still we may search for a modern understanding of this story. James L. Kugel points out that the bronze serpent was to be put on a pole ( The Bible As It Was [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998], p. 481). Why? Because, in the words of the Targum, "when a snake would bite a man, he would look upon the bronze serpent and direct his thoughts toward God and live" (Targum Yonatan, Numbers 21:9).
We find a parallel passage in Exodus. Earlier in their journey, the Israelites are confronted by the Amalekites at Rephidim. Moses puts Joshua in charge of the battle, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur sit on a hilltop to watch. When Moses holds up his hands—with the rod of God in his hands—the Israelites prevail. Whenever Moses puts down his hands, however, the Amalekites prevail (Exodus 17:8-12). Was there magic at play? Was the rod—or Moses's hand—an idol or a talisman? The Mishnah tells us that when the Israelites looked up toward God, they would triumph. If they did not remember God, they would fail ( Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 3:8).
Neither the bronze serpent nor the rod of Moses is an idol in these stories. They are not props for magic, but devices that lead the people to direct their thoughts to God. In the story of the bronze serpent, the people are not sick, but sinful. The serpent is elevated to direct the thoughts of the people upward to God and away from the danger at their feet. Think about that. Even today, we often need something to help us redirect our thoughts toward God and away from the dangers that confront us.
By the Way
The Zohar explains that looking at the bronze serpent reminded the people of why they deserved to be punished, and that is the first step toward repentance and forgiveness [Sh'lach 175]. . . . [Samson Raphael] Hirsch suggests that the image of the serpent reminded people of how dangerous the journey through the wilderness was, and how much they depended on God to guide them through it. ( Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary [New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 2001], p. 889)
Now did this serpent actually kill people or heal people? Rather it means that when Moses did so [held up the serpent], the Israelites looked at him [or "it"] and put their trust in God who ordered Moses so to do: then God would send them healing. (M'chilta D'Rabbi Yishmael, Amalek 1; cited in Kugel, The Bible As It Was, p. 480)
Yet the question needs to be asked: Why did not God simply remove the plague as He removed all the plagues of Egypt? The answer given by tradition is that He resorted to this means in order to test Israel's obedience; only those who heeded His command to look at the snake would recover. (Jacob Milgrom on Numbers 21:8, JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990], p. 174)
How did the commentators and Rabbis lead readers away from understanding the bronze serpent as an idol?
What are the Jewish values we can extract from this story?
Are there things in our own lives that we use as idols? Are there ways that we can use them instead to invoke a sense of God's presence in our lives? Think, for example, of a mezuzah or another ritual object.
Rabbi Fred N. Reiner is senior rabbi of Temple Sinai, Washington, D.C.