The Israelites bitten by fiery Serpents. A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD for the Come Follow Me lesson May 9–15, Numbers 11–14; 20–24
We read in Numbers 21:4-7, “And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea [again, the Sea of Reeds or papyrus], to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.”
According to Bible Hub (biblehub.com), which is a source I use to not only see various translations of the same verse but also I can see what the Hebrew actually says, the Hebrew word in verse 6 is הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים (han·nə·ḥā·šîm), which means “serpents.” Because many of the Israelite people died from the bites of those serpents, the implication was that they were venomous, poisonous snakes and so, in many translations, one of those two words is added. The authors of the King James Version added fiery rather than venomous or poisonous, which may be more poetic but less accurate in the modern sense.
Highly poisonous snakes of the area where the Israelites were traveling include several species of the genus Echis (Echis carinatus, Echis coloratus, Echis pyramidum), also known as carpet vipers or saw-scaled vipers. These serpents are very dangerous, secreting one of the most toxic venoms of all terrestrial snakes. They prefer rocky terrain and sometimes may accumulate in large numbers. Although rarely seen, they can be aggressive and may strike as high as a man’s waist, after rasping their saw-like scales together as a warning. Other poisonous snakes in the area include the desert horned viper and the black desert cobra. Echis carinatus was first described by Johann Schneider in 1801; Echis coloratus was first described by Albert Günther in 1878; and Echis pyramidum was first described by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in 1827. The genus inhabits Northern Africa, including Egypt; the Sinai; Israel; Jordan; and the Arabian Peninsula. (Roy W. McDiarmid, Jonathan A. Campbell and T’Shaka S. Toure, Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, Volume 1, Herpetologists' League, Durham, NC, 1999).
Then we are told in Numbers 21:8-9, “And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent [actually neither the word “fiery” nor “snake” is in the original Hebrew; rather the word שָׂרָ֔ף(śā·rāp̄): a saraph (a fiery angel or serpent), a burning, poisonous, symbolical creature], and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass [actually a נְחֹ֔שֶׁת (nə·ḥō·šeṯ): copper, or something made of copper, such as bronze; and נְחַ֣שׁ(nə·ḥaš): snake], and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, and did not occur in great quantities until the latter part of first millennium BC. During the 4th century BC Plato described orichalkos (mountain copper, perhaps a natural alloy) as being rare and nearly as valuable as gold. On the other hand, bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. The age during which the Exodus is set is referred to as the late Bronze Age because of the huge amounts of bronze being made at the time. The authors of the King James Version (1604-1611) apparently didn’t know this difference between the use of brass and bronze around 1200 BC.
That same symbol, of a single snake coiled on a staff, is used as a symbol of modern medicine. That symbol is called the asklepian or the Rod of Asclepius, named for the Greek god Asclepius, a god of healing and medicine. What is the relationship, if any, between the Rod of Asclepius and the staff of Moses with the entwined snake? The name Asclepius appears to be of Pre-Greek origin, coming from the Greek peninsula or the Minoan civilization of Crete during the Bronze Age, around 3300 to 1200 BC. The early history of Greek mythology is not at all clear and probably stemmed from an older, oral, Bronze-Age tradition. The asklepian and the bronze serpent of Moses may have been inspired by an Egyptian symbol for healing. One of the oldest ancient Egyptian medical documents, around 1500 BC, describes the treatment for the parasitic Guinea worm by attaching the exposed end of the worm to a stick, and then rolling the stick to coil the worm around it, thus removing the parasite from the tissue in which it is embedded. It is conjectured that ancient Egyptian physicians may have used signs with a worm on a stick to advertise the worm treatment they offered. The symbol of a worm on the stick, or snake on a stick, may then have become a symbol for medicine. However, the list of Egyptian hieroglyphs in Wikipedia shows a lot of snakes, but none coiled on a staff, suggesting that this may be a false lead. The Egyptian goddess of healing was Sekhmet, a lioness goddess, with no unique connection to snakes. Nor can I find any Egyptian symbol like the asklepian.
Then there is the caduceus, which is a staff with two intertwined snakes. That image may date back to 3000 or 4000 BC, to the Sumerian god Ningishzida, whose symbol it was. He was believed to spend part of the year traveling in the underworld, in the land of the dead. However, Ningishzida was not considered to be a god of healing, but his father, Ninazu, was. His Sumerian name translated as “divine healer.” Although no depictions of Ninazu have been identified for certain, he was considered the “king of the snakes” and therefore was invoked in incantations against snakebite.
The Sumerians had a huge influence on both Judaism and Greek mythology. For the Jews, such influence was especially strong during the Babylonian captivity, 597 to 527 BC, when the texts of the Old Testament were being compiled. For the Greeks, the Sumerian influence was most strongly attached to the “divine journey.” The caduceus, usually with wings added at the top, was the staff carried by Hermes, a god of wisdom and the herald of the gods. He was considered the protector of travelers, among others. He was believed to be able to seal any box, such as a treasure chest, so that no one could open it. The alchemists referred to sealing containers against air as being hermetically sealed. That term has carried over into chemistry and medicine – so the caduceus is sometimes associated with pharmaceuticals.
The event of Moses raising the serpent is mentioned four times in the Book of Mormon. The first time was when Nephi was commanded to build a ship and his brothers doubted. Nephi said to them (1 Nephi 17: 41; about 592 BC), “And he [God] did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.” It is interesting here that Nephi would use this turn of phrase. The original accounts of Moses and the serpents do not use the phrase “fiery flying serpents.” That phrase only appears in Isaiah (14:29 and 30:6) and not in reference to the incident with Moses. Nephi said (2 Nephi 25:5), “Yea, and my soul delighteth in the words of Isaiah…” So he may have found Isaiah’s phrase “fiery flying serpents” to be just what he wanted to describe Moses iconic staff and serpent.
Then, at a later time, Nephi spoke to his family (2 Nephi 25:20; about 559–545 BC), “And now, my brethren, I have spoken plainly that ye cannot err. And as the Lord God liveth that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt, and gave unto Moses power that he should heal the nations after they had been bitten by the poisonous serpents, if they would cast their eyes unto the serpent which he did raise up before them, and also gave him power that he should smite the rock and the water should come forth; yea, behold I say unto you, that as these things are true, and as the Lord God liveth, there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ, of which I have spoken, whereby man can be saved.”
Then Alma, in teaching the poor among the Zoramites (Alma 33:19-22; about 74 BC) stated, “Behold, he was spoken of by Moses; yea, and behold a type was raised up in the wilderness, that whosoever would look upon it might live. And many did look and live. But few understood the meaning of those things, and this because of the hardness of their hearts. But there were many who were so hardened that they would not look, therefore they perished. Now the reason they would not look is because they did not believe that it would heal them. O my brethren, if ye could be healed by merely casting about your eyes that ye might be healed, would ye not behold quickly, or would ye rather harden your hearts in unbelief, and be slothful, that ye would not cast about your eyes, that ye might perish? If so, wo shall come upon you; but if not so, then cast about your eyes and begin to believe in the Son of God, that he will come to redeem his people, and that he shall suffer and die to atone for their sins; and that he shall rise again from the dead, which shall bring to pass the resurrection, that all men shall stand before him, to be judged at the last and judgment day, according to their works.”
The later prophet Nephi, speaking to the people of Zarahemla (Helaman 8:14-15; about 23–21 BC), said, “Yea, did he [Moses] not bear record that the Son of God should come? And as he lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he be lifted up who should come. And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal.”
During His mortal ministry, the Savior himself made this same comparison (John 3:14-15): “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Interestingly, we read in 2 Kings 18:1-4, that “…Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. Twenty and five years old was he when he began to reign; and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem [around 715 to 686 BC]. His mother’s name also was Abi, the daughter of Zachariah. And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that David his father did. He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent [הַנְּחֹ֜שֶׁת (han·nə·ḥō·šeṯ): copper or something, like bronze, made from copper; and נְחַ֨שׁ (nə·ḥaš):serpent] that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.” According to Bible Hub, the name Nehushtan was נְחֻשְׁתָּֽן׃ (nə·ḥuš·tān). The Hebrew word for serpent is נְחַ֨שׁ (nə·ḥaš).
Snake cults were well established in Canaan during the Bronze Age, before the Israelites ever appeared there, and it is well known that a major theme in the Old Testament is the struggle of the prophets to keep the Israelites from worshiping the gods of the Canaanites and surrounding cultures. Archaeologists have uncovered at least half a dozen serpent cult objects from Bronze Age strata at several pre-Israelite sites in Canaan (Joines, Karen Randolph, “The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 87: 245-256, September 1968). The Nehushtan may have been the symbol of some minor Canaanite god of snakebite-cure.
The Savior’s statement in John 3:14-15 makes an important distinction between the brazen serpent raised by Moses and the veneration of that same serpent by later generations. The Savior said in verse 15, “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (Italics added). The key here is believing in him, not in the graven symbol. It was not the asklepian that was important, but what, or actually, who that image represented that was important. Moses may have even told the people that the serpent was a type of Him on whom they should believe – that statement being lost to time. Nephi certainly believed that Moses had made such a statement when he said, “Yea, did he [Moses] not bear record that the Son of God should come?” (Helaman 8:14). Even though Moses may have raised a symbol that was already known to the Israelites, it was not the symbol that was important, but, rather, who the symbol symbolized that mattered.
Iconography can become a stumbling block to true worship, as Hezekiah witnessed in his day. Likewise, many Christians became so caught up in worshiping icons and relics that they seem to have lost the true focus of that worship. Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not have the cross as our symbol, as do most Christian churches. For one reason, we do not want our attention to be focused on that asklepian instead of on Him who it represents. A second reason is that our attention is focused on the resurrected Savior, not on the crucified Jesus.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD