True meaning of the bronze serpent has interesting history


“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover.'” (Numbers 21:8)

This verse comes from a short story that is easily overshadowed by the nearby stories of Korach’s Rebellion, Moses and Aaron hitting the rock, and Bilam’s attempts to curse Israel. In Numbers 21:4-9, the people of Israel complain that God and Moses brought them into the wilderness to die. God sends poisonous snakes — literally fiery serpents — as punishment. The people repent and ask Moses to intercede. Moses follows God’s directions in the verse quoted above, and the plague of snakes ends.

The story itself does not seem unusual until one considers what the staff with the bronze serpent might have looked like. Following its original use, the staff found a home in the Tabernacle and was later mounted in the Temple. The icon of a serpent entwined around a staff is still familiar to us. The staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, is the symbol of the American Medical Association and appears in medical offices and documents we see regularly.

The healing powers associated with the staff of Asclepius and the Israelite bronze serpent may imply a relationship between the two symbols. The ancient Greeks may have borrowed from the ancient Israelites or vice versa. We both may have appropriated it from another local culture. The history, however, is secondary to the lessons that our traditions about the icon teach us.

In the latter part of the 8th century BCE, King Hezekiah had the serpent destroyed, because it had become an object of idolatry (II Kings 18:4). This is in accordance with what the rabbis later expressed as the true meaning of the serpent. They teach: “Does a snake kill or bring to life? Rather, when the people looked up and gave their hearts to their Heavenly Father they were healed (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8).” The rabbinic message is that the bronze serpent is meant to be understood as a symbol for the one God and a way for the individual to be redirected toward God — the source of healing. The symbol is a reminder of where the true power lies. The Greeks, who had many gods, might have found this message appropriate too.

Unfortunately, the message of turning ourselves to God in times of difficulty is often lost on us. We see doctors and medicine today as a science over which we have power. We easily forget that God stands behind it all, having created the world and its natural laws, and thereby giving us the ability to discern what we have discovered to be true in science and all other areas of knowledge. The rabbis teach us that we should look for God’s role in all aspects of our lives, and we are reminded of that dictate by this week’s story of the bronze serpent.

Rabbi Ari Vernon of CAJE prepared this week’s Torah Portion.