Numbers 19 -22:1
The Bronze Serpent: Sometimes problems arise, quite literally
As we come into this weeks parsha we see that the children of Israel have been turned away from entering into the Promised Land. The Edomites, the descendants of Eisav (Esau, the brother of Yaakov Avinu, Jacob our Father who was also called Israel; see Parshat Vayishlach) turned them away, not allowing them to cross through their land in their travels. (Numbers 20:18) For this reason they were forced to turn back into the wilderness toward the sea where they had come from. In the process this also exposed them to the attacks of Canaanites, who had managed to take captives from their ranks before subsequently being defeated. This left the Israelites with acquired land in the south to occupy, but they still did not have enough access to territory to ascend up to their land. Having to turn back around and face the windlessness they dwelt in for a whole generation it says “vtikzar nefesh / and they were disheartened.” (Numbers 21:3-4) What this literally means is “and they were short of spirit”.
The people begin to complain and grumble over their situation. This results in them befalling a horrible tragedy, as we read:
“And Hashem sent against the people
venomous [lit. burning] snakes
and they began to bite the people
and many people of Israel died.”
| Vayeshalach Hashem ba’am
| et hanechashim hasrafim
| vayenashchu et-ha’am
| vayamot am-rav miYisra’el
Our rabbis bring down the obvious allusion being drawn by this plague, the people’s evil and negative words had become like the venom from the fangs of a serpent. This was slander that was so great that it had mortal consequences, and it immediately began to be demonstrated by a plague from G-d to show in their physical bodies how they were being consumed spiritually. What do I mean by this? I don’t many anything spooky. Spirit literally means a burst of air, wind. But figurately spirit in Hebrew (ruach), just like in the English language usually means an attitude of people; most often of people in group. To be of spirit means a determined and enthusiastic attitude shows by an individual or a group of people. Like when we think of the terms “team spirit” or “school spirit.” Only in passing and more figuratively do we reference the very similar words nefesh (souls) and ruach (spirit) in relations to an person’s eternal-soul or spirit-beings.
Instead of being of spirit, motived by an air of respectability and determination; they were short of spirit, they had the wind taken out of their sails. They were depressed. And this depression lead to resentment, and eventually anger being leveled against G-d and Moses through their griping. (v.5)
If spirit is like wind, the rushing and passing air that invisibly animates things, so too their words invisibly have effects on the atmosphere and situation around them. Not just subtly, but with all the ability to consume a person to the point of death, by poisoning their outlook. It does not take long for the people recognize the symbolism here, and to understand their wrong was speaking against G-d and Moses. As the American Indians say of liars, “they speak with forked-tongue,” the children of Israel are dripping negativity and slander like venom from fangs and they recognized it. So they turn to Moses and confess they that had spoken wrongly against G-d and again him, and asked for salvation from the resulting plague of snakes that was sent as a lesson to them. (v.7)
Moses does pray to G-d, who answers him with the following words:
“And Hashem said to Moses:
Make yourself a venomous snake
put it on a standard
and everyone who is bitten
and that shall look on it will live.”
| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe
| aseh lecha saraf vesim
| oto al-nes
| vehayah kol-hanashuch
| vera’ah oto vachai
We read that Moses follows this order, and fashions a snake out of copper, places it on a nes – a standard. Most often when we read the word nes, we are talking about a flag or a banner. But it does also mean a standard, like a mascot; for instance the Roman army’s Golden Eagle was held high upon a pole before them when mobilized. When armies fought with their banner before them they would not just be fighting to defeat their enemies but also to keep the symbol of their honor raised high. As long as it was kept up it would become a rallying point for the people. As they looked up it would give them hope to get up and fight. What flags and standards have in common is they are elevated on a pole high enough for everyone to notice. For this reason nes is commonly translated as merely pole for this purpose in this verse here.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of symbols like a flag (nes). They have the ability to give such powerful motivation they often inspire another noun for nes; a miracle. The power of positive thinking produces nothing less than miraculous result in our lives. And this is what they needed, because the Israelites were consumed by their negativity.
Thus Moses created the Copper Serpent. But why was it made of out copper? For this answer we turn to Rashi:
He was not told to make it out of copper.
Moses said: ‘The Holy One, blessed be He,
called it a snake (nachash)
so I will make it out of copper (nechoshet),’
which is a play on words.”
נחש נחשת: |
לא נאמר לו לעשותו של נחשת, |
אלא אמר משה הקב”ה |
קוראו נחש, |
ואני אעשנו של נחושת, |
לשון נופל על לשון: |
Rashi on Numbers 21:9
The details for making this standard was left open for him to decide. He could have made a flag with a snake on it if he wanted to. But it appears that Moses did not want to stray and be too imaginative in the plans for the symbol that he was making. He went with a material that sounded like the symbol he was forming.
It is important that we understand that this story is steeped in symbolism. The choice of construction for this symbol is also seemingly symbolic in other not so obvious ways. Lets take a look again at the term “saraf vesim / fiery serpents.” This simply means burning snakes. Their venom felt like fire against the flesh, so there is a purposefulness in their name. But there is another symbolism that seems to be drawn from here, or at least later commentators and apocryphal literature would notice of the term seraf, which means burning, that this is reminiscent of the Serafim; the fiery angels. What is a Seraf? It is a form of heavenly angel. Among the most notorious of the angelic hosts are Charbim in our tradition, which are placed on the Ark of the Covenant; two large, golden angels with wings touching, placed upon the covering lid. (see Exodus 27:9) They too stand as unique symbols of Israelite iconography.
Whereas cheribs guard the glory of G-d, the serafim constantly declare the glory of G-d. They are the exalted angels, that raise themselves above the throne of heaven and constantly praise His holiness and might. We see them in the book of Isaiah, where witnessing them was so overwhelming that the prophet could not contain himself and began to make a holy confession, as we read:
“Then I said: Woe is me! for I am undone;
because I am a man of unclean lips,
and in the midst of a people of unclean lips
do I dwell:”
וָאֹמַר אוֹי-לִי כִי-נִדְמֵיתִי, |
כִּי אִישׁ טְמֵא-שְׂפָתַיִם אָנֹכִי, |
וּבְתוֹךְ עַם-טְמֵא שְׂפָתַיִם, |
אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב: |
We are told that a single angel was sent to the prophet and purified his lips with a burning coal from the Altar. If we think about it, this is precisely what we need to have happen here. The people need to be purified. The burning of the prophet’s lips is something different than the burning of the Israelites flesh, but the gist is the same. Here we can see a single seraf being sent to the people; and the promised declared that if they see, hear, understand with their hearts, and return then they would be healed (Isaiah 6:10)
For this reason it may not be unfounded that people associate the Copper Snake as something more akin to the symbol of the winged Caduceus than the more related classical association with the Rod of Asclepius; the latter being the correct Greek symbol of medicine, while the former is a more recently adopted winged symbol being recognized by us Americans. Americans seem to commingle the symbols based on a biblical understanding, and less on the actual Greek mythology that propagated the symbols.
This is because in the Torah what we see is Moses creating a copper snake standard that is more of a messenger (Heb. malach, also the same word for angel). But why out of copper? What benefit would this have as a symbol? It seems obvious to me that copper has a highly reflective surface, often finely polished and used as mirrors in the biblical age. (see Exodus 38:8) When forged of this choice of metal it would be very bright when lifted up, and thus easy for people to see. This symbol would serve the same purpose as the cherabim of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) it seems, to reflect light so brightly that they appear to glow and flood the entire area around it.
If my assumption of this is true, then you might ask yourself why not make it out of gold like the cherabim of the Ark? Surely it would last longer, as the shinny surface of copper quickly begins to oxidize; first turning a dull brown, and then eventually green over time. But I believe this is precisely one of the reasons as well, as this symbol was not made to be a perpetual representation like the cherubs. This symbol had one purpose, only there and in the context of that situation. This symbol didn’t have to be built to last.
In fact it was better that the symbol not be something perpetual. It’s purposefulness seems evident from the fact we will see later in the Scriptures that this symbol was set up in the Sanctuary, and was present even in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It must have most certainly been a memorial to their incident with the snakes, as well as preserving something that was previously used as a sacred item in a way to not show contempt for it. But apparently the people did begin to reverence it too much to the point that it was considered unacceptable. It became and idol presence in the place where the holy offerings were elevated, so it was destroyed along with the sacred trees dedicated to pagan worship in the days of Hezekiah and the Assyrian empire. It was so well known as as symbol that it was given a nickname, the Nehushtan. (2 Kings 18:4)
And this is precisely why most of us are uncomfortable with this story of the Nehushtan. How is that Moses is creating this item, with G-d tolerating his choice of design? We know very well what the Torah says regarding this type of construction:
“Do not turn to idols
or make gods of cast metal for yourselves.
I am Hashem your G-d.”
אַל-תִּפְנוּ, אֶל-הָאֱלִילִם, |
וֵאלֹהֵי מַסֵּכָה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם: |
אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. |
It is well known that based on its mirroring verse in Deut. 7:25 that many people’s general understanding of the halacha is that we are not allowed to make sculptures; in setting a fence around Torah we abhor anything that might be associated with iconography. But this is not the actual halacha, we are taught that an item does not become an idol until it is worshiped. (see Mishneh Torah, Avodah Kohavim 7) In fact even the most conservative of poskim would not hold by this halacha at this point in history, resorting to the traditional understanding, that something does not become an idol until it is actually worshiped. Now in the modern age, outright idolatry is so unknown that lifelike objects made by anyone are not considered an item of idolatry until utilized for that purpose. (see Shach 23, and a referencing article) Nonetheless our distaste in such items remains.
Simply put, once the image of the Nehushtan took on too much importance it needed to be destroyed. There was nothing divine or special about it that demanded reverence. It seems to me that it was a transient symbol, only purposeful in the context of the desert plague of serpents. Only over time did it pervert into something else, that literally became an idol lifnei Hashem – before the face of G-d, as we are commanded against having in the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:3)
It is my belief in the intent of the Nehushtan to be temporary that explains why this symbol was formed after the likeness of a serpent. It only needed to be used that once time, and for that one purpose. Had it been something that was be more permanent then I’m sure it would have taken on the form of a cherub instead; fitting nicely into the permanent decor of the Sanctuary. But a guard for the presence of G-d was not necessary, one to declare His glory was needed this situation in the desert. And it was only important in the there and then.
Rashi firmly states for us that the purpose of this symbol was, and demands that people abandon any idea that there was any mystical property in the Nehushtan itself. As he teaches us:
“Our Rabbis said:
Does [this] snake cause death or life?
However, when Israel
and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven,
they would be healed,
but if not, they would waste away.”
אמרו רבותינו |
וכי נחש ממית או מחיה, |
אלא בזמן שהיו ישראל |
מסתכלין כלפי מעלה |
ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים |
היו מתרפאים, |
ואם לאו היו נמוקים: |
Rashi on Numbers 21:8; 11th century
This is also further support by the disciples of Rashi, one of whom would go on to affirm this point while also offering us yet another reason that the symbol of the serpent was chosen instead of a more simple figure of an angel:
“And the reason he made a serpent
and not some other object
was to magnify the miracle,
for the Holy One, blessed be He,
smites with a knife and heals with a knife
(as said in the
Mekhilta, Be-Shalah, s.v. va-yasa, p. 156).
Holy One, blessed be He, had so wished it,
no object would have been necessary,
and they would
immediately have been healed;
rather, it was to intensify the miracle,
so that they would not say
it was mere chance.”
ומה שעשה נחש |
לו דבר אחר, |
כדי להגדיל הנס |
מכה באיזמל ומרפא באיזמל |
במכילתא בשלח, ויסע עמ’ 156) |
ואם היה |
רצונו של הקב”ה |
לא היו צריכין שום דבר, |
אלא יון |
מתרפאים מיד, |
אלא להגדיל הנס |
ושלא יאמרו |
מקרה הוא. |
Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor, 12th century
What G-d was doing was providing an appropriate and recognizable cure to their problem at hand. Moses did not provide a traditional angel, mostly likely because he did not want it to be an intermediary between the people and G-d. The symbol of the Nehushtan was only created in order for the people to recognize that G-d was providing a cure for their situation at hand. All they needed to do was intently focus their attention heavenward, towards the Throne of Heaven with their problems in mind and G-d would heal them.
But there was no power or mystical virtue in the Nehushtan itself. It was merely a nes; a banner and standard. It was a symbol created to lift the peoples spirits up and out of their situation, and to focus their attention towards our Father in Heaven. Though the symbol was powerless in and of itself, their use of it had miraculous results.
Consider it for a moment, why does the word nes also means a miracle in Hebrew? What was so miraculous about this symbol? It was a sign (nes) to the people; as we see it used it used in Parshat Korach (see Numbers 26:10). This would serve as a sign to the people, as it would be raised up in the wind like a flag (nes; see Isaiah 11:12) to signal hope to them. Being raised in the wind (ruach) it would serve as a sign (nes) to raise their spirits (ruach), so that the people would no longer be vtikzar nefesh (short of spirit; disheartened). Sure the symbol itself was powerless, just like a national flag or similar item is endued with nothing more than the hopes of the people who look to it. In reality they didn’t need a symbol at all, it was just a mundane item they regarded as a talisman.
That’s how powerful human belief and hope is. G-d seems to have instructed the creation of the item to help the people who needed to be motivated by simple suggestibility to look above their current situation. All they needed was to find the enthusiasm to believe.
This story serves as a lesson to us, that G-d does in fact permit us to have very tangible symbols and signs in which to help us focus our attention and faith heavenward. But it stands as a testaments to us as Jews as to why we tend to not rely on symbols and signs, because in the end they can just become a distraction. Symbolisms and ritual items should only direct our attention to G-d alone, as we should never let anything become sacred and revered in its own right.