In this week’s parashah we get a story that is entirely familiar in its set-up and quite strange in its denouement. The set-up we have seen time and again in our journey through the wilderness: the people complain about the scarcity of water, the lack of food, and manna-full nature of their diet in the desert. They pine away for the pleasures of home, by which they mean Egypt, not the Promised Land to which they are heading. This is pretty standard content for the Book of Bamidbar.
But then things get a little strange. Instead of punishing the people with fire or plague or marauding armies, God sends henehashim haserphim against the people as a punishment. Most translations of the Bible translate this as “fiery serpents.” But although it is clear that nehashim means serpents, the exact translation of seraphim is a bit less certain. Evidence from the Book of Isaiah indicates that seraphim were a type of winged serpent. When the prophet ascends to heaven, he finds that seraphim attend God with six wings. But whether winged or fiery, what is clear here is that God sends a magical type of snake against the people.
As odd as the magic snake punishment is, the means by which the people are saved from this scourge is even more startling. After Moses once again intercedes on the people’s behalf, God once again agrees to end the punishment. But instead of simply removing the serpents, God gives Moses a very odd instruction: make a seraph and mount it on a pole. Anyone who is bitten should look upon the image and, God tells Moses, “He shall recover.” Moses fashions a copper serpent and mounts it on a pole. People who are bitten by the snakes look at the copper serpent, and they recover. That is the end of the narrative, as the Torah then moves on to something else.
The rabbis of our tradition are, understandably, perplexed by this story. In the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah, the rabbis ask: Could this serpent that Moshe made really bring life or death? For the rabbis of the Mishnah, the question is rhetorical, and the answer, though one is not needed, is: of course not! Rather, the rabbis say, the fact that the serpent image is mounted on a pole above the people gives us the answer. The people had to cast their eyes heavenward to gaze upon the snake, and when they did so, their hearts were naturally directed back towards God. When the people looked up and remembered their God, they were saved and healed from the poisonous bites. If they did not lift their eyes to heaven and thus remember their God, they died. The copper snake itself had nothing to do with it.
Thus, for the rabbis this incident is yet another effort by God to inspire fidelity among the fractious people of Israel. But if that was the plan, it does not really seem to work, or at the very least, God did not fully think through the consequences of His command to Moses, because this is not the last we hear of this copper snake. The snake may have been originally designed to direct people’s thoughts to heaven as the rabbis argued, but the image of the snake had a sordid future ahead of it after saving the people from the plague of fiery serpents. In the Book of Kings, the reforming King Hezekiah destroys this very snake, which has now acquired the name of Nechustan. He must destroy this symbol because the people of Israel had taken to offering sacrifices to it. This implement of healing and salvation, which was supposed to remind people of God, had become instead the object of the people’s idolatrous attention.
And that transformation is not all that surprising. We are quite good at turning things into idols after all, which God seems to know, since the second commandment very clearly prohibits the creation of an image of anything in the natural world. But then again, maybe that was the plan all along. Perhaps God knew the people would fall in love with the snake, would worship the snake, and would make an idol out of the snake. Perhaps it was not the fiery serpents that constituted the punishment, but the fashioning of what seemed to be the cure, the copper serpent. Recall that in this case, as in many others, the people do not just complain about manna and water, they also ask, “Why did you take us out of Egypt?” In fact, this is a common trope among the Israelites. They are forever asking Moses why he took them away from the comfort of Egypt.
According to Jeremy Milgrom, writing in the JPS Torah Commentary, the winged snake was a distinctive feature of ancient Egyptian imagery as a symbol of royalty for the pharaohs and the gods. Not only is the winged serpent distinctively Egyptian, but also the notion of a healing serpent seems to have Egyptian origins as well. Milgrom points out that serpent shaped amulets were worn in Egypt by both the living and the dead to ward off their real-life counterparts. Amazingly, a five-inch long copper image of a snake, dating perhaps as far back as 1200 BCE, was found in an archeological site near the Red Sea, at a site known to be Egyptian.
Thus, when the people profess, yet again, a desire to be back in Egypt, the punishment God metes out perfectly fits the crime of desiring a return to the land of their subjugation. God gives the people a little bit of the Egypt for which they profess such desire. Both the deadly winged serpents that God sends among the people, and the healing copper serpent Moses is commanded to fashion were associated with Egypt. The poisonous winged serpents reminds the people how deadly was their slavery in Egypt. The people remember Egypt as a place of comfort, or at the very least of certainty, but God, in sending the image of the pharaoh among them to kill them, reminds the people of the true consequences Egyptian power.
But what of the healing copper serpent, also is a distinctively Egyptian symbol? While the poisonous snakes remind the people of the physical death in Egypt, the healing copper serpent reminds the people of the spiritual bondage they are meant to leave behind. Do they wish to once again worship idols and images? Do they wish to once again replace a Divine Being with the handiwork of human beings? God reminds them that not only was Egypt a place of slavery and death, but also a place where they worshiped a shadow because they had not yet broken free into the light to see the truth.
And, as such, the copper snake of Moses was more than a reminder, it was a test. Did the people wish to return to Egypt and to the spiritual slavery of that time? I think the rabbis of the Mishnah were right about the message of the snake, but wrong about how it worked. When the people gazed upon the snake, they were supposed to remember one critical point: Moses made the snake. The snake is nothing. Only God can heal. The snake was bondage. And when they looked and they remembered, they were healed.
But the copper snake persisted past this generation. And because it persisted, the original meaning was lost. The copper serpent of Moses, meant to be a rejection of the idol of Egypt, became an idol itself. The people bound themselves to the idolatry of Egypt. They returned themselves to spiritual slavery. The image had to be destroyed. But, even broken into pieces, the copper snake still tests us. It still asks the question it asked to the Israelites in the desert: do we wish to return to a spiritual Egypt? Do we desire that our religion be suffused with idol worship, with the love of material made by human hands? Or do we desire to free ourselves from the memory of Egypt, and to finally, at long last, be fre