Holman Bible Dictionary
Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole in the middle of the Israelite camp (Numbers 21:1 ). God had told Moses to do this so the Israelites bitten by serpents could express their faith by looking at it and be healed. The need for the serpent came in one of the times Israel murmured against God and Moses. The people were in the wilderness after their refusal to obey God by entering the land of Canaan. Although God had provided food and water for them after their disobedience, they complained because of the monotony of the good provided. God sent serpents among them, therefore, to punish the people. The serpents' bites were deadly, but God relented and chose to provide a way for rescue if those bitten would accept it. The bronze serpent was God's way. It was a call to faith in God and to the way of healing He established.
Nothing more is known of the bronze serpent until it is mentioned again in 2 Kings 18:4 . There, in the account of King Hezekiah's purging of the Temple, the Bible tells of the destruction of this symbol. Hezekiah wanted to purify Temple worship. Apparently, the bronze serpent had become an object of worship as the Israelites burned incense to it. A symbol of God's mercy had become a stumbling block. So, Nehushtan, as it was called, was broken into pieces. (Nehushtan is a combination of the Hebrew words for serpent and for bronze.)
Archaeological evidence from Mesopotamian and, more importantly, Canaanite sites reveals that the crawling serpent was a symbol of the fertility of the soil. The serpent was often represented associated with the fertility goddesses, the bull, the dove (life of the heavens), and water. This kind of symbolism had been known in the ancient Middle East since at least 4000 B.C. and became common in Palestine after 1800 B.C. It was widespread in the classical Canaanite cult.
If the cultic serpent retained in Israel the significance it had in other ancient Middle Eastern cults, and there is no cogent argument for assuming otherwise, it was a Canaanite symbol used to depict the Lord's power of fertility. This explains why the Israelites revered it, why Hezekiah (probably ancient Judah's best king) contemptuously called it “a serpent-shaped piece of bronze,” and why he destroyed it. Nehushtan may have been in the Temple since its founding.
Jesus made the final mention of this symbol in John 3:14 . There, in His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus compared His own purpose with that of the bronze serpent. The serpent, lifted up in the wilderness, had been God's chosen way to provide physical healing. Jesus, lifted up on the cross, is God's chosen way to provide spiritual healing for all afflicted by sin. As the serpent gave life in the wilderness, Jesus gives spiritual life. Faith was necessary to look at the serpent and be healed; faith is necessary to receive the healing (salvation) Jesus gives. See Moses; Wilderness; Atonement; Hezekiah .
Albert F. Bean and Karen Joines
Thursday, October 27th, 2016
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30