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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature


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(Heb. Nechushtan', נְחֻשְׁתָּן,ַ of copper, with the art.; Sept. Νεεσθάν, v.r. Νεσθάν and even Νεσθαλεί; Vulg. Nohestan), a contemptuous name given to the copper ("brazen") serpent which Moses had made during the plague in the wilderness (Numbers 21:8 sq.), and which the Israelites worshipped (2 Kings 18:4). (See BRAZEN SERPENT).

"One of the first acts of Hezekiah; upon coming to the throne of Judah, was to destroy all traces of the idolatrous rites which had gained such a fast hold upon the people during the reign of his father Ahaz.. Among other objects of superstitious reverence and worship was this singular metallic effigy, which was preserved throughout the wanderings of the Israelites, probably as a memorial of their deliverance, and according to a late tradition was placed in the Temple. The lapse of nearly a thousand years had invested this ancient relic with a mysterious sanctity which easily degenerated into idolatrous reverence, and at the time of Hezekiah's accession it had evidently been long an object of worship, 'for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it,' or as the Hebrew more fully implies, 'had been in the habit of burning incense to it' (הָיוּ מְקִטְּרַים , had been incense- burners). The expression points to a settled practice. It is evident that our translators by their rendering, 'And he called it Nehushtan,' understood with many commentators that the subject of the sentence is Hezekiah, and that when he destroyed the brazen serpent he gave it the name Nehushtan, 'a brazen thing,' in token of his utter contempt, and to impress upon the people the idea of its worthlessness. This rendering has the support of the Sept. and Vulgate, Junius and Tremellius, Munster, Clericus, and others; but it is better to understand the Hebrew as referring to the name by which the serpent was generally known, the subject of the verb being indefinite and one called it 'Nehushtan.' Such a construction is common, and instances of it may be found in Genesis 25:26; Genesis 38:29-30, where our translators correctly render 'his name was called,' and in Genesis 48:1-2. This was the view taken in the Targ. Jon. and in the Peshito-Syriac, 'And they called it Nehushtan,' which Buxtorf approves (Hist. Serp. En. cap. 6). It has the support of Luther, Pfeiffer (Dub. Vex. cent. 3, loc. 5), J.D. Michaelis (Bibel fur Ungel.), and Bunsen (Bibelwerk), as well as of Ewald (Gesch. 3:622), Keil, Thenius, and most modern commentators." (See HEZEKIAH).

"The fact of the preservation of the brazen serpent till the time of Hezekiah is, as Bunsen remarks, a sufficient guarantee not only for the historical truth of the narrative in Numbers, but also for the religious significancy of the symbol; for had it been, as some have supposed. an image of Satan, it would not have been suffered by David or Solomon to remain (Bibelwerk, 5:217). The fact also that it is referred to by our Lord. as in some sense resembling him (John 3:14-15), not only vouches for the same things, but further imposes on us the duty of seeking in it a deeper significancy than that which the mere narrative of Moses would lead us to attach to it. We may, therefore, dismiss at once all the attempts of rationalists to resolve the facts of the Mosaic narrative into mere ordinary occurrences; such as that of Bauer, who finds in the cure of the Israelites by looking at the brazen serpent only an instance of the curative power of the imagination (Hebr. Gesch. 2:320), or that of Paulus, who thinks that the brazen serpent being at some distance from the camp, and the sight of it moving the Israelite who had been bitten to walk to it, the motion thereby produced served to work off the effects of the poison, and so tended to a cure (Comment. 4:1, 198 sq.); or that of Hofmann, who ingeniously suggests that the brazen serpent was the title of a rural hospital, where medicine and doctors were to be found by those who had faith to go for them. It is sad to see a man like Bunsen falling back on the old exploded rationalistic explanation of this occurrence. The fixing of the gaze on the image brought the mind to a state of repose, and so made the bodily cure possible' (Bibelwerk, 5:217), as if this were all! We may pass over also the notion of Marsham, according to whom the serpent of brass was an implement of magic or incantation borrowed from the Egyptians, who he says 'imprimis μαγείᾷ τινί ἐπιχωρίῳ ob serpentum incantationem celebrantur' (Canon Chronicles page 148); for this is so purely gratuitous, and so opposed to the narrative of Moses, as well as the religious principles and feelings which he sought to inculcate (comp. Leviticus 19:26), that it must be at once rejected (see Deyling, Obs. Sac. 2:210 sq.). The traditionary belief of the ancient Jews is that the brazen serpent was the symbol of salvation, and that healing came to the sufferer who looked to it as the result of his faith in God, who had appointed this method of cure." See Schachan, De serpentts ennei significatione (Lubec. 1713); Notting, De serp. ten. Servatoris typo (Jen. 1759); Huth, Serpens exaltatus non contritionis sed conterendi imago (Erlang. 1758). (See SERPENT).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Nehushtan'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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