Serpent of Brass

Serpent of Brass (נחִשׁ הִנּחשֶׁת; Sept. ὄφις ὁ χαλακοῦς, Nu 21:9; 2Ki 18:4). In addition to the treatment of this subject under BRAZEN SERPENT and NEHUSHTAN, some important particulars may here be enumerated. The familiar history of the brazen serpent need not be repeated here. The nature of the fiery snakes by which the Israelites were attacked has been discussed under SERPENT. The scene of the history, determined by a comparison of Nu 21:3; Nu 33:42, must have been either Zalmonah or Punon. The names of both places probably connect themselves with it, Zalmonah as meaning "the place of the image," Punon as probably identical with the Φαινοί mentioned by Greek writers as famous for its copper mines, and therefore possibly supplying the materials (Bochart, Hieroz. 2, 3,13). SEE PUNON; SEE ZALMONAH. The chief interest of the narrative lies in the thoughts which have at different times gathered round it. We meet with these in four distinct stages, embodied in as many widely separated passages of Scripture. We have to ask by what associations each was connected with the others.

1. The Formation of the Object (Nu 21:8-9). — The truth of the history will, in this place, be taken for granted. Those who prefer it may choose among the hypotheses by which men halting between two opinions have endeavored to retain the historical and to eliminate the supernatural element. The theory which ascribes the healing to mysterious powers known to the astrologers or alchemists of Egypt may be mentioned, but hardly calls for examination (Marsham, Can. Chronicles p. 148, 149; R. Tirza, in Deyling, Exercitt. Sacr. 2, 210). Unbelievers may look on the cures as having been effected by the force of imagination, which the visible symbol served to heighten, or by the rapid rushing of the serpent bitten from all parts of the camp to the standard thus erected, curing them, as men are said to be cured of the bite of the tarantula by dancing (Bauer, Heb. Gesch. 2, 320; Paulus, Comm. 4, 1, 198). They may see in the serpent the emblematic signpost, as it were, of the camp hospital to which the sufferers were brought for special treatment, the form in this instance, as in that of the rod of AEsculapius, being a symbol of the art of healing (Hoffmann, in Scherer, Schrift. Forsch. 1, 576). Leaving these conjectures on one side, it remains for us to inquire into the fitness of the symbol thus employed as the instrument of healing. To most of the Israelites it must have seemed as strange then as it did afterwards to the later rabbins that any such symbol should be employed. One of the Jewish interlocutors in the dialogue of Justin Martyr with Trypho (p. 322) declares that he had often asked his teachers to solve the difficulty, and had never found one who explained it satisfactorily. Justin himself, of course, explains it as a type of Christ.

The second commandment appeared to forbid the likeness of any living thing. The golden calf had been destroyed as an abomination. Now the colossal serpent (the narrative implies that it was visible from all parts of the encampment), made, we may conjecture, by the hands of Bezaleel or Aholiab, was exposed to their gaze, and they were told to look to it as gifted with a supernatural power. What reason was there for the difference? In part, of course, the answer may be that the second commandment forbade, not all symbolic forms as such, but those that men made for themselves to worship; but the question still remains, Why was this form chosen?

It is hardly enough to say, with Jewish commentators, that any outward means might have been chosen, like the lump of figs in Hezekiah's sickness, the salt which healed the bitter waters, and that the brazen serpent made the miracle yet more miraculous, inasmuch as the glare of burnished brass, the gaze upon the serpent form, were, of all things, most likely to be fatal to those who had been bitten (Gem. Bab. Yomna; Aben- Ezra and others, in Buxtorf, Hist. Ein. Serp. c. 5). The fact is doubtful, the reason inadequate. Another view, verging almost on the ludicrous, has been maintained by some Jewish writers. The serpent was set up in terrorem, as a man who has chastised his son hangs up the rod against the wall as a warning (Otho, Lexic. Rabbin. s.v. "Serpens").

It is hardly enough again to say, with most Christian interpreters, that it was intended to be a type of Christ. Some meaning it must have had for those to whom it was actually presented; and we have no grounds for assuming, even in Moses himself, still less in the multitude of Israelites slowly rising out of sensuality, unbelief, rebellion, a knowledge of the far off mystery of redemption. If the words of our Lord in Joh 3:14-15, point to the fulfilment of the type, there must yet have been another meaning for the symbol. Taking its part in the education of the Israelites, it must have had its starting point in the associations previously connected with it. Two views, very different from each other, have been held as to the nature of those associations. On the one side it has been maintained that, either from its simply physical effects, or from the mysterious history of the temptation in Genesis 3, the serpent was the representative of evil. To present the serpent form as deprived of its power to hurt, impaled as the trophy of a conqueror, was to assert that evil, physical and spiritual, had been overcome, and thus help to strengthen the weak faith of the Israelites in a victory over both. The serpent, on this view, expressed the same idea as the dragon in the popular representations of the archangel Michael and St. George (Ewald, Geschichte, 2, 228). To some writers, as to Ewald, this has commended itself as the simplest and most obvious view. It has been adopted by some orthodox divines who. have been unable to convince themselves that the same form could ever really have been at once a type of Satan and of Christ (Jackson, Humiliation of the Son of God, ch. 31; Patrick, Comm. ad loc.; Espagnaeus, Burmann, Vitringa, in Deyling, Observatt. Sac. 2, 15). Others, again, have started from a different ground. They raise the question whether Genesis 3 was then written, or, if written, known to the great body of the Israelites. They look to Egypt as the starting point for all the thoughts which the serpent could suggest, and they find there that it was worshipped as an agathodoemon, the symbol of health and life (comp. SEE SERPENT, and, in addition to the authorities there referred to, Wilkinson, Anc. Egyptians, 2, 134; 4, 395; 5, 64, 238; Kurtz, Hist. of the Old Covenant [Eng. transl.], 3, 348; Witsius, AEgyptiaca, in Ugolino, 1, 852). This, for them, explains the mystery. It was as the known emblem of a power to heal that it served as the sign and sacrament on which the faith of the people might fasten and sustain itself.

Contrasted as these views appear, they have, it is believed, a point of contact. The idea primarily connected with the serpent in the history of the fall, as throughout the proverbial language of Scripture, is that of wisdom (Ge 3:1; Mt 10:16; 2Co 11:3). Wisdom, apart from obedience to a divine order, allying itself to man's lower nature, passes into cunning. Man's nature is envenomed and degraded by it. But wisdom, the self same power of understanding, yielding to the divine law, is the source of all healing and restoring influences, and the serpent form thus becomes a symbol of deliverance and health. The Israelites were taught that it would be such to them in proportion as(they ceased to be sensual and rebellious. There were facts in the life of Moses himself which must have connected themselves with this twofold symbolism. When he was to be taught that the divine wisdom could work with any instruments, his rod became a serpent (Ex 4:1-5). (Comp. Cyril. Alex. Schol. 15; Glaphyra in Exodus 2. The explanation given by Cyril is, as might be expected, more mystical than that in the text. The rod transformed into a serpent represents the Divine Word taking on himself the likeness of sinful flesh.) When he and Aaron were called to their great conflict with the perverted wisdom of Egypt, the many serpents of the magicians were overcome by the one serpent of the future high priest. The conqueror and the conquered were alike in outward form (Ex 7:10-12).

2. The Destruction of the Object (2Ki 18:4). — The next stage in the history of the brazen serpent shows how easily even a legitimate symbol, retained beyond its time, after it had done its work, might become the occasion of idolatry. It appears in the reign of Hezekiah as having been, for some undefined period, an object of worship. The zeal of that king leads him to destroy it. It receives from him, or had borne before, the name Nehushtan (q.v.). We are left to conjecture when the worship began, or what was its locality. Ewald's conjecture (Geschichte, 4, 622) that till then the serpent may have remained at Zalmonah, the object of occasional pilgrimages, is probable enough. It is hardly likely that it should have been tolerated by the reforming zeal of kings like Asa and Jehoshaphat. It must, we may believe, have received a fresh character and become more conspicuous in the period which preceded its destruction. All that we know of the reign of Ahaz makes it probable that it was under his auspices that it received a new development, that it thus became the object of a marked aversion to the iconoclastic party who were prominent among the counselors of Hezekiah. Intercourse with countries in which ophiolatry prevailed — Syria, Assyria, possibly Egypt also — acting on the feeling which led him to bring together the idolatries of all neighboring nations, might easily bring about this perversion of the reverence felt for the time honored relic.

Here we might expect the history of the material object would cease, but the passion for relics has prevailed even against the history of the Bible. The Church of St. Ambrose at Milan has boasted for centuries of possessing the brazen serpent which Moses set up in the wilderness. The earlier history of the relic, so called, is matter for conjecture. Our knowledge of it begins in the year A.D. 971. when an envoy was sent by the Milanese to the court of the emperor John Zimrisces at Constantinople. He was taken through the imperial cabinet of treasures and invited to make his choice, and he chose this, which, the Greeks assured him, was made of the same metal as the original serpent (Sigonius, Hist. Regn. Ital. bk. 7). On his return it was placed in the Church of St. Ambrose, and popularly identified with that which it professed to represent. It is, at least, a possible hypothesis that the Western Church has in this way been led to venerate what was originally the object of the worship of some Ophite sect.

3. The Apocryphal Notices of the Object. — When the material symbol had perished, its history began to suggest deeper thoughts to the minds of men. The writer of the book of Wisdom, in the elaborate contrast which he draws between true and false religions in their use of outward signs, sees in it a σύμβολον σωτηρίας, εἰς ἀνάμνμσιν ἐντολῆς νόμου σου; "he that turned himself was not saved by the thing that he saw (διὰ τὸ θεωρουμένον), but by thee that art the Savior of all" (Wisd. 16, 6, 7). The Targum of Jonathan paraphrases Nu 21:8, "He shall be healed if he direct his heart unto the Name of the Word of the Lord." Philo, with his characteristic taste for an ethical, mystical interpretation, represents the history as a parable of man's victory over his lower, sensuous nature. The metal, the symbol of permanence and strength, has changed the meaning of the symbol, and that which had before been the emblem of the will, yielding to and poisoned by the serpent pleasure, now represents σωφροσύνη, the ἀντιπαθὲς ἀκολαδίας φάρμακον (De Agricult.). The facts just stated may help us to enter into the bearing of the words of Joh 3:14-15. If the paraphrase of Jonathan represents, as it does, the current interpretation of the schools of Jerusalem, the devout rabbi to whom the words were spoken could not have been ignorant of it. The new teacher carried the lesson a step further. He led him to identify the "Name of the Word of the Lord" with that of the Son of man. He prepared him to see in the lifting up of the crucifixion that which should answer in its power to heal and save to the serpent in the wilderness.

4. Our Lord's Allusion to the Object (John 3). — A full discussion of the typical meaning here unfolded belongs to exegesis rather than to a dictionary. It will be enough to note here that which connects itself with facts or theories already mentioned. On the one side the typical interpretation has been extended to all the details. The pole on which the serpent was placed was not only a type of the cross, but was itself crucial in form (Just. Mart. Dial. c. Tryph. p. 322). The serpent was nailed to it as Christ was nailed. As the symbol of sin, it represented his being made sin for us. The very metal, like the fine brass of Re 1:15, was an emblem of the might and glory of the Son of Man (comp. Lampe, ad loc.). On the other, it has been maintained (Patrick and Jackson, ut supra) that the serpent was from the beginning, and remains still, exclusively the symbol of evil; that the lifting up of the Son of man answered to that of the serpent because on the cross the victory over the serpent was accomplished. The point of comparison lay not between the serpent and Christ, but between the look of the Israelite to the outward sign and the look of a justifying faith to the cross of Christ. It will not surprise us to find that in the spiritual, as in the historical interpretation, both theories have an element of truth. The serpent here also is primarily the emblem of the "knowledge of good and evil." To man, as having obtained that knowledge by doing evil, it has been as a venomous serpent, poisoning and corrupting. In the nature of the Son of Man it is once more in harmony with the divine will, and leaves the humanity pure and untainted. The crucifixion is the witness that the evil has been overcome by the good. Those who are bitten by the serpent find their deliverance in looking to him who knew evil only by subduing it, and who is therefore mighty to save. Well would it have been for the Church of Christ if it had been content to rest in this truth. Its history shows how easy it was for the old perversion to reproduce itself. The highest of all symbols might share the fate of the lower. It was possible even for the cross of Christ to pass into a Nehushtan (comp. Stier, Words of the Lord Jesus, on John 3, and Kurtz, Hist. of the Old Covenant [Eng. transl.], 3, 344-358).

What, then, are the particulars in which these acts in the Old and in the New Test. correspond; or what are the points of resemblance implied in our Lord's words — as and even so? In our answer we must avoid the error of trying to reckon up a number of these resemblances; and, indeed, we must look to essential correspondence, not to any fanciful likeness on the surface. This we must do in agreement with the principle that the relation is the same between the bitten Israelites and the serpent lifted up for them to look at as between perishing sinners and the crucified Savior who is offered to them. There are three such correspondences:

(1) There is "the serpent" which Moses lifted up in the wilderness, and there is "the Son of Man," lifted up in due time on the cross. It is in stating this point of resemblance, however, that there have been most extravagance and error, which have disgusted some sober thinkers, and induced them to deny it altogether — a denial which we think unwarrantable, when we observe the manner in which the two objects are singled out and placed together. The reference is certainly not at all to heathenish notions of the serpent as possessed of a healing power. Nor even is it directly to the old serpent, on whom Christ has inflicted a fatal wound, and made a show of him openly, triumphing over him in his cross. It is better to say that the brazen serpent had the form indeed of the serpents that actually wrought the mischief, but yet a serpent destitute of venom and impotent for evil; and that so God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, yet without sin. We prefer, however, to say that the brazen serpent seemed a most improbable means of curing the serpents' bites; and so he who was condemned and crucified as a malefactor seemed most unsuitable to save condemned and perishing men.

(2) There is the lifting up of the serpent upon the pole, no doubt in such a way as to render it conspicuous to the farthest extremities of the camp, which would be the more easily effected on account of its metallic brilliancy. Corresponding to this there is the lifting up of the Son of man, who says, "Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth" (Isa 45:22); as the apostle says to those who have heard the Gospel, "Before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you" (Ga 3:1). It is impossible to overlook this comparison, except by misinterpreting the expression "the Son of Man must be lifted up;" though there is no room for mistake when we have our Lord's own words, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me," by which phrase he signified the manner of his death, and was understood as doing so (Joh 12:32-34).

(3) There is the healing of the physical wound by the bodily eye looking to the serpent, and the corresponding spiritual healing by looking to the crucified Son of Man with the eye of faith — the natural life in the one case having that relation to the everlasting life in the other which the type always bears to the antitype.

Topical Outlines Nave's Bible Topics International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online King James Bible King James Dictionary

Verse reference tagging and popups powered by VerseClick™.