Nehushtan: Moses’ Big Bronze Snake

Nehushtan, Michelangelo

Nehushtan, Michelangelo

Nehushtan: what a fabulous name. It sounds like an amazing character from a Tolkien book or a Robert E Howard story. Disappointingly enough, it’s only from the Bible, and it’s a minor reference at that.

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. (Numbers 21:4-9)

This passage is not often recited in church, which is a shame, because it is hilarious. Obviously a satire, anyone that can think that this is real is in serious denial or their version of God is some sort of mentally challenged Loki character that gets his jollies out of making people suffer; in this story, God can make snakes appear, but can not make them go away again. And, in order to protect yourself against them, the Israelites were supposed to look up at a molten idol, which they were expressly forbidden against in Exodus 34:17 in a little tome known as the 10 Commandments. Funny, funny stuff.

Thank you, Lord. May I have another?

Thank you, Lord. May I have another?

This passage reminds me of the computer Deep Thought, in Douglas Adams’ brilliant The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In the book, Deep Thought was created to answer the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, which he happily did. But, he was unfortunately not able to work out what the actual question was, leaving his creators thoroughly confused at the numerical answer of 42.

Moses: Alright, the snakes really did their job. We’re are all really impressed at your might now. The creation of the Earth, the Tower of Babel, and the Exodus out of Egypt still had us doubting, but these snakes really hit home. My question is, oh mighty one, … can you make the snakes go away now?

God: Well …. no, I can’t. I can call them, but … once they’re here, they’re here.

Moses: What are we to do? We’ve got snakes crawling all over us? I’ve got one hanging off my elbow now!

God: Tell you what, make a molten idol … I know, I know what I said before, but just forget that. Make a molten snake and put in on a pole. Then tell the people that if they are bitten by a snake, in their last dying breath, turn their heads and look up at the idol. When they look at it, I’ll neutralize the venom that’s in their bodies.

Moses: But… uh … if you can neutralize the venom, why don’t you just do that now. You know, before the snakes bite people.

God: Dunno. I work in mysterious ways.

Moses: And what if the people are outside the camp and can’t see the bronze snake from where they are?

God: That’s not really my problem.

Moses: What if they die before they …

God: Hey, they had it coming.

But I digress … Let’s jump out of mythology and into legend. 2 Kings to be exact.

King Hezekiah ruled of the southern kingdom of Judah from 715 to 687 BC. It was during his reign that the the Assyrians invaded the northern Kingdom of Israel, driving many of the inhabitants to abandon their homeland and travel south, greatly multiplying Judah’s population. It was perhaps this mass influx of foreigners that raised concerns about law, order, and idolatry. The following excerpt from 2 Kings displays Hezekiah as a great defender of the faith and a foe to unauthorized worship:

He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan. (2 Kings 18:4, NASB)

It seems that the lord kind of missed the fact that, if he gave them an idol to worship, that they might start worshiping it. Especially after he saw that they needed an actual commandment to get them to stop worshiping every inanimate object they happened upon in the first place.

Historically, what Hezekiah did was to centralize religious worship in Judah. The “high places” were unauthorized places of sacrifice. In those days, people were not allowed to slaughter their own meat. It needed to be done by a priest (a tradition that survives today in Orthodox Judaism). Normally, this would be done in the temple in Jerusalem, but, for the rural areas, makeshift alters were set up on plateaus: high places. The rural farmers would bring their livestock to these outlying areas for slaughter. Hezekiah removed the high places, thereby centralizing all sacrifice in the nation. This would bring an influx of people into Jerusalem, increasing revenue for the city. It would make sense for any political spin doctor to tie the king into the legends of old, especially a legend that has him one upping a mythical hero of the northern territory (Moses).

The Nehushtan story in general appears to be a remembrance of an ancient snake cult in Judah. Snake cults appear to have been common in ancient Israel, due to the large number of serpent adorned artifacts found there. Modern Archeology tells us that the Exodus as depicted in the Bible is not historical, so the story is either legend a morality play of some kind. And no one, king or not, would destroy a bronze statue molded by Moses himself. But, it’s an entertaining story. The bulk of the Exodus story seems to come from the E tradition, originating in the northern kingdom.

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17 Comments on “Nehushtan: Moses’ Big Bronze Snake”

  1. Sabio Says:

    There is indeed a universal Buddha field ! For how else could I have just written on the Nehushtan exactly 7 days ago and bang!! there it is appearing in your blog !


    • Cool. It is a fun story. I wasn’t aware of the mention in John, though, so you have one up on me for that. The Rod of Asclepius connection never really occurred to me, either. Good post.

  2. David Jebb Says:

    First I do not deny the Holy Spirit I was researching the word nehushtan which led me to your site.

    There are numerous references in the “old testament” part of the bible (which I believe to be a Jewish work) to a Messiah coming who would be crucified and who would rule.This is not a contradiction the Messiah was to come twice, ie having died and being raised from the dead He will return a second time.In the meantime He is in charge.

    The way in which people were executed in the Jewish culture before Jesus was around was by “stoning” Jesus however stated in John 3 v 14 “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness even so must the Son of Man be lifted up”
    This is full of symbolism. Jesus would be lifted up on a cross – he was going to die but not by “stoning”
    He was going to defeat the serpent. In the time of Moses people simply looked to the serpent for healing
    here in verse 15 Jesus says
    “so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.

    God continues to be in control and we each at some point need to give a personal account. It is good that you are reading the bible and I encourage you to keep doing so and I pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to reveal the deep truths about Jesus to us all.


    • Any good author will use a certain amount of symbolism in their writing, and John was definitely a good writer. The Moses stories would have been very popular, so it would make every bit of sense for an author in the 1st or 2nd century to refer to them.

      Messiah simply means “Annointed One”, Christ being the Greek word for it. Jews were indeed waiting for a new Davidic heir, but there is no prediction of Jesus in the Torah. Supposed examples of these predictions that I have seen is every use of the words annointed or annointing (this was a common practice); quotes from the OT (like Psalm 2:7) which, in order to mean anything would have to assume that the writers of the gospels were unaware of their cultures own scriptures and therefore couldn’t just be quoting them (which is a real leap of faith, in my opinion); reapplying Psalm 22 to be about Jesus instead of the author who is writing in the first person; and the Septuagint version of Isaiah, which the Dead Sea Scrolls proved used a mis-translation of the Greek word parthenos (virgin) for the Hebrew word almah (young girl) (oddly enough, in the very next chapter of Isaiah, a child is born to a young girl and this is oddly ignored).

      If a prediction has to be selectively chosen and reinterpreted to that degree, then what kind of a prediction is it? One only for those that want there to be a prediction?

      There are some parallels between Moses and Jesus in Mathew, and this appears to be on purpose. Mathew uses a lot of Jewish symbolism, including Moses allusions, line doubling and heavy quoting of the Old Testament.

      Thanks for commenting, it is always interesting to hear how vastly differently people can see these writings.

  3. Mike Caven Says:

    Hello and Happy New New to you – I was doing my morning Bible reading and today I read 2 Kings 18, and came up to verse where “Nehushtan” is mention, so I decided to google it. ( I did read your article, interesting.)

    Hence how i found your site. I am launching a new site in just a few weeks which will have the “url” address at: http://www.restorepurity.com Presently you may see my work at www,restore.barnsey.me The purpose for this email is I would like to know how I may get a hold of the picture of the “snake bitting the man in the eye?” If I could get it I would use it on the homepage of my site. A picture is still worth a thousand words and in my case I would use the picture concerning being addicted to porn. The site will be in two parts with this first part totally free. Part two we hope to generate some income but on this part no money will be made. If the picture is yours, would you consider releasing it to me to use solely on this site or if it is owned by someone else could you please let me know how to contact that person. Blessings and Success Mike Caven

  4. Joshua Says:

    Very intereseting!im looking for pics to use 4 a tatoo and stumble across this site.I plan on using the tatoo of the serpent as a platform to spread the gospel of CHRIST.Greater things r yet to be done.Here we r n the year of our lord 2010 talking about God and his glory and his works ….truly amazing!Well whatever u take from this thank u 4 being a light 2 draw this moth frum the dark may god continue 2 shed his light and mercy and abovr all Grace


  5. Like others, I was looking up a word in the Bible
    (Nehushtan)and stumbled across your site. I personally found your site to be offensive and blasphemous. I take great exception to your cavalier header, “By reading this blog you deny the Holy Spirit”. I understand that not everyone believes in the holy living God, but as a student of the Word of God, I do not understand why BING would have you listed a reference for words in a book for which you obviously have nothing but contempt. I have requested of them to remove your site as a Biblical reference. Perhaps if you must be a reference, you could be found under “Blasphemy” or simply “Fool”.

    • Victor Says:

      Are you criticizing my religious beliefs? If you believe the Bible is a book of magic spells that cannot ever be read by anyone with any views different from your own, that’s fine. But, you’d better stop seeking out other people’s views if other people’s views upset you so much.


  6. Dear Victor,

    I can not possbily critize your religious beliefs because they are the incoherant ravings of a hostile heretic. Your statement, “If you think the Bible is a book of magic spells…” is such a sophmoric statement that it defies response. Perhaps you should spend less time “blogging” and more time researching the eternal truths that the Bible holds. But you will need the Holy Spirit for understanding. I am done with you. If you reply, I will not see it as I will not link to your site again.

    Betsy

    • Victor Says:

      “the eternal truths”? Come on. If you think the Bible is magic, holding secrets of mystical understanding, then every little piece of information you happen upon that does not back up your superstition is going to be offensive to you. I enjoy the Bible quite a bit, I just don’t think it’s supernatural or in need of defense.

      I really really think, for your own better health, that you should read the Bible carefully, beginning to end. Perhaps even take some Kione Greek and read some of the original. If that’s too much, just get a few different translations and compare and contrast them. Biblegateway has several. I would suggest both the American Standard and English standard versions. But, get the notion out of your head that the Bible is an idol in need of special reverence and in need of defense.

      Do you really believe that a being capable of creating the universe could think of no other way of communicating with human beings that writing a book? That it inspired special writings, but didn’t bother to insure that they got translated correctly? It decided to let people fight over language, phrases, and words? That the book could not be understood unless a special spirit enters into your body? If that’s the case, what’s the difference between you and someone that believes in voodoo dolls? Seriously? The Holy Spirit guiding you explanation for “truly understanding” the Bible makes even less sense. If that was the case, it would be your god’s fault people don’t all read the Bible the same way. He could just inject a little Holy Spirit in them. They, why bother with the Bible in the first place?

      I don’t know whether you will ever snap out of the superstition that has somehow gotten into you, but I hope you do. Life is much better without blinders on. When I research opinions on the Bible I find beliefs way way different from mine all the time. But I have never become upset by them, let alone complained to a search engine about them then started posting messages on their site calling them fools.

  7. susej Says:

    Whoowee! What mildly incensed hatred…we must have all blasphemed the Holy Ghost:the host 4 being so heretical as stated; Betsy 4 daring 2 encroach in spite of the disclaimer…what disclaimer? I didn’t see any warning THAT my entry constituted blasphemy in spite of my failure2 see it. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, THAT’s why when He comes He shall apply THAT principle 2 the scoffers. It’s all cool&in good fun. It’s a fun cite like The fun center MKB visited in “A Devine Revelation of Hell.”
    I hope u all read my book if IAM ever able2 go into print;don’t know why He would find it necessary 2 want2 considering He is God & therefore doesn’t have2. Aw, well alas this Berry! Have a nice life & afterlife2 if u believe in One. I do. Don’t be so upset, after all it’s still America so far 4A little while yet. Bye!

  8. Amdrew Says:

    what an ignoramus..

  9. Highstreet Dave Says:

    Hi Universal Heretic,

    Thanks very much for the piece – very interesting indeed.
    Like everyone else, it seems, I was doing some research after reading my Bible, and I figured that there may well be a lot on the net about “Nehushtan” – it sounds like the kind of word that people will base a cult around. And that is indeed the case – from a Christian point of view, your blog is not the strangest, weirdest or most blasphemous; I found other stranger interpretations than yours.
    Nehushtan does sound like an Orc lord from Tolkein, doesn’t he? Or maybe a Ring-Wraith. Or better yet, it could have been the planet that invented that Old Janx Spirit from THGTTG – I can just see it, with Zaphod and Ford drinking themselves under the table. I agree, it is disappointing that it is just a snake-on-a-stick. As you spotted straight away, man’s inability to remain upright in the presence of something as amazing as a bronze snake led to the Israelites worshipping it, which as you helpfully point out from the Bible is not something God actually told them to do. “Look at it and live” does not equate to “worship”.
    “Look at it and live” is indeed the answer to the question. What you need now is to know what the question is. And it isn’t “How do we get rid of these snakes?”, or even “How many roads must a man walk down?”
    Have a truly great week.

  10. scott Says:

    While plenty of passages reveal the henotheistic & monolotristic roots of Judaism with tacit acknowledgement of the existence of Caananite gods, what impresses me about the survival of the Nehushtan story in the Hebrew Bible is that it’s the only one that provides an aetiological myth, with yhwh’s approval, to explain the source of the cult practices. Was Nehushtan such a minor deity that scribes were unthreatened with copying this yhwh & Moses-sactioned idolotry? Do archaeologists believe these snake cults originated in Canaan with the early Hebrew religions or were they associated with Egyptian practices?

    • Victor Says:

      From what I understand, there are snake idols found all over the region, in and around ancient Israel. So, it would be hard to say if the cult was imported from somewhere else, or originated there.

      I almost get the impression that the Biblical compilers put the story in there to diminish the beliefs of an existing snake cult. Saying, yes your idol does exist; it may even work, but it works because of our god.

      William Dever has a good lecture up on Youtube about the archaeological evidence for non-yhwh worship in ancient Israel. He focuses on Asherah, the female deity, but it paints a pretty good picture. The section where he talks about the worship stones in the temple is quite revealing when compared to the 2 Kings passage in which Josiah removes Nehushtan from the temple. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0eL8K_PYAk&feature=relmfu


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