Bronze Serpent

SERPENT, BRONZE (נְחַ֨שׁ הַנְּחֹ֜שֶׁת). A term used only in 2 Kings 18:4 to denote that serpent which had been made of bronze (copper) by Moses (Num 21:4-9). It is called a “brasen” serpent in the KJV.

The occasion for the molding of the serpent of bronze was a time of complaint by the Israelites against God, and Moses His servant. Just prior to this Moses had been provoked by their murmuring to strike a rock in anger, thus dishonoring his God and losing the privilege of leading the people of God into the Promised Land. In addition, Aaron had just died and been buried. Yet the people, evidently unconcerned about these great tragedies, complained about poor food. God punished them with fiery serpents whose bite killed many.

When the people repented, God ordered Moses to make a serpent of bronze. The people were told to look with trust in God to the bronze serpent. Those who did were healed by God from the serpent’s bite.

Later on superstitious and idolatrous persons among the Israelites worshiped the serpent of bronze until, in Hezekiah’s day, it was destroyed for having become an object of idolatry. Hezekiah called it “Nehushtan” (a piece of bronze), meaning by this that in and of itself, it was nothing more.

Later, our Lord likened His death on the cross to the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness by Moses. As many were healed of their physical sicknesses then, so in Christ those who look to Him in faith are saved from sin and death (John 3:14, 15).

The fact that in ancient times many people believed that serpents had curative powers has apparently no relation to this event. Plainly, God ordered the serpent made. The later idolatry was a perversion by the people of that good thing God had done.

Bibliography

T. Meek, Hebrew Origins (1936), 122ff., 131ff.; H. Rowley, The Rediscovery of the Old Testament (1946), 72ff.; A. Pieters, Notes on Old Testament History (1950), 85; G. Wright, The Old Testament Against Its Environment (1950), 24; D. Baly, The Geography of the Bible (1957), 212.