Nehushtan

NEHUSHTAN (nĕ-hŭsh'tăn, Heb. nehushtān, perhaps brass serpent). The name given to the serpent of brass surviving from the times of Moses but destroyed by Hezekiah during his reforms because the Israelites had been making it an object of worship (2Kgs.18.4).


NEHUSHTAN nĭ hoosh’ tən (נְחֻשְׁתָּֽן, bronze one). A Mosaic brazen serpent.

Though as yet unnamed, Nehushtan’s origin is described in Numbers 21:4-9. There, in the fall of 1407 b.c., Israel’s last year in the wilderness, as the nation was journeying to the S of the Dead Sea around the N end of Edom (cf. Y. Aharoni and M. Avi-Yonah, The Macmillan Bible Atlas, map 52), the people in their discouragement “spoke against God and against Moses, ‘why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?’” (Num 21:5). God, as a result, sent among them נְחָשִׁ֣ים שְׂרָפִ֔ים, fiery serpents, i.e., snakes with a burning venom (BDB, 977; cf. KB, 932); and these caused considerable death (v. 6).

Upon Israel’s repentance, Moses interceded with Yahweh who instructed him in turn to make out of copper or bronze a שָׂרָ֔ף, “burning serpent” (see Seraphim), perhaps so called because of its flashing in the light (KD, Pentateuch, III:139). It was, in any event, elevated upon a standard; and anyone who had been bitten, “when he sees it, shall live” (v. 8). To its contemporaries, Nehushtan therefore symbolized a looking to God in faith for salvation; and into the future it typified Christ’s being lifted up on the cross, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15; cf. Luke 23:42, 43).

With the passage of time, however, Israel lost sight of the symbolical and typical function of Nehushtan; and by the later eighth cent. b.c., were burning incense to it, as if it were in itself a deity (2 Kings 18:4). As a part, therefore, of Hezekiah’s overall campaign against the high places and their idolatrous objects, begun in the first year of his reign (2 Chron 29:1) in the spring of 725 (see CHRONOLOGY OF THE OT, IX. C. 6; BS, 126 [1969], 40-52), the king broke the serpent into pieces (2 Kings 18:4). The name Nehushtan was then assigned to it, prob. in disparagement: it was not נָחָשׁ, H5729, the “serpent,” but simply נְחֹ֫שֶׁת, H5733, a “bronze” something (on the -ān ending, cf. J. Montgomery, JAOS, 58 [1938], 131). Nehushtan thus exists as an example of how an originally good, redemptive ritualistic object may be perverted into its opposite and become detrimental to true saving faith.

Bibliography

On associated theories of negative criticism: H. H. Rowley, “Zadok and Nehushtan,” JBL, 58 (1939), 132-141.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(nechushtan; compare nechosheth, "brass," and nachash, "serpent"):

1. Traditional Interpretation:

The word occurs but once, namely, in 2Ki 18:4. In the account there given of the reforms carried out by Hezekiah, it is said that "he brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made; for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it; and he called it Nehushtan." According to the Revised Version margin the word means "a piece of brass." If this be correct, the sense of the passage is that Hezekiah not only breaks the brazen serpent in pieces but, suiting the word to the act, scornfully calls it "a (mere) piece of brass." Hezekiah thus takes his place as a true reformer, and as a champion of the purification of the religion of Israel. This is the traditional interpretation of the passage, and fairly represents the Hebrew text as it now stands.

2. Derivation: A Proper Noun:

There are at least three considerations, however, which throw doubt upon this interpretation. In the first place, the word Nehushtan is not a common noun, and cannot mean simply "a piece of brass." The point of the Biblical statement is entirely lost by such a construction. It is emphatically a proper noun, and is the special name given to this particular brazen serpent. As such it would be sacred to all worshippers of the brazen serpent, and familiar to all who frequented the Temple. In the second place, it is probable that Nehushtan is to be derived from nachash, "serpent," rather than from nechosheth, "brass,"

(1) because the Greek VSS, representing a form of the Hebrew text earlier than Massoretic Text, suggest this in their transliteration of Nehushtan (Codex Vaticanus Nesthalei; Codex Alexandrinus Nesthan);

(2) because the Hebrew offers a natural derivation of Nehushtan from nachash, "serpent"; and

(3) because the name of the image would more probably be based on its form than on the material out of which it was made. In the third place, the reading, "and it was called," which appears in the Revised Version margin, is decidedly preferable to that in the text. It not only represents the best reading of the Hebrew, but is confirmed by the similar reading, "and they called it," which appears in the Greek version referred to above. These readings agree in their indication that Nehushtan was the name by which the serpent-image was generally known during the years it was worshipped, rather than an expression used for the first time by Hezekiah on the occasion of its destruction.

Whichever derivation be adopted, however, the word must be construed as a proper name. If it be derived from "brass," then the translation must be, not "a piece of brass," but "The (great) Brass," giving the word a special sense by which it refers unequivocally to the well-known image made of brass. If it be derived from "serpent," then the translation must be, "The (great) Serpent," the word in this case referring in a special sense to the well-known image in serpent form. But the significance of the word probably lies far back of any etymological explanation of it that can now be given. It is not a term that can be adequately explained by reference to verbal roots, but is rather an epitome of the reverence of those who, however mistakenly, looked upon the brazen serpent as a proper object of worship.

In view of the foregoing it may be concluded,

(1) that Nehushtan was the (sacred) name by which the brazen serpent was known during the years "the children of Israel did burn incense to it";

(2) that the word is derived from nachash, "serpent"; and

(3) that it was used in the sense of "The Serpent," paragraph excellence.

See Images, 6, (2); SERPENT, FIERY.

Lindsay B. Longacre