Copper Serpent, The

views updated


COPPER SERPENT, THE (av, rv, "brazen serpent") (Heb. נְחַשׁ נְחשֶׁת; neḥash neḥoshet), a symbol set upon a standard by Moses at the Divine command (Num. 21:6–10). The instructions from the Lord followed a plague of "*seraph-serpents" sent against the people of Israel in the course of their wanderings through the desert. The purpose of the image was therapeutic; anyone bitten by a serpent could be healed by looking at it (cf. lxx, i Sam. 5:6 with mt, i Sam. 6:5). Since the peril was identified with the demonic power within the serpent, the copper image mounted on a staff constituted a counter-equivalent power which was an effective prophylaxis. Although the Pentateuch account regards the copper serpent as legitimate, King *Hezekiah broke it to pieces (ii Kings 18:4) in the course of his reforms. It had come to be looked upon as idolatrous, on a par with the bamot ("High Places") and Asherah-groves, because the people had accepted it as a fetish, offering incense to it (the form kitter (qiṭṭer) instead of hiktir (hiqṭir) has a pejorative connotation). It is unclear from the end of ii Kings 18:4 whether it was Hezekiah or the people who named the image Nehushtan. Some scholars regard the chapters in Numbers as an etiological account serving to justify the original adoption of this pre-Israelite cult-figure by the Jerusalemite priest-hood, and as an attempt to emphasize the independent healing power of the Lord. The origin of the name Nehushtan is uncertain. Some regard it as having been formed from neḥoshet + the affirmative -an, and meaning "a copper object." Others note the play on words involving naḥash ("snake"), neḥoshet ("copper"), and perhaps also the verb niḥesh ("to practice divination"). It may be, however, that the -an suffix represents the Semitic dual ending.

Parallels from Other Cultures

Entwined serpents with wings indicating the equilibrium of the forces of life and death have been traced as far back as late third millennium Mesopotamia, in the design of the sacrificial cup of King Gudea of Lagash. Rituals designed to avert an evil power or concerning healing which involve serpents and images of them are known from Egypt and Mesopotamia. In addition, the serpent as a life-healing symbol was a common feature in the Canaanite fertility cult. It was associated with the mother-goddess Asherah on pendant reliefs and on incense altars. A small bronze serpent was found at pre-Israelite Gezer, and a bronze plaque with a woman flanked by two serpents was unearthed in Late Bronze Age Hazor. Finally, primitive religions frequently give examples of the conjunction of opposites, of serpents as symbols of sex and death or of death and rebirth. This concept was borrowed by the Greeks and served as the prototype of the caduceus, the staff with a handle of two intertwined serpents. The Greek physician-god Asklepios, too, was associated with snakes.

[Michael Fishbane]

In the Aggadah

The Mishnah explains that the copper serpent was in itself ineffective as a healing agent. It merely signified that if the children of Israel would raise their eyes upward and subordinate their hearts to the will of the heavenly Father, they would be healed (rh 3:8). It also brought healing to those who had been bitten by other animals. In the case of the latter however, a casual glance sufficed for the cure, whereas in the former case they were healed only after a prolonged, insistent gaze (tj, rh 59a). The appellation Nehushtan given to the serpent when it was destroyed by Hezekiah was regarded as a plural form, indicating that sacrifice to it involved the loss both of the present and future life (Yal., Num. 764, p. 524). The rabbis endorsed the action of Hezekiah in destroying this venerable relic, since it had become an object of idolatrous worship (Ber. 10b; Pes. 56a).


G.B. Gray, Numbers (icc, 1912), 274–8; J.A. Montgomery, Kings (icc, 1951), 481; J. Gray, i and ii Kings (1963), 608–9; Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 1 (1960), 670, 682–3; 2 (1960), 130, 265–6; Rowley, in: jbl, 58 (1939), 113–41; W.W. Baudissin, Adonis und Esmun (1911), 203ff.; R.A.S. Macalister, The Excavation of Gezer, 2 (1912), 399, fig. 488; Y. Yadin, et al., Hazor, 2 (1956), 117–8, pl. clxxxi, Barnett, in: Eretz Israel, 8 (1967), 3 (Eng. section); J.C. Henderson and M. Oakes, The Wisdom of the Serpent (1963); M. Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958), esp. 164–71, 441–5, 457; Haran, in: vt, 10 (1960), 117–8. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, 3 (1947), 336, 480; 6 (1946), 115–6, 368–9. add. bibliography: B. Levine, Numbers 21–36 (ab; 2000), 87–90.