The Fiery Serpent

One of the strangest sections of the Torah appears this week. Moses and Aaron are challenged again, the people proclaiming “there is no food or water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread.”[1] The response from G-d is to set against the people fiery snakes to bite them. According to Rashi the fire was venom which burned the people it bit.[2] Rashi views this punishment as an act of מדה כנגד מדה, a measure-for-measure punishment: as the snake was smitten for speaking wickedly, it is fitting that it punishes the people who spoke wickedly.  Likewise, as the people who complained about manna, which tasted like anything they wanted, were punished by the animal for which everything tastes the same. [3]

We know from the beginning of the Torah that snakes are not endearing animals. We have the trickster snake which entices Eve to eat the fruit in the Garden of Eden. We have Moses’ rod turning into a snake which Rashi takes as a rebuke for Moses doubting G-d.[4] Now we have snakes afflicting the Israelites. What’s even more bizarre is that the when the Israelites cry out to G-d, He tells Moses to construct a fiery seraph[5] and hang it on a pole and when those bitten look at it they will recover. Moses follows G-d’s command, making a copper snake, a נחש נחשת, which healed our ancestors of their afflictions.

Why create a serpent to look at? Isn’t this a form of idolatry? Why not tell the Israelites to pray to G-d? As a matter of fact the Mishnah[6] does just that, proclaiming “at such time as the Israelites directed their thoughts on high and kept their hearts in subjection to their Father in Heaven, they were healed; otherwise they died.” Similarly the Zohar[7] states “as soon as the victim turns his eyes and sees the likeness of the serpent, he becomes filled with awe and prays to G-d, knowing that this was the punishment that he deserved.”

However, are these serpents really a sign of G-d rather than of an alternative deity? While the original intent might be for the serpent to be a sign for one to turn to G-d, we see later in the Bible that it became viewed as a separate deity. We learn that King Hezekiah destroyed “the brazen serpent that Moses had made for in those days the children of Israel made offerings to it; and it was called Nehushtan.”[8] The Torah does not give a name to the serpent presumably because it was a tangible emanation of G-d. By turning to it in repentance, our ancestors were healed from their snakebites. As we learn from the Talmud,[9] it was not the serpent that healed the Israelites but rather their looking up and submitting themselves to G-d. However, over time the serpent became viewed as a deity on its own, having been given a name and receiving its own offerings.

Was this snake ever meant to promote worship of our G-d or was it taken from a religion who worshipped the snake? While we can speculate about the origin of the snake, it is clear that snakes have played a vital role in our sacred text. The first reference to the snake is that it was cleverer  ( ערום) than any other animal[10]. Although its cleverness would prove to be its undoing, the snake has remained a key figure in our tradition. The same seraph, or winged, fiery snake described in our sedra, becomes one of the classifications of angels up in heaven. The seraphim are the angels that cry out קדוש קדוש קדוש ה צבאות מלא כל הארץ כבודו-Holy Holy Holy is the LORD of Hosts; the entire earth is filled with his glory![11] These seraphim maintain a lofty place in the celestial realms as messengers of G-d and as angels which proclaim G-d’s greatness. They represent what the serpent was supposed to be before its fall in the Garden of Eden: an intelligent, exalted creature of high magnitude.

Things are not always as they appear prima facie. The snake of the Garden of Eden is a messenger of G-d, sent not to give into temptation. The snakes which bite the people are also messengers of G-d to be grateful for what you have and not take it for granted. The snake, the animal which punishes the people, also saves them from death, for G-d can use any creature or any representation as a means through which to bring about salvation. It is this lesson that we need to remember: nothing is good or bad per se; what’s important is what it represents at any given moment in time. We need to remember that everything comes from G-d and can be used for good or for bad. The snake can represent G-d’s great power, messenger of G-d, or become worshipped in and of itself, devoid of the Almighty. We need to keep it as the former, a symbol of G-d’s great power.

[1] Numbers 21:5

[2] Rashi on Numbers 21:6

[3] Ibid

[4] Rashi on Exodus 4:3

[5] A snake with wings, taken by our tradition to be one of the types of angels.

[6] Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:5

[7] Zohar Shelach Lecha 175

[8] 2 Kings 18:4

[9] Rosh Hashanah 29a

[10] Genesis 3:1

[11] Isaiah 6:3

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