Looking Up: The Copper Serpent

When the Children of Israel complained, after not being able to cross through the land of Edom, God sent snakes to bite them. The cure for the snakebites was the creation of a copper serpent for the people who were bitten to look up at to cure them of their snakebites.[1] In the 2nd Book of Kings, it teaches however, that this copper serpent had become an idolatrous figure. As a result, “He (Hezekiah) removed the high places, shattered the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake that Moses made, for until then the Israelites were burning incense to it. It was called Nehushtan.”[2]

          What is this story all about? Ramban (Nahmanides) teaches that “God did not tell Moses to make a ‘serpent’ but a ‘seraph figure’”-in other words an angelic figure which was represented by a fiery serpent. He points out that the seraph “removes the damage by way of the damager” and that it demonstrates “that it is God who ‘deals death and gives life.’”[3] In other words, the point of the story is not the mythology but that only God can give or take life. Rashsbam expands on this, saying that anyone bitten by the snakes needed to look at the copper seraph, “thereby looking up, towards heaven.”[4] By turning towards God, the sinner would repent and be healed from the snakebite.

          The point of this story is that rather than complaining about the harshness of their journey through the desert, even though it was long and arduous, Israel needed to be reminded to maintain its faith in God. The serpent, just like in the example of Pharaoh’s court, is a reminder about who truly has power, and that Israel must always turn its eyes heavenward to be focused on the Divine. May this Shabbat remind us to do just that, to turn our eyes upward, finding gratitude, godliness, and positivity in everything we encounter rather than complaints, evil speech, and negativity.

[1] Numbers 21:9

[2] 2 Kings 18:4

[3] Ramban on Numbers 21:9. He quotes 1 Samuel 2:6 at the end of his comment.

[4] Rashbam on Numbers 21:8

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