Numbers 21:1- 9
Terry Harman, D.Min, PhD
Photo of Nehushtan – Dr. Jason Eric Renna
In July 2019 I drove to Denver, Colorado to be with my friend and fellow prop-maker, Dr; Jason Eric Renna. Before my visit the two of us decided we’d work together on a new prop both of us wanted to make. We chose to build Nehushtan the Copper or Bronze snake mentioned in Numbers 21 and to learn how to not become a "snake in the grass" or in this case, a snake under a rock!. I was invited to be a guest at the worship service of Liberty Church in Denver Colorado. With Nehushtan mock-up complete we decided to give a preview to Dr. Renna’s congregation for Saturday services.
Since this is a new work the congregation is meeting in one of the conference rooms of the local library. While Dr. Renna and the others were unloading the sound system and musical equipment from the truck I decided to take my new friend Nehushtan inside the building for safe keeping. Copper snake in hand I approached the door like any new visitor. I immediately greeted at the door by one of the lay leaders of the church. Not thinking about introducing myself the first words out of my mouth were, “Hey I’m Terry. Where do you want me to put the snake?” With a puzzled look he said, “Oh you must be looking for the other room where that group meets.” Little did I know that several different types of meetings were scheduled that day in the library. We both got a good laugh when I tried to explain to him that I knew his pastor and it was okay for me to bring the snake to the service that day. The greeter concluded with, “Ohhhh . . . you must be the guy pastor told us about.”
In my study of Torah, I find the biblical writer often communicates the message by using one of the gods of Egypt as illustration. These common reference points are used to teach the Israelites a lesson about personal or corporate spirituality. For example, one of the gods of Egypt was depicted as a Ram, the very thing God told Moses and the people to slay on Passover. Another example is the golden calf constructed by Aaron when he caved into the demands of the “mixed multitude” to create a god to lead them out of the wilderness. Many readers are unaware that the golden calf represented the bull or Taurus. In chapter 21 of the book of Numbers a serpent is used to illustrate a spiritual lesson. In this article we will learn that the copper snake possibly represented a female goddess of the Egyptian pantheon of gods.
The Apostle Paul took notice the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites. In his first letter to the Church at Corinth, a church with multiple factions and problems, Paul made it a point to refer to the stories of the wilderness wanderings. “Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted” (1 Corinthians 10:6 KJV). As we explore the story of Nehushtan let’s see if there is any resemblance between us and the grumbling, rebellious spirit of the Israelites. How can we avoid being bitten by snakes of becoming snake bitters or a snake in the grass?
Soul of the people – ne·fesh a soul, living being, life, self, person,
desire, passion, appetite, emotion
became impatient – vat·tik·tzar to be short, impatient, annoyed
The journey from mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, so they could bypass the land of Edom took. There was a direct path to their destiny, but the Edomites refused the Israelites passage through their land (Number 20:14-21). These weary souls had to turn around and travel back to the wilderness they just left and that was the opposite direction of Canaan – The Promised Land. This re-routing around Edom caused the Israelites to travel far out of their way.
The result - the people of God just plain lost heart. The terrain, the heat and the travel conditions drained the energy out of the people, and they did not have the appetite to believe in the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey. No doubt, negativity and bad-mouthing of the “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38; Numbers 11:4) that joined the Israelites on their exodus out of Egypt, intensified any feelings of discouragement.
Who belonged to the group identified as the mixed multitude? William Smith suggests the “mixed” alludes to the mixed marriages that occurred between the Hebrews and lower standing Egyptians.
When the Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, the first stage of the exodus from Egypt, there were up with them "a mixed multitude" (Exodus 12:38 ;
Numbers 11:4 ). They were probably the offspring of marriages contracted between the Israelites and the Egyptians; and the term may also include all those who were not of pure Israelite blood. In Exodus and Numbers, it probably denoted the miscellaneous hangers-on of the Hebrew camp, whether they were the issue of spurious marriages with Egyptians or were themselves Egyptians or belonging to other nations.1
Shaul Bar in his article, Who were the mixed multitudes, 2 proposes the members of this “mixed” group were not mere Egyptian slaves who intermarried with the Israelites but they were mercenaries who intermarried with the people of God and they left Egypt with weapons.
Regardless of who this group of people where we will see their influence again in Exodus 32 when they convince Aaron and the Israelites to craft a calf out of gold!
Like the Israelites, God has a destination in mind for each of us. Do you remember your personal “exodus” out of Egypt? The way was not always easily defined. There were challenges along the way. Sometimes we knew the specific route to our promised land.
Golden Calf teaching prop crafted by
Terry Harman and Hector Marin.
At other times, we are only given the initial path to take and it required stepping out in faith. Not being able to see into the future we had to lay hold of his promise for us,
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11 JPS 1917).
Often, our path to our destiny becomes more and more complicated due to the influence of the mixed multitude we allow to tag along with us as we discern God’s will for our life. Sometimes we are involved in poisonous relationships or toxic friendships that distract us from the path we know to follow. When we are unequally yoked and influenced by allowing the wrong people into our inner circle of our heart, the path to our destiny is fraught with obstacles.
Eight times before this episode, the Israelites rose up to speak against Moses.
* And the people murmured against Moses, saying: ‘What shall we drink?’ Exodus 15:24
* And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness Exodus 16:2
* And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said: ‘Wherefore hast thou brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?’ Exodus 17:3
* And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman. Numbers 12:1
* And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron; and the whole congregation said unto them: ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would we had died in this wilderness! Numbers 14:2
* And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?’ Numbers 16:3
* Moreover, thou hast not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards; wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.’ Numbers 16:14
* And there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. Numbers 20:2
As the Israelite’s patience grew thin, they began to bad mouth God and Moses. Eight times the Israelites rose up to speak against Moses. Verse five indicates that the ninth time the Israelites were brazen enough to openly speak against Moses and God! However, they were only fooling themselves. Each time Moses and God knew what was in the heart of the people who were murmuring.
* And in the morning, then ye shall see the glory of the LORD; for that He hath heard your murmurings against the LORD; and what are we that ye murmur against us?’ And Moses said: ‘This shall be, when the LORD shall give you in the evening flesh to eat, and in the morning bread to the full; for that the LORD heareth your murmurings which ye murmur against Him; and what are we? Your murmurings are not against us, but against the LORD.’ Exodus 16:7-8
* ‘How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, that keep murmuring against Me? I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they keep murmuring against Me. Numbers 14:27
Listen to their complaint. We were released from Egyptian bondage only to wander in the middle of nowhere without food or water and then eventually die in the wilderness “and our soul loatheth this light bread.” Both complaints are untrue. God sent manna from heaven for them to eat and water from the rock for them to drink.
light - hak·ke·lo·kel contemptible or worthless
bread - bal·le·chem bread
What is the “light bread” they are murmuring about? It is the manna which God was providing daily – their daily bread! Their complaints are not because God is not providing food that makes them impatient, but rather they don’t like the kind of food God is providing. They crave something better. Something that stirs their palates and manna will no longer meet their needs. The fleshly cravings and lack of patience displayed by the Israelites are like some of ours: “I want what I want, and I want it now!”
True the Israelites faced real challenges and it was natural to be discouraged with the death of Miriam and Aaron. But given everything God has done for the people were their complaints justified? These weary travelers were on the threshold of the Promised Land! They were closer to reaching their destiny than the previous generations that came before them. All they had to do was push forward a little longer.
Unfortunately, they fell into the same trap as their parents and grandparents – the snare of unbelief and negativity. God sustained the people with a daily supply of manna and yet they considered it worthless (hak·ke·lo·kel) and spoke contemptible words against God and his leadership. Something had to be done to reverse the course.
As tough as it is for us to hear, the plain reading of Numbers 21 suggests that the Lord responded to the chaos and confusion the naysayers were creating amongst the Israelites by sending poisonous serpents to bite the people. Before we delve into the rest of the story, there is an interesting word play at work with the use of “fiery serpents” (nahashim haseraphim), “serpents” (nahash), and “serpent of brass” (nahash nehoshet)in verses six through nine.
nehash - is the root of the word. This root alone does not appear to be used anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. The BDB Theological Dictionary3 suggests this root word may be onomatopoeic. In Numbers the serpent is described with a word by imitating the hiss of a snake. Jeremiah 46:22 in the NET offers another illustration of this linguistic device:
Egypt will run away, hissing like a snake, as the enemy comes marching up in force. They will come against her with axes as if they were woodsmen chopping down trees. 4
nechosheth – is often translated as bronze in many English translations. However, the Hebrew word for the metal being referred to was probably copper.
Photo from Word Press: Horned Viper
The opinion held here is the serpent or snake that bit the Israelites may have been the “horned viper” or the “sand viper” which was common to the region of the wilderness wandering. The horned viper is “One of the poisonous snakes the Egyptians feared . . . When the horned viper attacks, it rasps its coils together before springing forward. The rasping sounds like the letter f, and the horned viper was used as the hieroglyph to write the sound.5 The horned viper is copper in color (see above).
Is it possible for Moses to be describing the serpent as a “copper hisser?” Another interesting bit of information is “Egyptians had an intimate knowledge of snakes. . . . and the name of the god or goddess of which the snake is considered to be a manifestation” is the snake god Apophis (Apep) was considered the enemy of order, or Ma'at.”6
Question: Was the copper snake crafted by Moses a symbol of the “horned viper” which symbolized the manifestation of the snake god Apophis (Apep) which was the enemy of order? Was this done to remind them that the copper snake he crafted was a symbol of disorder, chaos and discord created within their ranks when the grumblers spoke against Moses and the Lord? Did Moses consider the backbiting of the naysayers to be like the hissing of a snake?
sinned cha·ta·nu– to miss the mark, miss the way
prayed vai·yit·pal·lel – intervene or intercede on behalf of
Lord Yah·weh – This is the proper or divine name of God. This is the primary name used for God in Leviticus when the
people are seeking forgiveness and bring their Korban
(offerings) to the altar of burnt sacrifice to draw closer to
Gazing at the copper serpent reminded the people why they were bitten by the snakes in the first place – the sin of speaking against Moses and God. The acknowledgement of their sin was the first step in their healing. They deserved to be punished for their sins. After all, God delivered them from Egyptian bondage, fed and watered them in the wilderness. Looking at the snake and remembering the reason behind the sting of the viper was the first step toward repentance and forgiveness.
Did looking at the copper serpent on the pole cure the snake-bitten Israelites? Jewish sages have struggled with this notion for ages. To explain Nehushtan the Mishnah, which is a collection of exegetical discussions from the oral tradition of Jewish law, indicates looking at a copper snake on a pole was not what cured the Israelites. Rather if the Israelites gazed upwards, God cured them.
“And the Lord said to Moses: Make for yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole and whoever is bitten may look at it and live” (Numbers 21:8). Does the serpent kill or does the serpent grant life? Rather, if Israel gazed upward, and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed, but when not, they perished. 7
A similar explanation is found in the Targum, which is a first century BCE Aramaic interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures used when spoken Hebrew was in decline. "When a snake would bite a man, he would look upon the bronze serpent and direct his thoughts toward God and live."8
We’ve learned that the copper snake in and of itself did not bring about physical healing from poisonous venom. Healing change came about when the afflicted recognized why they were bitten in the first place – they did it their way. In this case rebelled against God and dismissed Moses’ leadership.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s I worked with a Rabbi named Minard Klein. He was a major influence in my life and instilled in me a love for the Hebrew Bible. Each week we would discuss Judaism, Christianity and the current events of the day. Often, I would scribble down things he would say. One day he told me,
“Terry my boy, human nature as it is, will in the beginning embrace a ritual
for all the right reasons. Then after time people will forget why and how the
ritual came into use. People can become so familiar with the ritual they will
encrust it with holiness and end up far away from the original intention.”
This is exactly what happened with the snake that Moses crafted on the pole. By the time of Hezekiah, the snake that used to promote healing now became an object of worship. The snake’s name became “Nehushtan,” an object made of copper.
Nehushtan: a brazen thing a name of contempt given to the serpent Moses had made in the wilderness (Numbers 21:8 ), and which Hezekiah destroyed because the children of Israel began to regard it as an idol and "burn incense to it." The lapse of nearly one thousand years had invested the "brazen serpent" with a mysterious sanctity; and in order to deliver the people from their infatuation, and impress them with the idea of its worthlessness, Hezekiah called it, in contempt, "Nehushtan," a brazen thing, a mere piece of brass ( 2 Kings 18:4 ). 9
The name Nehushtan is a derogatory title or description. During King Hezekiah’s reform he ordered the destruction of the copper serpent that Moses made because the people turned it into and idol and burned incense before it. Nehushtan became synonymous with a mere piece of copper!
The once famed copper snake that was made with good intentions and caused people to recognize the error of their ways and promoted spiritual healing, now had to be destroyed because of misuse. We would assume the story of the copper snake would have faded with the passing of time. Not so! We hear of this snake story one more time for the lips of Jesus himself when he is in dialogue with Nicodemus. For Christians, once again, the story of Moses and the copper snake comes to life as the backdrop for one of the most important Bible verses for Christians – John 3:16.
In our next post we will hear from a dear friend who is mentioned in the beginning of this study – Dr. Jason Eric Renna. He will bring the New Testament perspective on this old story.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text A New Translation, Jewish Publication Society 1917 or the King James Version of the Bible.
1 Smith, William. Mixed Multitude. 1901. Smith's Bible Dictionary.
2 Bar, Shaul. "Who were the mixed multitudes?" Hebrew Studies (2008): 27-39.
3 Brown, Francis, 1849-1916. Serpent. The Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew And English Lexicon: with an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic: Coded with the Numbering System from Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996.
4 Scripture quoted by permission. Quotations designated (NET) are from the NET Bible®
Copyright ©1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. ://netbihttpble.com All rights
7 Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 3:8
8 TargumYonatan, Numbers 21:9
9 M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Thomas
Nelson, 1897. Public Domain