Moses’ bronze snake

One thing I noticed while tweeting my way through the Bible was this strange little story of Moses’ bronze snake in Numbers 21:4-9:

4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water!And we detest this miserable food!” 6 Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

However, I missed this follow-up until I saw it pointed out in The Bible Unearthed. The passage is 2 Kings 18:1-4:

 1 In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. 2 He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother’s name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. 3 He did what was rightin the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done. 4 He removed the high places,smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan. )

Now, the fundamentalist defend-inerrancy-at-all-costs defense here is that the problem wasn’t with the bronze snake itself (the LORD commanded it be made, after all), but just that people were burning incense to it. Not clear how the snake didn’t violate the ban on graven images, however. From an outsider’s point of view, this is a pretty clear, and quite interesting, sign of Judaism’s roots in practices we would consider rather “pagan” (yes, I know, that’s a hopelessly broad term).

  • MNb

    Of course I agree that quotes like these show that Judaism is rooted in polytheism. Or Jahweh wouldn’t have to compete with say Baal.
    But I don’t see how Moses’ snake violates the ban on graven images. It’s not an image of the Hebrew god, is it? It’s just a sign, with a similar function to catholic devotional pictures.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Well – depends on what you think is meant by a “graven image.” The infamous golden calf was apparently a graven image, and if a golden calf, why note a bronze snake? The Catholic Church has read that commandment more narrowly, but on the other hand many Protestants would say that’s an issue with the CC.

  • Achrachno

    “pagan” (yes, I know, that’s a hopelessly broad term).”

    Oh, no, it’s quite specific – it means all those guys over there who are not part of my club.

  • qbsmd

    Do biblical scholars believe Moses was based on a real person, like a priest of Yahweh prior to monotheism, and supernatural elements were later added? Or did the story begin as a pre-montheism legend? And if it was a legend, why could LORD magically produce snakes but not magically disappear them (and heal people) the same way? What was the original point of the bronze snake being there at all?

    • Chris Hallquist

      To hear The Bible Unearthed tell it, Moses was pretty clearly not a historical person. As for why the story was that way… well, it’s mythology, and mythology is weird and rarely corresponds to refined theological notions.

  • D4M10N

    Mythology also borrow from earlier mythology, e.g. borrowing miracles or tragedies from earlier stories to infuse into a new context. Some might call this midrash.

  • Tim

    Great eye for spotting the bronze snake’s tragic end! I’m not sure I understand your argument, though, which seems to run: “2 Kings says the Israelites sacrificed to the bronze snake. This shows the snake was a graven image. Since the snake was a graven image, Moses shouldn’t have made the snake and delivered the Second Commandment at the same time. Since Moses did these contradictory things, the text is probably not being truthful about where the snake came from. This is some evidence that the text is papering over a pagan past.”
    Did I get that right?

    That’s a plausible argument, but it assumes that the snake was a “graven image”, which doesn’t seem to me to be the case, even facially. Folks sacrificed to the Golden Calf, but not to the bronze snake. Further, in the story, the snake wasn’t made apropos of nothing, like the calf was. The snake was made because the people had been bitten by “asps”, as punishment.

    If you think that the snake was unlikely to have been made by a truly monotheistic tribe, then you still might find your argument more plausible (how else to explain the presence of this snake?). My point is just that the story seems more-or-less internally consistent to me, which weakens the force of the critique.

    By the way, I’ve also heard it said that the snake was a “type of Christ”, or a forshadowing, since the people had to look at the snake lifted on the pole/cross in order to be healed. Not very convincing, but hey.

  • Ludwig

    I agree that elements have been borrowed from other legends.
    That’s the only explanation for all the other contradictions in the Bible.
    Research on this subject has shown many inconsistencies that even Biblical scholars and commentators cannot explain. Add to that mix the Jewish scholars and you get even more divergent opinions and reasons to explain all the inconsistencies.

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