Text: Numbers 21:8-9 "And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived. "
Israel's encounter with the fiery snake is a fascinating Biblical story that is told as an actual event and later takes on symbolic meaning.
Out of fear and lack of faith, the Children of Israel believed they could not conquer Canaan, the land that God had promised to deliver to them. So God punished their unbelief by causing them to wander forty years in the wilderness.
While on their way from Mount Hor to the Red Sea, Israel began to complain about what they believed were hardships in the wilderness; a plight they were responsible for. The people were angry with God, found fault with Moses and his leadership, and grumbled about the lack of food and water. They were especially tired of having only manna to eat, which they called a "light and worthless food".
(From the translation, the expression "this very light food" conveys the idea of "this vile, contemptible bread".)
God disciplined a rebellious Israel by sending a plague of fiery snakes into the camp. The snakes bit the people and many died.
From Flavius Josephus: (Concerning Moses leading the Egyptian Army against Nubia.) "Moses took his army not by the river, but by land, where he gave a wonderful demonstration of his sagacity. For when the ground was difficult to be passed over, because of the multitude of serpents, which (the land) produced in vast numbers and are worse than others in power and an unusual fierceness of sight; (these snakes) could suddenly ascend out of the ground unseen, fly in the air, and attack men unawares. Moses invented a wonderful stratagem to preserve the army's safety. He made baskets, arks out of sedge, and filled them with Ibes (ibis), which he carried along. The Ibes are the greatest enemy to these serpents , for when the Ibes come near the snakes, and the snakes fly out, the Ibes catch them and devour them." (Antiquities of the Jews Book II, Ch 10. par. 2, "How Moses Made War with the Ethiopians")(Passage edited and abbreviated for clarity.)
From Strabo: Alexander on his journey through Gedrosia lost many men through the serpents which sprang upon those passing by from the sand and the brushwood. The bites of all the most poisonous snakes produce swell, burning inflammation and fever, which as the poison spreads through the blood, rapidly extends to the whole body and produces fatal results in a very short time." (xv, 723).
A number of historians and travelers record encounters with fiery snakes in this part of the desert.
From Dr. Gotthilf Von Schubert: "In the afternoon, they brought us a very mottled snake of a large size (and) marked with fiery red spots and wavy stripes, which belonged to the most poisonous species, as the formation of its teeth clearly showed. According to assertions of the Bedouins, these snakes, which they greatly dreaded, were very common in that neighborhood." (Travels in the East, Vol. 2, p. 396 or p. 406. Published during 1836-1837.)
According to scripture, after the snakes had invaded the camp, some of Israel acknowledged their sin and appealed to Moses to ask God for mercy. God's reply was a directive to Moses to craft a fiery snake out of brass (KKV) or bronze (other modern translations) and place it on a pole (ensign) in the midst of the camp. Those who were bitten were to look upon this "fiery brass snake" and if they did so, they were miraculously healed. Those who refused died.
In Hebrew, the word for brass is necho^sheth and probably means copper. Brass [(as an alloy of copper and zinc) was not known till the thirteenth century) (Deuteronomy 8:9 )]. In the Bible, Necho^sheth was used for fetters (Judges 16:2 and 2 Kings 25:7), pieces of armor (1 Samuel 17:5-6), musical instruments (1 Chronicles 15:19 ; 1 Corinthians 13:1) and for money (Matthew 10:9).
From the International Standard Bible Commentary: "Punon was an Idumean village located in the desert north of Petra, between Petra and Zoar, at a distance of forty-eight miles from Mt. Hor. It was the Israelite 's second stop after Mt Hor (Num. 33:42), and was famous for brass mines. (Eusebius - Onom 299 85; 123 9). Jerome recorded, that in his time, Punon was a little village from whence brass metal was dug by criminals condemned to the mines."
From Samuel Sharpe: "A monument showing an Egyptian Standard, having a crowned asp on the top: This was the Serpent of Goodness, and was distinguished from the Serpent of Evil. Such standards, with a variety of animals and other ornaments, were carried by the Egyptians in their sacred procession. The serpent made by Moses may have been like this. One (standard) under the name of Moses Serpent, was long kept in Jerusalem, until King Hezekiah broke it to pieces to stop the idolatrous burning of incense to it. ( 2Ki 18:4: ) (Texts From the Holy Bible Explained by the Help of the Ancient Monuments, p. 27. Published 1869, London.)
1. Copper or brass is often used as a symbol of insensibility and obstinacy in sin (Isaiah 48:4 ; Jeremiah 6:28 ; Ezekiel 22:18 ); and of strength (Psalms 107:16 ; Micah 4:13).
2. Bronze is symbolic of judgement.
3. The Serpent or snake is symbolic for sin (also cunning and deceit).
According to Bible symbolism, placing the bronze snake on the pole represented Sin being lifted up in judgment – or a judgement against sin. The act of looking at the fiery snake caused the people to recognize their sin against God, His judgement against their sin, and a means to redeem themselves through faith. Later, the brass serpent became a symbolic illustration for Christ being lifted up on the cross, His final act that afforded mankind salvation from sin.
Copyright by Ancient Bible History - Eden Games Inc.