The symbol of a snake coiled around a stick is recognized worldwide as an icon of healing and hope. This symbol gets its origins from the biblical account of God instructing Moses to make a bronze snake and attach it to the top of a tall pole. Just by turning to look at the snake, people who were bitten by poisonous snakes would be miraculously healed. But now let’s take some time to learn why God commanded such a bizarre thing in the first place.
We find our bronze snake being crafted in Numbers 21, but not before a bunch of other snakes arrive on the scene. This is during Israel’s long journey through the wilderness. The high priest, Aaron, has recently died, and Moses is still grinding on through the burdensome task of leading millions of idolatrous grumps through what seems like an endless desert. The nation of Israel is in her punishment period at this time. She had her chance to enter the Promised Land a while back, but instead she royally insulted Yahweh by having no faith in His promise to help her conquer the land’s inhabitants. As a result, Yahweh has doomed her to walk in circles until a whole generation of faithless people dies off. This is a tough time to be a leader of Israel. God has basically locked Israel in a desert prison. But while she’s serving her sentence, there’s a limit to how much attitude He’s going to take from her. Frightening forms of discipline keep popping up as the Israelites continue to tax God’s patience with their constant grumbling. In Numbers 21, another whine fest begins as the people get fed up with endless walking.
Then the people spoke against God and Moses, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food!” (Num. 21:5)
The people are speaking to Moses the man, but notice how they are described as speaking against God as well. Moses was God’s faithful prophet, and he symbolized God to the people. It is God who is actually leading the whole camp by having a large pillar of clouds drift in front of them day and night. God is also the One raining down manna from the sky for them to eat. The manna falls wherever the Israelites are—it’s food brought right to their doorstep, yet they have the gall to complain.
The language used here is very strong. The last phrase above literally says “our soul loathes this miserable food.” Wow. The Israelites want Yahweh to fully understand how much they detest His stupid manna.
Guess what, Israel? The hate is mutual. Suddenly poisonous snakes start slithering into view all throughout the camp. People are getting bit right and left. The dead bodies are starting to pile up. Uh-oh.
So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against Yahweh and you. Pray that Yahweh will take away the snakes!” (Num. 21:7)
Don’t think that this apology is sincere, because it’s not. The people just want the snakes to go away. It is only the fear of Yahweh’s wrath that is making them change their tune. As soon as this crisis is over, they’ll return to griping.
Moses is such a nice guy. Once more, he pleads with God on behalf of the people instead of just telling them to take a hike. Once again, God listens to His loyal servant and comes up with a merciful solution. But this time, it’s no quick fix. He doesn’t just calm the snakes or make them all slither away. This time Moses will have to work for the cure.
Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” (Num. 21:8)
How long would it take you to hammer out a metal snake? Moses has to move fast. A fire has to be started and made hot enough to soften metal. Some kind of hammering tool will be needed to shape the thing and then there will need to be some thought put into it. After all, God said make a snake, not a blob. The thing needs to look like a snake, and that calls for some artistic talent. Is it going to have two little eyes and a cute little head with a forked tongue flicking out? Will it have some kind of design on its body to designate scales? Should it have a rattler on the end? They probably used one of the local biters as a model for their design. Meanwhile, as the snake was being hammered together, more people were being bitten. No pressure, Moses, but can you work any faster?
At last the finished product is fastened to a pole and raised up into the air for all to see. From then on, we’re told that:
“If a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.” (Num. 21:9).
Whew! What a lot of work.
We don’t hear much about the bronze snake after this. It’s easy to assume that it got lost or thrown out at some point. But hundreds of years later, it suddenly turns up again in the middle of King Hezekiah’s reign. Hezekiah is one of the few kings in Israel’s history who really puts effort into pleasing Yahweh. He rules the southern kingdom of Judah during the time that God is smashing the northern kingdom of Israel into pieces, and driving the northern Jews into exile. God is fed up with the rampant idolatry of both of Israel’s kingdoms, and when Hezekiah ascends to the throne at the age of 25, the land of Judah is filled with idols and their shrines. Determined to honor Yahweh, Hezekiah rolls up his sleeves and goes to work smashing apart all the idol worshiping equipment: the statues, the poles, the altars, and one particular bronze snake that has picked up the name Nehushtan (Neh-HOOSH-tan). Nehushtan sounds like the Hebrew words for bronze, snake, and unclean thing. It turns out that this is the very same snake that Moses hammered out under intense pressure centuries before. In 2 Kings 18:4, we’re told that the idolatrous Israelites had actually started burning incense to the thing, treating it like some kind of deity. Wow.
God hates it when we worship anything other than Him. That includes things He has made (like trees, stars, and animals), as well as things He commands us to make (like the Ark of the Covenant and the bronze snake). Today we Christians continue to fall down in this area. Can you imagine the chaos that would happen if God allowed someone to find the original Ark of the Covenant? Before you could even blink, all of Christendom would no doubt be falling on their faces to worship the thing. Just look at what happens when someone claims to have seen an appearance of Mary, or says some statue of Christ appears to be bleeding from its hands. Sure, we claim to only worship God, but in reality, we’re pinning little guardian angels onto our clothes, and wearing St. Christopher medals around our necks for protection. We think that wearing crosses and waving Bibles will hold demons at bay. We say there is supernatural power in liquids that have been prayed over (see What’s holy about holy water?). Who needs the Holy Spirit when we’ve got all the trinkets, right?
Think about your life. Are you hanging onto any physical mementos that remind you of a time when God did something very special for you? Monuments that help us remember the ways that God has blessed us are good. Monuments that get turned into lucky charms and sacred objects are not good. If you are firmly anchored on God and God alone, you should be able to have all of your Christian paraphernalia and your Bible taken away from you without panicking. As a Christian, you have the magnificent Holy Spirit dwelling right inside of you. How can you possibly think that He is not enough? In real life, we do think this a lot. We are constantly expressing our lack of trust in God by the way we talk and act, and by the material things we become so attached to. Yet the fact still remains that God hates idolatry. If we are serious about honoring Him, the idols will have to go, and the codependent mindsets will have to change. Ask the Holy Spirit to identify any idols that are currently lurking in your life. If you are serious about honoring God, He will help you get rid of them. Idolatry is a very easy habit to start and a tough one to break. Idolatry is the thing we see God losing His temper over time and time again throughout the Bible. He hates it when we worship other things. He is extremely jealous by Nature. Ask the Holy Spirit to teach you how you can please the Consuming Fire who made you, instead of constantly provoking Him, as most Christians do, with their refusal to acknowledge His sensitivities. God wants you to worship Him and Him alone. This isn’t something we do naturally, but it is something we can learn to do if we are willing to submit to His leading in our lives.
Understanding Idolatry: The Problem & the Cure