Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Serpent of Brass Part 2
A few months ago I posted something about the story of Moses' brass serpent found in Numbers 21. I was never really happy with it so I tried to rewrite it a few times but finally just removed it from my blog. I was trying to provide an explanation for some of the details mentioned in that chapter which had been a source of confusion for me.
The general symbolism of the brass serpent is very clear and the scriptures do a good job of pointing that out (see John 3:14-15 & Hel. 8:14-15). What had puzzled me was, why did the Lord instruct Moses to make a brass serpent? Why create an image of the very thing that had caused so much harm and use that as an instrument to heal? It seemed that other animals could have made the message more clear. For example, the Lord could have told Moses to make a lamb or a lion. Despite this the Lord chose a serpent and the reason is that the Lord was trying to teach some additional principles.
I mentioned an article in my earlier post from the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies written by Dr. Andrew Skinner which examines the symbolism attached to serpents in ancient cultures. The article addresses the topic of the brass serpent so I have posted a section of his article below. The article is entitled Serpent Symbols and Salvation in the Ancient Near East and the Book of Mormon. It was useful in helping me to understand why the Lord used a brass serpent as a tool in teaching and healing his people. I highly recommend reading the entire article. Here is the section that specifically discusses the incident mentioned in Numbers 21:
The serpent first appears in the scriptures in the story of the fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:1). In the Hebrew language the creature is called a nahash, a viper, from which derives the noun for copper or brass (nehosheth), also used as an adjective denoting the "brass" serpent that Moses erected on a pole in the wilderness for the protection and healing of the Israelites (see Numbers 21:4—9).
On the one hand, the nahash in Genesis is clearly symbolic of evil, even the evil one (Satan), precisely because the serpent was in league with the devil, promoting the cause of the adversary and acting as his agent to bring about the fall (see Moses 4:5—31). On the other hand, when used by Moses under God's inspiration, the image of the nahash or, more precisely, the nahash nehosheth (brass serpent), became the agent of life and salvation for God's covenant people.
Numbers 21 is particularly intriguing because it demonstrates the dual nature of serpent symbolism in Israelite culture in a striking fashion.
And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. 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. (Numbers 21:5—9)
The agent of both harm and healing, death and life, is, in this instance, the serpent. The people sin and fiery serpents bite them. Moses constructs a brass image of the harmful creatures and the people are spared. But it is really Jehovah who is the cause working behind the image, the actual instigator of both death and life. The Israelites may already have been familiar with images of fiery serpents from their exposure to Egyptian mythology while sojourning in Egypt. But the serpent symbol is now seen in its true light—a valid and important representation of God's ultimate power over life and death. God is the reality behind the symbol.
In the early part of the story of Israel's deliverance from Pharaoh, king of Egypt, Jehovah showed Moses in a dramatic way that He was the real God represented by the image of the serpent or snake, an image that Pharaoh himself wore on the front of his official headdress as a symbol of his own deity and sovereignty. (It will be remembered that every pharaoh was regarded as a living god on earth by his subjects.) When Moses threw down his staff, as commanded, it became a serpent. God told the Lawgiver that just such a demonstration should be conducted in front of Pharaoh and his court so that all would know that Jehovah was the one true God who had commissioned his representative, Moses, to stand before the false gods of the Egyptian people, which pantheon included Pharaoh himself (see Exodus 4:1—5, 8).
When Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh, they did exactly as the Lord had commanded. Their staff became a snake, which in the Hebrew text is denoted by two different terms, one of which is the very same word used earlier in Genesis to describe Eve's tempter, nahash (see Exodus 7:9, 10, 15). Either through sleight of hand or by demonic power, Pharaoh's magicians were able to duplicate the action and turn their staffs into serpents as well. In what might be viewed as a quintessential showdown between God and the devil, the serpent of Jehovah swallowed up the serpents of Pharaoh as the God of Israel demonstrated his omnipotent supremacy (see Exodus 7:10—13). This scene dramatically illustrates the duality of serpent imagery in the scriptures. The one true God was represented by a serpent. The false gods of Egypt were also represented by serpents...
But what of the serpent image as a symbol for Christ? If the serpent was a legitimate emblem of the coming Messiah, how and why did Lucifer usurp the serpent symbol after Adam and Eve were placed on this earth? In a roundabout way, the Prophet Joseph Smith may have provided a clue regarding the origins of serpent imagery as a symbol for Christ and why Satan appropriated it for his own.When speaking of the dove as an identifying symbol of the Holy Ghost, Joseph Smith said, "The sign of the dove was instituted before the creation of the world, a witness for the Holy Ghost, and the devil cannot come in the sign of a dove."
A possible implication of this statement is that other signs, symbols, and tokens may have been instituted in premortality to represent deity, but the one that Satan absolutely could not imitate was the dove. However, as the preeminent counterfeiter and deceiver, Satan could and does usurp other signs and symbols properly applied to God in order to try to legitimize his false identity as a god. This is why Satan chose to appropriate and utilize the sign of the serpent as the best means of deceiving Eve as well as her posterity.
The scriptures help us to see that Satan imitates and perverts every divine truth; every godly concept, principle, or practice; and every good and positive symbol, image, sign, and token in order to deceive and manipulate the souls of men. This even includes appearing as an angel of light (see Alma 30:53; D&C 128:20). By usurping and manipulating the symbol of the serpent, Satan tried to validate his false identity and his lies, insisting that following his ways would elevate our first parents to the status of the very God represented by the true image of the serpent (see Moses 4:10—11). Satan came to Eve clothed, as it were, in the garb of the Messiah, using the signs, symbols, and even the language of the Messiah, promising things that only the Messiah could rightfully promise. "(And [Satan] spake by the mouth of the serpent.) . . . And the serpent said unto the woman: Ye shall not surely die; . . . ye shall be as the gods" (Moses 4:7, 10—11). In reality only the one who worked out an infinite atonement could legitimately make these kinds of promises. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Satan is justly called a liar from the beginning (see Moses 4:4; D&C 93:25).
PS - I wanted to point something out about the picture I added to the beginning of this post. Take a close look at Moses then watch the video I have posted here.