“The Bronze Serpent”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, we learn that the People of Israel are at it again! Only a short distance remains for them to complete their journey of forty years in the wilderness before they enter the Promised Land. But, again they begin to complain, this time, about the lack of food and water.

This is the last recorded of Israel’s complaints in the wilderness, but it is considered a most grievous one. Their previous complaints were all directed at Moses, the Al-mighty’s faithful servant, but this time it is also defiantly directed at G-d Himself!

The entire episode is recorded in the Torah in only six verses, Number 21:4-9.

The people travel from Mount Hor where Aaron, the High Priest, died and was buried. They were then directed to go by way of the Red Sea and to avoid the land of Edom, whose citizens had refused them passage through their land. Fearing that they, like their ancestors, were moving away from the land of Israel and would die in the wilderness, the Israelites speak up against G-d and Moses saying, Numbers 21:5, לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר כִּי אֵין ?לֶחֶם וְאֵין מַיִם, וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל “Why did You bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness, for there is no food and no water, and our soul is disgusted with the miserable food?”

The great Nehama Leibowitz, points out that when compared with the people’s complaints on previous occasions, there is a significant change in the wording found this time. When they stood in panic at the Red Sea, surrounded by the Egyptians who were pursuing them, they cried out (Exodus 14:11): “What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt?”  When Datan and Abiram, who were followers of Korach, confronted Moses, they said, Numbers 16:13, “Is it not enough that you had brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey.” In both instances, the complaints were directed at Moses alone. Here, however, they speak against both Moses and against G-d.

Rashi notes that the sin of the people was particularly galling because they had the temerity to compare the servant, Moses, with the Al-mighty G-d, as if they were equals. This open defiance of G-d Himself, could not go unpunished. The Torah records, in Numbers 21:6, that G-d immediately sends the fiery serpents to the people to bite them.

Dr. Yisrael (Shay) Eldad, in Hegyonot Mikra, points out that serpents appear in three separate narratives of the Torah. In the book of Genesis 3:1-15, the serpent seduces Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit. In Exodus 4:2-5, G-d gives Moses the sign to prove his legitimacy, showing him that his staff turns into a serpent. This same staff, later, (Exodus 7:8-13) turns into a serpent, and devours the Egyptian serpents. The fiery serpents who appear in our parasha and attack the Israelites who were complaining, is the third instance.

Eldad points to the continuing decline in the powers of the serpents from when they first appear in Genesis. The serpent in the Garden of Eden is an initiator, who has dominion over the human being and whose words control the human’s actions. In Exodus, Moses controls the serpent through his staff. When the fiery serpents appear in the wilderness, they are no longer in control. The serpent’s power is now a result of the weaknesses of the people. The serpent has, in effect, been transformed into an emissary of G-d.

When he first appears in scripture, the serpent would stealthfully sneak up on the human and attack him from behind. Now the serpent is no longer in control. In fact, Moses holds the serpent up high on a staff to show that both his poison and his ability to seduce has been extinguished, and that G-d Al-mighty is now in charge. The serpent has been transformed into a vehicle serving G-d, directing the people’s attention upward to the Master of the Universe. The defanged serpent no longer has dominion over mankind.

In Numbers 21:6, the Torah states, וַיְשַׁלַּח השׁם בָּעָם אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים, וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ אֶת הָעָם, וַיָּמָת עַם רָב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, G-d sent the fiery serpents against the people and they bit the people, and a large multitude of Israel died.

Nehama Leibowitz notes that the Torah here uses the verb וַיְשַׁלַּח–“Va’yeshalach” and the L-rd “let [the fiery serpents] go,” rather than saying that He sent them. Professor Leibowitz notes that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) maintains that the wilderness is a place where fiery serpents, scorpions and drought are common. Only due to Divine intervention have the Israelites never been attacked by these dangerous creatures until now. Similarly, by miraculously providing water, G-d did not allow the people to be overcome by thirst. G-d also sent the manna to provide the people with food in a place where there was none to be found. This certainly should have been a clear sign to the people to recognize that it was only due to the Al-mighty’s supernatural intervention that the people had survived the 40 years in the wilderness.

Instead, the people were indifferent, taking G-d’s loving protection for granted. G-d, consequently, decided to allow nature to resume its ordinary course, permitting the serpents to bite anyone who crossed their path. It was the sin of ingratitude that brought the great punishment upon them.

In an interesting postscript, the Midrash, based on sources in the Bible, notes that the copper serpent that Moses created to direct the people’s attention to G-d, remained with the people as a symbol of admiration for 700 years until the generation of King Hezekiah, chronicled in Kings II 18:14. The Bible reports that when Hezekiah saw that the people began to stray after the copper serpent and using it as an object of worship, rather than an object to increase reverence for G-d, King Hezekiah had the copper serpent destroyed.

The lesson of the serpent is clear. Always beware of the serpent, whose preoccupation is to seduce weak mortals and bite them with his poisonous fangs. Even the serpent who has become an object of admiration and who is intended to remind the people of heaven, can lead them astray. Only in G-d can we trust completely. Beware of any imitations or substitutes.

May you be blessed.