The Fiery Serpent

11 April 2010

A recent turn of events lead to a bit of "online archaeology" of sorts:

I was reading a recent CNN article online entitled "In Sudan, a war is waged to eradicate the 'fiery serpent'" and came across this:

Believed to be "the fiery serpent" described in the Bible, the Guinea worm has plagued mankind since ancient Egyptian times. Now it's close to becoming the second disease in the world to be eradicated, after smallpox, health officials say.

This piqued my interest since I was familiar with the story and had always thought actual snakes were biting the people.

Numbers 21 records the story of the Israelites complaining against G-d and Moshe when the fiery serpents were sent:

Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and Moses, "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." The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.  So the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us." And Moses interceded for the people.

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live." And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.  (Numbers 21:4-9)

Although our English translations describe that thing that afflicted them as a "fiery serpent" the Hebrew actually describes it only as a "burn" (saraph).  The bronze serpent Moshe created actually uses the Hebrew word for snake (nachash).  The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible that existed from before the time of Christ) records this passage as G-d sending "the killing snake".

It is possible that the Guinea worm is the fiery serpent.

Hezekiah and the Serpent

This fiery serpent is again mentioned in Scripture in 2 Kings:

Now it came about in the third year of Hoshea, the son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah became king. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem; and his mother's name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. He did right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done.  He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan.  He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who were before him.  For he clung to the LORD; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the LORD had commanded Moses. (2 Kings 18:1-6)

I have emphasized 3 points here:

  1. Hezekiah did right in the sight of the Lord
  2. He broke the bronze serpent that Moshe made because the people were treating it as an idol.
  3. He kept the LORD's commandments which He had commanded Moshe.

As we examine Hezekiah's actions we should consider if they aren't linked in some way: doing right, casting down idols, and keeping the commandments.

Parallels with the Messiah?

Some believe that the Messiah is pictured in the events of Numbers 21.  The people are afflicted because of their sin against G-d and as a consequence they suffer death.  A serpent is put upon a pole and lifted up (nailed to a cross and lifted up?) so that all who might look upon it will be spared (so that all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved? Joel 2:32, Acts 2:21, Romans 10:13).  It is an interesting comparison... especially when we consider that the physical thing that Moses created became an idol to the people whom it saved.  Have Christians ever created idols, statues, icons, or other images of Christ and bowed to them or burned incense to them?  Perhaps it is time for all of us to become more like Hezekiah and cast down those idols and "do right in the sight of the LORD".

May the lyrics of Chris Tomlin's song ring in our hearts and be on our lips:

We bow our hearts We bend our knees Oh Spirit come make us humble We turn our eyes From evil things Oh Lord we cast down our idols So give us clean hands and give us pure hearts Let us not lift our souls to another Oh give us clean hands and give us pure hearts Let us not lift our souls to another Oh God let this be a generation that seeks Who seeks Your face, Oh God of Jacob Oh God let us be a generation that seeks Who seeks Your face, Oh God of Jacob

Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:17)

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