Chukat: The Brass Serpent

“The LORD sent fiery serpents against the Israelite People [for the sin of doubting Moses]. They bit the people, many of whom died. The people came to Moses and begged him to help them, by interceding with God. The Lord said to Moses,‘Make a fiery serpent—Seraph of brass, and mount it on a standard. If anyone  is bitten looks upon it, they shall recover.’ Moses did so, and the people were healed.”

–Numbers 21: 6-9

            I am Nechushtan, the Brass Serpent, Healer of the Israelites from the plague they brought down upon themselves. How dared they to doubt the leadership of Moses, as well as complain about the manna, the bread from heaven? Well, God told Moses to construct me, and I healed them from the fiery bites of the serpent-plague.

            And yet, I daresay that you have never heard of me, nor ever seen my like before! For a God Who forbade the practice of idolatry, is it not strange that He authorized the building of an idol—myself? Yes, yes, I hear you say; the purpose of Nechushtan was not to be an object of worship; it was to be a source of healing, albeit a dramatic one. How long do I appear in the text of the Torah? For five verses only—that is a short episode, indeed.

            Never forget that Torah is not like your post-Modernist literature. A character or object may appear for just a few verses, and then vanish just as quickly. I, Nechushtan, do reappear later in the text—not the Torah’s, but in Prophets, during the reign of the reformist King Hezekiah:

“Hezekiah abolished and destroyed all forms of idolatry. He broke into pieces the brass serpent that Moses had made, for the Israelites had been making offerings to it; it was called Nechushtan.”

–II Kings 18:4

            So, clearly, despite my long absence from the text, I still managed to influence Israelite worship—or, at least, idolatry. What is the lesson?

            It is in the nature of you human beings to collect and venerate objects you deem sacred, blessed, or just lucky. Whether or not the plague of the fiery serpents actually occurred, whether Moses constructed me, only to have Hezekiah destroy me, centuries later—I served my purpose. I gave some mystical quality to the text—how many times can one read of the Israelites angering their short-tempered Deity, and His punishing them? Instead, I began a body of legend that still persists, today. All glory to me, Nechushtan, the Brass Serpent!

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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