The ‘whys’ of the copper serpent

By Cantor Sheri Allen
Parashat Chukat

Some pretty major events take place in Parashat Chukat, both sad and puzzling, but I want to focus on an incident that happens toward the end of the parasha. Chapter 21:4 states: “They [the people] set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom. But the people grew restive on the journey, and the people spoke against God and against Moses. ‘Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.’ The Lord sent seraph serpents against the people.” “Seraph” comes from the root which means “burn,” so these were venomous snakes whose bites were both painful and deadly.

The people quickly regret their ingratitude and beg Moses to intercede on their behalf. Moses does, and God responds with the prescription for a very strange antidote: (21:8), “‘Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover.’ Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.”

Holy Red Cow, Batman, this might even be more puzzling than the Parah Adumah! Three questions immediately came to my mind.

The first: Why a snake?

We first meet this cunning creature back in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent persuades Eve to eat the “forbidden fruit” of the tree of knowledge, and as a result ignorance will never be bliss for them again.

Rashi draws a connection between snake bites and lashon hara (evil speech), stating, “Let the snake, which was smitten for speaking evil to Eve, come and punish those who spread slander about the manna. Let the snake, for which all types of food taste the same, come and punish those ingrates who complain about the manna, which miraculously has many tastes.” (Rashi from Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 19, Numbers Rabbah 19:22)

The second: Why would the cause of the affliction be used to help cure it?

Snakes have been associated with healing for centuries. In Greek culture, Asclepius was considered to be the god of healing, and he carried around a rod with a serpent coiled around it. But the Greeks might have actually borrowed this symbol from the Israelites, as the description of the seraph figure in the Torah comes long before the Greeks appeared on the scene!

In Egypt, the snake also had connections to the healing arts. Pharaoh was often depicted wearing a headdress featuring a serpent, so it must’ve served some purpose! The seraph described in our parasha apparently even resembled the winged Egyptian cobra.

But if the Israelites were forbidden to worship the gods of their neighbors, and to engage in any kind of sorcery, then:

The third: Why would God command Moses to fashion something that sounds a lot like an idol to me, complete with magical healing powers?

Was this some sort of big cosmic test that God created for the offenders?

Our sages say, on the contrary: The people were not, in fact, worshipping the snake, and furthermore, the snake had no curative value. Rabbi Fred Reiner, referencing Mishnah, states, “…Looking at the serpent was not what cured the Israelites. Rather it was the act of looking up to God that cured them. In the story of the bronze serpent, the people are not sick, but sinful. The serpent is elevated to direct the thoughts of the people upward to God and away from the danger at their feet.” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8; healing by looking)

Problem is, the text clearly states (21:9), “…when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.” It doesn’t say “he would look above and beyond it and recover.” Rabbi S.R. Hirsch offers this explanation: “Every victim of the serpents’ venom had to concentrate his attention on the image of the brazen serpent to enable him to realize that even after God had delivered him from the serpents, there lay ahead of him fresh dangers…”

Perhaps God was actually employing a little cognitive behavioral therapy, requiring the receiver be exposed to what they most fear, which, in turn, helps them overcome this fear. Perhaps by choosing the snake, the object of their greatest fears and worst memories, God was forcing the people to confront them head-on, and to get past them.

As long as they used the serpent for the purpose of repentance, the people were healed. But generations later, King Hezekiah, realizing that the snake was indeed being worshipped as an idol, destroyed it. What had once been the key to their salvation became the catalyst toward greater sin. God provided a way out of the darkness, but they used it to dive further in.

Perhaps the takeaway here is this: Be careful how you use the gifts that you have been given. What may appear to be so wonderful can, if used in the wrong way, have the potential to do serious damage.

Personally, I feel a bit sorry for the snake. It has to live out its days crawling on the ground and it’s earned the reputation of being cunning, evil and basically responsible for the downfall of mankind. It has regained its reputation as a symbol of healing, however, as it is prominently displayed on many medical logos. Good to know that no living creature is beyond redemption.

Sheri Allen is in her 12th year as cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington.

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