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Numbers 21:4-9, to heal the Hebrews' snake bites, Moses makes a bronze serpent on a stick, as per God's instructions. They don't worship it, but they are to look at it in order to live. Isn't this sort of like an idol, or a graven image? Or could it be a reference to something learned from Egypt, like possible Hermetic disciplines? Is it related to the image of a serpent coiled around a staff, seen commonly today in the medical field?

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I think this is a good question, but you may find better answers on the hermeneutics desk. :) –  Anonymous Apr 24 at 0:06
    
I've always heard it treated as a test of faith. Its absurd to think looking at a statue would heal, so you'd have to have faith to buy into it. Hence only those with faith were healed. –  david brainerd Apr 24 at 0:25
    
@Anonymous This is not really a textual question, it is a very theological one. Ergo this site is the better home for it. –  Caleb Apr 24 at 6:49
    
@Caleb Then, Robert Wayne should narrow the scope to a single point of view. –  Anonymous Apr 24 at 11:34
    
@Anonymous Are there really any interesting/conflicting differences between doctrinal traditions that would make this too broad to cover as it is? –  Caleb Apr 24 at 11:46
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4 Answers 4

I think in order to answer this question, a short detour needs to be taken to John's Gospel, because in it Jesus Christ himself refers to this incident with Moses and the bronze serpent. In John 3:14-15, Jesus tells Nicodemus, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."

Then, Jesus continues by noting that out of love God sent His Son into the world to save it, not to condemn it (John 3:16-17). Jesus then says, though, that the world was already condemned: "Whoever believes in him [i.e. the Son, Jesus Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (John 3:18).

The point in Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus is that he came into the world to save a world that was already condemned, and that this salvation comes through him being "lifted up." The world, and us in it, are "condemned already" due to the sin of Adam and Eve, and Jesus saves us through his death on the cross (i.e. he was "lifted up"). All who look on Christ in faith receive this redemption from death; those who do not are not condemned by Christ, because they were already condemned due to sin.

So, getting back to Moses and the bronze serpent in the book of Numbers. To put some context around it, the people of Israel had been in slavery in Egypt. Through Moses, the Lord has delivered them up out of slavery, redeeming them from their captivity. He is now leading them to the land He has promised them. Yet, the people continually rebel against the Lord. They finally "spoke against God and against Moses," accusing them of bringing the people out to the wilderness to die. Then, they call the manna which the Lord had been sending them "worthless." Thus, they despise the Lord's grace and mercy in delivering them out of captivity (cf. Numbers 21:4-5).

Therefore, the Lord gives them what their sins deserve: death. He sends "fiery serpents" to them, which bite the people and kill them. Sin came into the world through the serpent, Satan, and now here in Numbers the people are suffering the consequences of sin, namely death; they are "condemned already" (Numbers 21:6-7).

However, the Lord provides a means to save the people. He has Moses make a bronze serpent, the symbol of death, and raise it up on a pole. All who look on it will live (Numbers 21:8-9).

Jesus connects this event with his own crucifixion. He is raised up on the cross to die for our sins. He dies on the symbol of death, apparently "bitten" by the serpent Satan, dying the death we deserve. Yet, through this symbol of death we have life; everyone who looks on the cross of Christ in faith will live, even though we have been bitten by the serpent and are therefore sinners (cf. Numbers 21:9).

That's a lot of words to say basically that Christ interprets the event in Numbers in light of what he came to do; he came to die by being raised up on the cross in order to save people who were "condemned already" by the serpent Satan and the sin he brought into the world. So, what happens in Numbers points forward to what Christ was coming to do on the cross for all people.

Indeed, Christ came to save not only us, but also his entire creation. He died and rose to save a world that was "condemned already," restoring it to the perfection in which he had originally created it (cf. John 1:1ff). This will come on the "Last Day" with his return and the resurrection.

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Numbers 11;1 And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord: and the Lord heard it:and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt asmong them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp.

Philippians 2;14 Do all things without murmurings and disputings.

Numbers 21; 8 And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

John 3; 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15 That whosoever, believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life.

The serpent on the pole prefigured Jesus Christ.

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As crazy as this sounds, I was in a movie for this very story. I was one of the Hebrews who were bitten by a snake. To answer your question; no, it is not an idol and was not worshiped. Think of it as this is what God used to cure the people from the snake bites. Laying in the desert in pain taught some people to turn back to God. Those who were bitten had denounced God for making them walk in the desert. Looking at the bronze serpent healed them.

Your second and third question are out of scope for this SE. However it would fit perfectly here: http://area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/65313/hermeticism

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@mojo thanks for the edit, I was on my phone –  The Freemason Apr 24 at 13:11
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Much later there was a problem of the people burning incense to this bronze snake (2 Kings 18:4). –  Paul A. Clayton Apr 25 at 18:49
    
@PaulA.Clayton hmmmm, maybe the OP needs to define at what point. Initionally, it was not or not intended to be. +1 for knowing this. –  The Freemason Apr 25 at 19:48
    
wow, I just had an idea... what if we're supposed to destroy the cross as Hezekiah did the bronze serpent as we worship it in a similar manner. –  The Freemason Apr 25 at 19:55
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Just as serpents brought death to the Hebrews because of their sin, and a serpent was lifted up on a pole as the way of temporal salvation,

so the first man Adam brought death to all because of his (and our) sin, and the last Adam was lifted up on a tree as the way of everlasting salvation.

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I don't think this answers the question. Why a serpent? Why on a stick? –  curiousdannii Jul 2 at 21:52
    
This looks like a part of a potentially good answer, but it's unintelligible to anyone who doesn't have sufficient background to connect the dots. For the benefit of future visitors, it's very helpful the answer completely. Not all of the people who visit the site will have your background, and won't be able to make the same logical connections that are implicit in this answer. Would you consider editing it as if you're explaining it to someone with no Christian background, so that it's understandable? If the point is to share knowledge and wisdom, it's helpful to communicate clearly. –  David Stratton Jul 3 at 1:41
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