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?
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.
The snake on a pole was a preview of Christ on the cross. Sort of a sneak-peek into the future. All healing is by Christ:
This was prophesied 700 years before the crucifixion, but it does not say "will be healed" or "was healed" it says we "are healed". Everything that God told Moses to make for the tabernacle were copies of heavenly things.
Maybe this represents what the Apostle John saw in heaven as "a Lamb as it had been slain." But, why a snake? Because the snake represents sin, and Jesus didn't just take our sins; He became sin on the cross:
Just as the children of Israel looked upon the snake to give them life from the deadly snake bites; so, we look upon Christ to gain life from the deadly penalty of sin:
But like the golden angels on the mercyseat, this was not to be an idol. It was not to be duplicated, carried around or worshipped. Its only purpoes was to be there to be looked upon when someone had been bitten by one of the deadly serpents. When the snakes were gone (which were a punishment from God), there was no more use for it. None of the prophets condemned Hezekiah for destroying it, because by this time people were worhipping it as an idol. Even Jesus did not put Hezekiah down for destroying it when He mentioned it to Nicodemus, even though it was a type of himself. It was a gospel lesson. God bless you all.
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.
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
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.
The Serpent,or Satan, is symbolic for the desire that stands as the foundation of the building block(constructive or destructive) within each individual soul. To be, is for the soul to desire to be, therefore letting us live out this journey of the 3 dimensions of Time & Space occurring around the mind in order to experience exactly what it is we desire in the first place. We are here because we wanted to be here. We desired to be here. And so the oneness of this God force provides us with the fullest potential of the CHRIST consciousness that exists, and there is no higher consciousness of this sort in this plane. The Bronze Serpent represents that higher form of consciousness, the CHRIST consciousness, where man whom once desired (the serpent-the self gratification and ego behind desire) can know this is to be overcome as our individual souls grow to these realizations in the given dimensions. The Crucifixion of Christ is mans destiny to not desire, but to be as selfless as He....and through these channels of thought, this will be the second coming....and we will make our way to "heaven" or higher realms or back to our original source of ONENESS with this force we refer to as GOD through these studies...let the occurrences through the adjustments and observations in Quantum Physics help those understand this process more clearly....the mind and matter.