In Numbers 21:4-9, Moses makes a bronze serpent on a stick to heal the Hebrews' snake bites, 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?

Also, 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'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. Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 0:25
  • @Caleb Then, Robert Wayne should narrow the scope to a single point of view.
    – Double U
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 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
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 11:46
  • To answer your question about the modern medical symbol, the answer is no, they are not really related. The modern medical symbol is the Rod of Asclepius from greek mythology. Some say that the greek mythology was derived from the Biblical account, but that's speculative. Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 12:10
  • @Caleb It's asking for biblical interpretation, which may vary depending on that person's theological persuasions. One reason why Jews don't use the Christian Bible.
    – Double U
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 12:57

7 Answers 7


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:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. [Isaiah 53:5 KJV]

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.

Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount. [Hebrews 8:5 KJV]

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:

For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. [2 Corinthians 5:21 KJV]

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:

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

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 among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp. (KJV)

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.


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.

  • I don't think this answers the question. Why a serpent? Why on a stick?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 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. Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 1:41

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.

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    Much later there was a problem of the people burning incense to this bronze snake (2 Kings 18:4).
    – user3331
    Commented Apr 25, 2014 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. Commented Apr 25, 2014 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. Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 19:55

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.

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    Hi Mikeal! On this site, we're looking to explain the official positions of various Christian denominations. Is the position you're explaining held by any particular denomination? If so, which one? If not, it needs to be changed so as to reflect such a position, or else removed. Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 16:31

It always takes a number of people to die before questions, answers and antidote/antivenom are found. The recent scourge of ebola is one point of reference. "Many Israelites/Hebrew people died" (v. 6c) before suitable action was found. This was a kind of snake they had not before encountered. "Bronze" was the identification of it. As they looked at 'the bronze snake on a stick', they could identify it as the variety which had bitten them and know what measure(s) to take. By looking at the symbol, they were also looking beyond it -- to God and Moses about and to whom they had blamed and complained all along. As they had blamed God and Moses for lack of food, or presence of 'detestable' food/manna they had been not enjoying for almost 40 years (cf. v. 5), little wonder that they had come to the conclusion that God and Moses were in collusion to get rid of them, just as had happened with countless Egyptians and the Egyptian army. Why trust God and Moses! Now, looking at the snake on a stick, they could look beyond it to a greater confidence in God and Moses (who had prayed for them at their behest, v. 7).

During the time lapse between many dying and the crafting of the metalwork snake symbol, would not there have been a search among people of the wider area to see what they did as an antidote? Had not Moses been a shepherd in this wilderness area for 40 years? Had he not encountered snakes there and learned as much about them from his father-in-law and others? He had discovered other things about the area in that 40 year shepherding apprenticeship -- God's preparation for him to be a shepherd to the freed Hebrew slaves! He had learned about manna, about quail migrations, about water pockets in desert sandstone/limestone caves and crevices. There were, indeed, long-time residents in the general area of this 'fiery snake' infestation; they were travelling along the border of the Edomites. What we have here in scripture is a concise summary of the whole account and we would always do well to take any account as only part of its larger scripture context and its wider historical/geographical context.


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