Bronze Serpent

The Cult of Bronze Serpents in Ancient Canaan and Israel

Maciej Münnich, 2008

[What] was a basis for the Canaanite cult of the bronze serpents? This question cannot be answered easily because we have no Canaanite or Syrian written source describing such a cult.

The only written source that mentions bronze serpents is the Bible. It is interesting that the examples are not clearly negative ones. One could expect a condemnation of bronze serpents in the monotheistic (at the present state) text, with its prohibition of any cultic images. The first place that interests us is Num 21:4–9. The Book of Numbers describes the rebellious Hebrews, who—as punishment—are exposed by YHWH to poisonous snakes. The sinners then acknowledge their guilt and request Moses to intercede for them. “And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ And Moses made a bronze serpent (תשחנ  שחנ) and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Num 21:8–9). Hence, there is no doubt for the author of the Book of Numbers that it was solely the God of Israel who had the power to heal the bitten Hebrews.

It does not follow from the text, however, why it was precisely an image of a serpent that was supposed to restore the victims to health. The first impulse is to think about the most obvious explanation—if it were the serpents that bit, then it is the snake that is the antidote. However, the problem cannot be satisfactorily explained in medical terms. After all, in reality it is impossible to use one snake as a medicine against the poison of another. We are in the world of religion and the bronze serpent can be interpreted only as a phenomenon of a religious / magic nature. As was shown by V. A. Hurowitz, the passage is constructed like an incantation, full of onomatopoeic sibilants (s, ś, š).

Old attempts at a medical interpretation of poisonous snakes as parasitic nematodes (or rishta, dranunculus medinensis) living in people’s and animals’ limbs are not convincing. Therefore, it seems that Moses’ serpent should  be perceived as a symbol of the divine Ruler of the Serpents, who heals—by his  power—the consequences of the bite. It cannot be determined whether this is YHWH himself or some minor deity subordinate to God’s power. When we look for the answer to this question, however, we have to notice that throughout the entire Near East the snake was considered a symbol of health and even immortality. This was usually connected with snakes shedding their skins, which made a semblance of rebirth into eternity; cf. Gilgamesh Epic 11:287–289, where a snake eats the herb of life and immediately rejuvenates, shedding its skin.

Independently of the character of the snake cult, there is no doubt that snakes were venerated by the Hebrews. This is clearly indicated in another place in the Bible that is very interesting for us: “He [King Hezekiah] removed the high places (תומ), and  broke the pillars (תו צמ), and cut down the Asherah (הרש). And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent (תשחנה שחנ) that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had burned incense to it; it was called Nehushtan (ןתשחנ)” (2 Kgs 18:4). It follows clearly from the biblical text that the bronze serpent was a cultic object.
In light of the reference to Moses, it is hard to perceive Nehushtan in any other way than as a symbol of god—the healer. It is problematic, however, whether we can trust the  biblical text as evidence of a Hebrew origin for the cult of Nehushtan. Considering the finds mentioned in the introduction, we should be inclined to accept the thesis that the cult of Nehushtan in the Jerusalem Temple has a pre-Israelite origin and may  be connected with the Jebusites. Obviously, no cultic serpent has been found in the area of the Jerusalem Temple, where no excavations are allowed. This makes it impossible to verify the above thesis by means of archaeological data, but the Bible itself is here to help.
It is interesting that 1 Kgs 1:9 places the offerings by David’s son, Adonijah, by the Stone of Zoheleth (תלחזה ן), next to the En-rogel spring in Jerusalem. Thus, this text confirms the existence of sites connected with the serpent cult in the capital itself, as well.Hence, it may be supposed that […] the old  beliefs, most probably known to the Hebrews, were partially incorporated into the cult of YHWH. As follows from the text of 2 Kgs 18:4, it simply happened that the tradition of Moses’ serpent was coupled with the local Jerusalemite tradition. This was not especially difficult, since it can be supposed that both the bronze serpent of the desert and the Jebusite serpent in the Temple were connected with the healing aspect of the pertinent deity. In this manner, Nehushtan was subordinated to the victorious God of Israel, and was perhaps even treated as symbolizing one of YHWH’s attributes. Under the influence of the monolatry propagated by the prophets (which eventually led towards monotheism), the Jerusalem Temple began to lack a place for any other gods except YHWH, even those previously accepted by the Hebrews. Hence, Nehushtan was removed from the Temple during Hezekiah’s reform and was treated like the other gods of Canaan.
It remains problematic, however, how to identify Nehushtan with the proper deity. There is no doubt that “Nehushtan” is not a name in the strict sense, and that an image of some god stands behind this name, which means nothing more than an object made of bronze. We have agreed that this is probably a deity that could heal, whose symbol was a serpent. Of course, the first association leads us towards Asklepios and makes us seek after the Semitic deity identified with this Greek divine doctor. Practically, the only correspondence of Asklepios in Syro-Canaan is Eshmun, the main deity of Sidon.
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