Documentary Hypothesis, Hebrew Bible

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field

The Brazen Serpent, as in Numbers 21:1-9, illu...

The Brazen Serpent - Numbers 21:1-9

In this exercise, I am going to present a couple of passages of scripture and the conflict between them.  This particular scenario was, for me, always surrounded by more questions than answers, until I learned more about the Documentary Hypothesis.  For this exercise, I am not going to provide the conclusion, just the dilemma, perhaps prompting someone to dig deeper.  I’ll provide the Gordian Knot, and leave it for you to untie.  And it goes something like this…

In Exodus, Moses is given the Law from the very hand of YHWH hisself.  The second “commandment” reads like this:

Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them; for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me;
Exodus 20:4-5

The dictate is clear; The Israelites are to make NO graven images; NO images of anything in the heaven, NO images of anything on the earth, NO images of anything in the water.  They are not to bow down to them because God is jealous.

So here is the problem:

And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live.’ And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it upon the pole; and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived.
Numbers 21:8-9

From the Jewish Encyclopedia: “When the people of Israel, near the close of the desert wanderings, were marching southward to go around Edom to the east of Palestine, they murmured against God and against Moses. As a punishment “fiery serpents” (compare Isa. xiv. 29; xxx. 6) of the region were sent against them, and very many died of their poisonous bites.”  The same Moses is directed by the same YHWH to do the same thing that was previously forbidden; to make a graven image.    By simply looking at this bronze serpent, which was up on a pole, the people would be rescued from this plague of “fiery serpents” that YHWH had sent to kill them.

This same bronze serpent, which would later be called “Nehushtan”, became an Israelite relic, believed to have been made by the very hands of Moses.  I would say that something made by Moses himself would be an important piece of history for a group of people struggling with their national identity.  However, that is just speculation.  It apparently was an important icon because it comes up again, hundreds of years later, during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah, the same king who witnessed the fall of Israel and who unsuccessfully sought to “reform” Israelite tradition.  But watch what Hezekiah does as he tries to bring the southern Judahites and the northern Israelite refugees together.

He removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah; and he broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made; for unto those days the children of Israel did offer to it; and it was called Nehushtan.
2 Kings 18:4

Have fun.

BTW, what is this?



8 thoughts on “Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field

  1. I suppose a theologian would try to wiggle out by saying they weren’t supposed to worship it, it was just a magickal thingy (like, you know, witchcraft, oh, wait, ummm….) I suspect the real answer is that Yahweh was a serpent god, or probably more accurately coopted the powers of a serpent god he replaced. Joseph Campbell writes extensively about the widespread Serpent God (connected with a mother goddess) which predated Israel by thousands of years. Most directly, the serpent (who also appears in Eden as Yahweh’s rival) is borrowed from Sumerian/Babylonian myth, in particular from the gods Enki (god of wisdom and water who made humans out of mud) and his son Ningizzida (represented by an ancient version of the caduceus). Also in their stories humans lost the plant of immortality when a snake ate it. Afterward, it could shed its skin. We were not so lucky.

    Posted by Carisa | March 17, 2011, 1:08 pm
    • I think you’ve got it right between the cross-hairs. The evolution of God. What I would guess, and it’s only a guess, is that what Hezekiah and company was attempting to destroy to make room for their new cult, was one of many older, more popular cults that was interfering with the new monotheistic Royal theology. The response was an early form of book-burning.

      BTW, I really enjoyed your series on Asherah, which was also attacked by Hezekiah and Co. and which starts here.

      Posted by Xcntrik | March 17, 2011, 5:11 pm
      • Thanks Xcntrik. Yes, I agree. I think it’s the great flaw in their program, actually, that by recording the eradication of the older myth they preserved it forever.

        Posted by Carisa | March 19, 2011, 1:46 pm
      • Oops !

        Don’t ya just hate when that happens?

        Posted by Xcntrik | March 24, 2011, 2:39 pm
    • I’m no theologian, but I’m going to make your prediction come true xP It actually doesn’t say they were supposed to worship it. Although I suppose that depends on what your definition of ‘worship’ is. I would not use the word to describe ‘to look upon’, which, according to the Bible is what they did, as worship though, since honestly we look upon heaps of things we don’t worship. But still, the creation of an image ne…. hmmm, honestly it IS confusing.

      I’ve heard about the Babylonian myths also, but I would call it rather,the evolution of the Concept of God. Which could be seen as ‘the evolution of God’, if you feel that God is merely restricted to what man thinks He is. I think He exists ‘outside of our heads’ so to speak, and that because it’s pretty much impossible to understand the whole of Him,,He reveals different aspects of Himself to different cultures, so we’re all on different sides of the same hill, so to speak. I mean,human beings are limited right? But not being able to understand something doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to, or go in search of that thing. :E

      Posted by Timaandra Wijesuriya | October 31, 2016, 12:35 am
    • The shared symbolism is striking, eh?

      Snake, pole, healing.

      If I were to guess, which qualifies this as complete drivel, the origin goes back to the “knowledge” that snakes were immortal. How did ancient people “know” that snakes were immortal? We see the evidence in their reincarnation; we find the dead skin they leave behind, observe the brilliant colors of their new skin, and the same types of snakes always have a common appearance, although I’d bet that Mr. Snake is convinced that his wife is more beautiful than any other snake-wife, the same way I feel about my wife.

      I appreciate you reading along.

      Posted by Xcntrik | March 3, 2011, 4:54 pm
  2. It really is a knot and thinking about it makes my head hurt! And I suppose Nehushtan (Snake on Cross) is one of the reasons Jewish people are cool to Christianity as they have every right to be.

    Posted by Ed-M | March 2, 2011, 12:21 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: