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;
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.
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