Nehushtan, the Copper Serpent: Its Origins and Fate
The mysterious account of the copper (or bronze) serpent (Num 21:4-9) is part of a catalogue of stories in the Torah that involve Israelite grumbling—generally about the dearth of food or water in the wilderness—and the consequences of that grumbling. In this story, once again, God has had enough and decides to punish the Israelites, this time, sending saraph serpents to attack them.
במדבר כא:ו וַיְשַׁלַּח יְ-הוָה בָּעָם אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ אֶת הָעָם וַיָּמָת עַם רָב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל. כא:ז וַיָּבֹא הָעָם אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמְרוּ חָטָאנוּ כִּי דִבַּרְנוּ בַי-הוָה וָבָךְ הִתְפַּלֵּל אֶל יְ-הוָה וְיָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אֶת הַנָּחָשׁ וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה בְּעַד הָעָם.
Num 21:6 YHWH sent saraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. 21:7The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned by speaking against YHWH and against you. Intercede with YHWH to take away the serpents from us!” And Moses interceded for the people (NJPS with adjustments).
To ameliorate the deadliness of the attack, Moses is told to make a model of a serpent, which, when looked upon, heals those who were bitten:
במדבר כא:ח וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה עֲשֵׂה לְךָ שָׂרָף וְשִׂים אֹתוֹ עַל נֵס וְהָיָה כָּל הַנָּשׁוּךְ וְרָאָה אֹתוֹ וָחָי. כא:ט וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה נְחַשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵהוּ עַל הַנֵּס וְהָיָה אִם נָשַׁךְ הַנָּחָשׁ אֶת אִישׁ וְהִבִּיט אֶל נְחַשׁ הַנְּחֹשֶׁת וָחָי.
Num 21:8 Then YHWH said to Moses, “Make a saraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover.” 21:9 Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.
This story may reflect sympathetic magic, where one uses a symbolic model of an object to affect what happens to the real object—like a voodoo doll. The model is used here apotropaically, to protect or in this case to heal the Israelites from the venom of the real snakes that this object is meant to represent.
King Hezekiah Destroys the Nehushtan
This copper serpent appears one other time in the Bible, in the description of a religious reform said to have been carried out by King Hezekiah in the 8th century B.C.E, as a part of which he destroys it (2 Kings 18:4):
הוּא הֵסִיר אֶת הַבָּמוֹת
וְשִׁבַּר אֶת הַמַּצֵּבֹת
וְכָרַת אֶת הָאֲשֵׁרָה
וְכִתַּת נְחַשׁ הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה כִּי עַד הַיָּמִים הָהֵמָּה הָיוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מְקַטְּרִים לוֹ וַיִּקְרָא לוֹ נְחֻשְׁתָּן.
He (=Hezekiah) abolished the shrines
And smashed the pillars
And cut down the sacred post (asherah).
He also broke into pieces the copper serpent that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nehushtan.
Implicit in the above narrative is that before Hezekiah’s reform, the Israelites venerated a copper serpent.
An Etiological Tale about an Exiting Statue
The narrative in Numbers appears to be an etiological tale from before Hezekiah’s reform, explaining the origin of this copper serpent. The author of the tale in Numbers was familiar with this image (Nehushtan) either in fact or by reputation, and felt that the presence of such a figure among the Israelites, perhaps even in the Temple itself, needed explaining. Thus, he insisted that, despite how people may have treated it, the copper serpent was never meant as a representation of a deity, but was designed for healing. Its construction was commanded by YHWH and implemented by no less a figure than Moses.
Deuteronomic Polemic against Forbidden Forms of Worship
Whereas the story in Numbers is endorsing the copper snake, the story in Kings, which is part of the Deuteronomistic History (the books of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings), sees it as idolatrous. In fact, the Book of Deuteronomy, which forms the ideological underpinning of the Deuteronomistic tradition, is strongly iconoclastic, telling the Israelites of the necessity to destroy all forms of idolatry. For example, Moses instructs the people in Deuteronomy 12:3:
נִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת מִזְבּחֹתָם
וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת מַצֵּבֹתָם
וַאֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ
וּפְסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן
וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֶת שְׁמָם מִן הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא.
Tear down their altars,
smash their pillars,
put their sacred posts to the fire,
and cut down the images of their gods,
obliterating their name from that site.
The מַצֵּבֹת (pillars) and the item translated “their sacred posts” (אֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם) in this list correspond to two of the items destroyed by Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18. The copper serpent, Nehushtan, the third object Hezekiah destroyed, would certainly fall into the larger category of פְּסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם (images of their gods), since 2 Kings 18 indicates that the people were offering sacrifices to it, treating it as a deity Apparently, not even a suggested Mosaic origin for this figure could overcome the Deuteronomistic aversion to icons that had become objects of worship.
Whence a Copper Serpent?
Pillars (מַצֵּבֹת) were common in ancient Israel. So too were sacred trees or poles (אֲשֵׁרָה), which functioned as symbols of the cult of the fertility goddess Asherah, and were part of the “cultic paraphernalia” of YHWH throughout Iron Age Israel Serpent images, such as Nehushtan, however, popular in Bronze Age Canaan, disappeared in the Iron Age and were not popular among the ancient Israelites for most of their history. Thus, the presence of Nehushtan as a venerated icon in ancient Judah is anomalous.
Theory One: Bronze Age Canaanite Vestige
One explanation is that Nehushtan was a vestige of pre-Israelite practices. Iconographic evidence from Late Bronze Age Palestine shows an association between sacred trees and serpents as symbols of fertility. Specifically, Karen Randolph Joines describes a number of items discovered in several excavations in Israel dating to the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550-1200 B.C.E.), including at Tell Beit Mirsim, Shechem, Beit Shemesh, Hazor, and Gezer, all of which depict what appears to be a fertility goddess, perhaps Asherah, accompanied by serpent images.
Bronze serpents have also been discovered in what appear to be cultic environments in Late Bronze Age levels at Tell Mevorakh, Hazor, Gezer, and Timna.This suggests that the pre-Israelite/Canaanite population of Palestine venerated the serpent alongside the Asherah, most probably as a chthonic image of fertility. Thus, although as a rule serpent images disappear with the advent of the Iron Age and the Israelite culture, Nehushtan may have been an exception to this rule, a cultic image that stood in a Canaanite temple (perhaps in Jerusalem itself) and was inherited and kept by the Israelites.
Theory Two: Egyptian Influence in the 8th Century
Another possibility, if we focus on iconographic evidence, is that the statue reflects Egyptian culture. Serpents were seen by Egyptian rulers as symbols of life, healing, and protection. Deities and kings were often pictured with uraei (serpent heads) on their foreheads or otherwise pictured in association with protective uraei. The image of a protective uraeus works well with the image of life and healing granted by looking at the serpent in the story in Numbers 21.
Although absent during the early Iron Age, serpent imagery reappears in the Levant on the seals and seal impressions dated to the reign of Hezekiah, during whose early reign the influence of Egypt was particularly strong. After all, Hezekiah reversed his father Ahaz’ submission to Assyria and, in 701 B.C.E., led a rebellion against Assyria in alliance with Egypt.
While Hezekiah himself seems to have preferred other Egyptian motifs, the winged sun disc with ankh (sign for life) or the winged scarab, other royal officials made use of the winged uraeus. As the Judean rulers moved politically closer to Egypt to help stall the Assyrian advance that brought down the northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E., it is not surprising that Egyptian iconography emerged as popular symbols in the royal court of Hezekiah.
Perhaps, then, the Nehushtan was introduced during this period, as part of Judah’s adoption of Egyptian cultural icons, especially the serpent image which was a symbol of kingship. In fact, this theory can work in tandem with the previous one: the serpent may have been an ancient vestige that gained importance in the time of Hezekiah when Egyptian iconography was on the rise.
But Was There a Hezekian Reform?
The book of Kings presents Hezekiah as a religious reformer and explains his disposal of Nehushtan along these lines, as the destruction of an idol. Many contemporary scholars, however, dispute the historicity of this reform. Nadav Na’aman of Tel Aviv University, for instance, insists concerning Hezekiah: “…there is as yet no clear archaeological evidence for any of the cultic reforms mentioned in the Bible.”
Rather, according to Na’aman, the Deuteronomistic historian, writing in the glow of the actual religious reform of Hezekiah’s grandson, Josiah, attributed the same tendencies to Josiah’s pious grandfather. Having encountered a palace “archival note” (or perhaps an oral tradition) that Hezekiah had removed Nehushtan, the later Deuteronomistic author naturally understood this as part of an extensive religious reform akin to that of Josiah, and, thus, he described it using formulaic Deuteronomistic language.
But if there was no reform, why did Hezekiah, a king who used Egyptian imagery on his own seal, get rid of the Egyptian style copper serpent? The answer, I believe, has to do with Hezekiah’s politics, specifically the fall out of his rebellion against Assyria.
Submission and Tribute to the Assyrians
The removal of Nehushtan may be understood as part of Hezekiah’s submission to the Assyrians during the crisis of 701 B.C.E. While both the Bible and the records of the Assyrian King Sennacherib agree that the city of Jerusalem was not conquered—ascribed by the biblical writer to miraculous divine intervention—and that Hezekiah remained on the throne, nonetheless, much of Judean territory was destroyed or captured and handed over to Assyrian allies. Moreover, Hezekiah was forced to pay a heavy tribute to Sennacherib.
Judah’s move away from the Egyptian sphere of influence and towards the Assyrian sphere of influence, Kristin Swanson argues, can be seen in the change of seal styles in this period; Egyptian symbols such as the winged sun disc or winged uraeus on seals and seal impressions from the reign of Hezekiah are replaced by the Assyrian rosette motif. The removal of the serpent symbol from the seal was likely part of this policy of repudiation of Egyptian influence. While Swanson attributes this change to the period following Hezekiah’s reign, it could just as easily have taken place following Hezekiah’s submission to Assyria. Hezekiah may have felt that he had no choice but to dispose of the Egyptian style Nehushtan as well.
Tribute to Sennacherib
Hezekiah’s removal of Nehushtan could also have been connected to the massive tribute payment to the Assyrian king. In addition to the gold and silver payment referenced in 2 Kings 18:14-15, Sennacherib’s royal annals mention that Hezekiah paid “…vessels of copper, iron, bronze and tin…” Thus, Nehushtan may have been given to the Assyrians as part of his payment of copper or bronze. Alternatively, the image could have been given as the gift of a local deity’s image, an especially valuable piece of tribute.
Nehushtan in Assyrian Booty?
Some intriguing evidence suggests that a pole-mounted winged serpent may have been part of Sennacherib’s booty. A number of years ago, R.D. Barnett described a collection of bronze vessels dating to the 8th century B.C.E. that Austen Layard (1817-1894) discovered in the middle of the 19th century in the remains of Nimrud (ancient Calah), one of the royal cities of Assyrian kings. One of these items is a bronze bowl that depicts, among other items, two pole-mounted winged uraei flanking a pole-mounted winged scarab.
Discovered among this same group of items was another portion of a bowl, the rim of which is inscribed with the name l’ḥyw, “[belonging] to Aḥiya(h)u.” The inclusion of a divine element corresponding to YHWH indicates that the bowl represents Judean booty taken by a late 8th-century Assyrian king, part of the same booty that included the bowl with the winged uraei. J.J.M. Roberts has also published a bowl from the same collection that shows a series of wingeduraei flanking a stylized sacred tree.
While it cannot be definitely established which late-8th century Assyrian king brought this booty to Nimrud, it certainly could have been Sennacherib, and that booty could well have included a pole-mounted uraeus just like the ones depicted on the bowls—i.e., Nehushtan.
A Brief History of Nehushtan
The most reasonable solution to the puzzle of Nehushtan is that it was a pre-Israelite, Egyptian style cultic image of a serpent mounted on a sacred pole. For the Canaanites, it likely represented a deity with some relationship to the goddess Asherah, and was retained as part of the “cultic paraphernalia” of the worship of YHWH in Jerusalem. Sometime before the reign of Hezekiah in the 8th century B.C.E., an etiological tale was composed attributing the erection of Nehushtan to Moses during the wilderness wandering as a way of justifying this unusual cultic image.
Nehushtan likely became popular for a short time in the early days of Hezekiah, when he was in league with Egypt and even adopted Egyptian imagery on his personal seal. After Hezekiah submitted to Assyria, the Egyptian imagery became anathema and was removed from Judahite seals, and the statue of Nehushtan was removed as well. The fate of the image is unclear, but it may have become part of the booty or tribute that Hezekiah used to pay off his overlord, King Sennacherib of Assyria.
Hezekiah’s story was reimagined by the Deuteronomistic historian, composing and compiling his work in the glow of Josiah’s reform, and imagining Hezekiah as having engaged in a similar process. For that Deuteronomistic historian, the removal of a copper serpent would naturally have been seen as part of that reform.
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Dr. Richard Lederman teaches courses in Bible, Religion, and Comparative Mythology at Georgetown University, Montgomery College, and Gratz College. He holds a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literaature from the University of Pennsylvania. Before returning to academia, Lederman worked as a Jewish communal professional. He blogs at thereligioushumanist.com and spiritunboundsandr.blogspot.com.
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