Snakes that Bite, Snakes that Heal

Remarks delivered on Shabbat Chukkat 5783 (July 8, 2022).

This week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, contains one of the strangest episodes in the Torah: fire-breathing snakes and a magical snake-staff. Let me explain.

Once again, we find the Israelites complaining about their wilderness journey. It’s a familiar refrain: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food” (Numbers 21:5).

God’s not so pleased. The manna God sent to sustain the people, which supposedly tasted like coriander and rich cream (Num. 11:8), the people are calling “miserable food.”

So God sends seraph serpents to bite the people. Maybe they actually breathed fire, like the seraphim (angelic fire-breathing creatures). Or maybe their venom caused a fiery burning in people’s bodies. Either way, the snakes killed many Israelites.

Unlike previous passages in which the Israelites complain for lack of food, this time they acknowledge they’ve insulted their Divine Provider. “We sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you,” they cry to Moses. “Intercede with the LORD to take the serpents away from us!” (Num. 21:7).

Moses does, and at God’s instructions, he casts a copper seraph, a metal serpent to mount on a post. He displays the snake-staff displayed prominently in the camp. Anyone who is bitten by a serpent would look at the copper serpent above them, and they would be healed (Num. 21:9).

Those of us connected to modern medical practice may recognize something familiar: the snake-staff in the Torah is the earliest known example of something like the Rod of Asclepius, the Greek icon of a snake winding around a staff, which has become a symbol for the medical profession. We don’t know if there’s a direct connection between the Torah’s seraph serpents and the Rod of Asclepius…but how cool is that?

If we’re paying attention to the Torah though, this should give us a little trouble. How could it be that a snake-staff has curative properties? Yes, there are all sorts of rituals in the Torah that deal with what we today might call medical issues, but they are generally meant to invoke God’s power—not bring out about healing themselves. To think the snake-staff itself has the power to heal is tantamount to idolatry.

The early Sages picked up on this. In the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 3:8), they ask, Did the serpent really preserve life? No, when the injured Israelites would look up toward the raised snake-staff, their thoughts would be directed heavenward. In effect, it was a way of getting them to return to God, and they would be healed.

There was a serpent-shaped need, and God and Moses provided a serpent-shaped solution. Nowhere else in the Torah does the snake-staff appear…

…until many generations later, when we find out in the Book of Second Kings (18:4), that the snake-staff apparently was not destroyed or left behind in the wilderness after the serpent threat was over. It made its way all the way to Jerusalem, where it seems to have stayed until the reign of King Hezekiah.

At the start of his reign, he sought to root out idolatry from the land. He abolished local shrines and destroyed sacred pillars and posts. None of these are identified by name in Second Kings—none except the copper snake-staff Moses had made. Hezekiah smashed it to pieces, because the people had been offering sacrifices to it. They’d even given it its own name: Nechushtan (a pun on both nachash [snake] and nechoshet [copper]).

An instrument designed for a particular moment in time, as a conduit of divine healing, had in time become an idolatrous relic. The people confused the means for the end, and they used a once holy tool for inappropriate acts. The snake that heals turned back into the snake that bites.

There is wisdom in this history for us today. Sometimes we experience a need, either in our own lives or as a society, for which we devise a particular solution. But instead of sunsetting that solution when the need is gone, we cling to it. We cling for good reason: it worked. But over time, the solution becomes an object of veneration in and of itself, even when it no longer fits present circumstances—or even runs counter to them. It becomes a relic.

In my own life—and I imagine for many of us—my smartphone feels like this sort of thing. It is a useful tool that helps me connect with others and literally navigate the world, but it also became an addictive drain on my attention. I’ve tried to rein in my usage, to varying degrees of success (but I have not yet smashed it to pieces).

I bet each of us can name something in our lives that we relate to in this way. Or maybe it’s something in an organization we’re part of, some way of doing things that made sense before but no longer does. Maybe it’s bigger than that: elements of American governance that made sense in the 18th century but have become relics in the 21st.

Whatever these things are, this week’s Torah portion invites us to identify and reevaluate the solutions of the past that no longer function in the present. What are the snake-staffs that heal, and what are those that bite? We have the choice of what we do with them.

May we use them for good or remake them for better, and may we transform our lives and our world in the process.

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