Nehushtan – Flying Serpent on a Pole
Numbers 21 gives the familiar Bible story in which the Children of Israel are punished for murmuring against God. Verse 6 tells how God sent fiery serpents to punish Israel and many were killed. When the people repented of their sin and cried out to Moses, God provided a way for them to be healed. He instructed Moses to place a serpent made from brass onto a pole and to hold this before those who were dying from the serpent’s venom. All who looked in faith at this symbol were healed.
Typically, these serpents are thought to be common snakes. But the Hebrew words translated “fiery serpents” are saraphim naphashim. These words signify a bright, flying, reptilian creature. I have long believed these creatures to be pterosaurs, not common snakes. The reasons have been laid out in the essay The Fiery Flying Serpent and I will not repeat them here. But recently some ancient pictures have come to light that support this interpretation and concur with certain old commentators who claimed that the serpents made an aerial assault. To the right is an illustration designed from an 1864 copper plate engraving in a book by the French priest Jacques Paul Migne. Notice the winged serpents both in the air and crawling around on the ground.
But the artifact of the serpent on the pole continued to be carried around by the nation of Israel long after the incident in the wilderness of Arabia. In fact, it was preserved for centuries, down through the conquest of Canaan, the times of the judges, and down through the various kings. Unfortunately, it eventually became an idolatrous symbol of worship, called Nehushtan. Hezekiah is recorded to have “removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan” (II Kings 18:4). At that time, God allowed a large portion of the idolatrous Jewish nation to fall to the Assyrian army under Sennacherib. Among the booty brought back to Assyria, archaeologists have found a plate depicting a winged serpent on a pole (left). Could this be a Nehusthan representation?
Multiple Medieval artists depicted the Nehushtan worship involving a winged serpent. An example is the 12th century manuscript illustration to the right showing the Veneration of Nehushtan (Picture rights – Bibliothèque Nationale de France BNF Latin 12054). What a tragedy that an artifact that should have reminded the people of God about a mighty time of His deliverance instead became worshiped in the place of God! Yet how many still today worship and serve the creation over the Creator (Romans 1:25)? Their heart’s love is set upon the things of this world, not the One who made it and to whom they will give an account.
Jesus Himself appropriated the narrative concerning Israel and the fiery serpents as a type of His work: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15 ESV). Just as the Hebrew people were bitten by the venom of the serpent (typifying Satan), so we are poisoned by sin. Unable to help ourselves, we are destined for sure death and separation from God. However, Jesus, like the brass serpent on the pole, was lifted up on the cross and bore the punishment for our sins. If we look in faith to Him, just as the children of Israel in obedience looked up to the image on the pole, we can be saved from our sins and be spiritually healed.
Posted on December 3, 2013 by dwoetzel.