The Fiery Serpents
Michael R. Ash
copyright 2002 all rights reserved
I tend to think that many miracles can be understood within the workings of natural phenomenon. This doesn't mean that I don't think miracles are real. If a prophet said that a city would be destroyed lest the people repent, then an earthquake (a natural event) which wipes out the city would still be a miracle. I also believe that some miracles are beyond our current understanding of natural phenomenon (the Resurrection, Jesus' walking on water or healing the blind and lame, are such examples). Nevertheless, I like to apply Ockham's razor whenever possible to how God might have used natural means to accomplish real miracles. (For more information on miracles, see my article under that title at miracles).
In Numbers chapter 21, we read that the wandering Israelites continued to complain about their living conditions until the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died (v. 7). Acknowledging their sinfulness to Moses they asked the prophet to pray that the Lord take away the serpents from us. The Lord told Moses to make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live (8). Following the Lord's directive, Moses made a serpent of brass, and put in on a pole and those who beheld the serpent of brass lived (9).
There are two different issues involved here. 1) What were the fiery serpents and 2) how could looking at a brass serpent on a pole heal those who were bitten and dying?
There are a few different ways to interpret these passages. It's possible that God sent real fiery (flaming?) serpents (perhaps even flying fiery serpents see Isaiah 14:29; 30:6; and 1 Nephi 17:41) to bite the wicked Israelites. It also possible that simply the act of looking at the brass serpent on the pole was enough to miraculously heal those who had been bitten.
Some have suggested that the fiery serpents were really Israeli saw-scale vipers which were fiery reddish in color, had a fiery painful bite, and could strike lightning fast as if they were flying. (Millet and Pratt Acceptance of the theory of vipers as fiery serpents would explain what the serpents were, but would not explain (via natural events) how looking at a brass fiery serpent would heal those who were bitten. Those who accept the viper-serpent theory must naturally accept a literal reading of the healing of the Israelites by simply casting their eyes on the brass serpent. And there is nothing wrong with accepting such a conclusion.
I believe, however, that there is another theory that explains not only what the serpents were, but also how they could be healed by looking at the brass serpent on the pole.
There is a parasite, known as Dracunculus, which in ancient times (and to some degree in modern times) plagued much of ancient Asia and Africa. The Dracunculus, or Guinea Worm, parasites are quivering strings of flesh resembling long spaghetti noodles. The female worms, which could measure up to 1 meter in length and 2mm in diameter, infect a human host most often at the legs, ankles, or feet, and live just under the skin. In time, the female worm develops embryos, then rupture and releases the juvenile worms into the human's skin. Allergic reactions, and pain (fiery pain) and ulcerations in the skin occur next. When the skin breaks open the female is exposed and the juvenile worms escape. Infected humans often wash the sores in an attempt to alleviate the symptoms. The tiny juvenile worms exit the sore into the stagnant water (such as the drinking pond) which is then consumed by the humans and livestock. Once inside the intestinal tract the worms spread through the body, the females are fertilized and the males die. The females migrate to the skin and produce juveniles. (See Parasites and Parasitological Resources and World Health Organization.)
Although worms aren't serpents, meter-long worms could certainly qualify for such a term. How then could looking at a serpent on a pole save the lives of those who had been bitten? The American Medical Association's icon is that of two snakes wrapped around a pole, known as the caduceus, based on this account from Moses.
When the female Guinea Worm exposed herself through an open sore, it couldn't just be yanked out, or it would snap in two. The remnant inside the body would then die and cause a fatal infection. The remedy used to remove the worm was to take a forked stick, nip the end of the worm which protruded from the skin, and during the course of several days (sometimes up to a week), roll the parasite out alive on the stick until it could crawl free. (Zimmer and Herreid.) In an age of illiteracy, it's possible that looking at the brass serpent on a pole might have been a way of providing instructions for the Israelites on how to remove the Guinea Worms.
Some might object to the theory that the Israelites would have to be active in saving their own lives. Doesn't the scriptures say that all that was need was for them to look at the brass serpent? Nephi, for instance, wrote:
And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished. (1 Nephi 17:41; see also Helaman 8:15 and Alma 33:19.)
This verse seems to suggest that nothing other than looking at the brass serpent was necessary for life. I believe, however, that the Biblical account is attempting to teach by way of symbolism a spiritual lesson based on an historical event.
For example, it's possible that the fiery serpents were as symbolic as much as literal. The Hebrew word for fiery serpent is saraph which means not only serpent and burn but is also the root word for seraphim a type of angel (also related to cherubim). Flying saraphs may then perhaps refer to the belief that seraphim had wings. Among those believed to be seraphim is Satan (Encyclopedia Mythica.) Lucifer, of course, is also depicted as a serpent in the Garden of Eden. A fiery angel may also be analogous to an angel of light. All scriptures mentioning an angel of light (2 Corin. 11:14; 2 Nephi 9:9; D&C 128:20; D&C 128:8) refer to Satan. It's possible that the fiery serpents symbolized the spiritual death that follows the sting of Satan's bite (the Israelites, of course, were struggling with sin). The effects of sin can be fiery to the soul.
What is meant symbolically by the verb look in saving the soul from the spiritual death brought on by sin? The story of the brass serpent has been used as a type or shadow of Christ's crucifixion (see John 3:14-15), and Helaman equates the story of the Israelites receiving life by looking at the brass serpent, to the receiving of eternal life by looking upon the Son of God. (Helaman 8:15.) But is eternal life gained simply by looking upon Christ? Alma taught his son Helaman what it meant for the Israelites and us to look to God and live (Alma 37:47). Eternal life requires giving heed to the words of Christ, which will point to you a straight course (44). Alma warns Helaman not to be slothful because of the easiness of the way (46). In 3 Nephi, the Resurrected Lord told the Nephites: Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life (3 Nephi 15:9). Immediately after which He adds: Behold, I give unto you the commandments; therefore keep my commandments (10). All this implies that looking is more than just acknowledging Christ, but rather it involves doing, or following Christ's example.
We return then to the theory of a brass Guinea Worm wrapped around a stick just as following the example depicted by the brass icon would bring life to the stricken Israelites, so likewise following the example of He was lifted upon the cross would bring eternal life for those tormented by the pains of sin brought on by that old serpent, the devil. For the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ. (Mosiah 16:8.)
Michael R. Ash
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