The Nehushtan (or Nehustan, Hebrew: נחושתן or נחש הנחושת), in the Hebrew Bible, was a sacred object in the form of a snake of brass upon a pole. The priestly source of the Torah says that Moses used a 'fiery serpent' to cure the Israelites from snakebites. (Numbers 21:4-9) King Hezekiah (reigned 715/6 – 687) instituted a religious iconoclastic reform and destroyed "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) The tradition of naming it Nehushtan is no older than the time of Hezekiah.
Snake cults had been well established in Canaan in the Bronze Age: archaeologists have uncovered serpent cult objects in Bronze Age strata at several pre-Israelite cities in Canaan: two at Megiddo, one at Gezer, one in the sanctum sanctorum of the Area H temple at Hazor, and two at Shechem.
According to Lowell K. Handy, the Nehushtan was originally the symbol of a minor god of snakebite-cure within the Temple. The name of this god is unknown, however, the use of "brazen serpent" is a subtle play on words that are based on the metal that the snake is made of: נחש (nachash) means "serpent", while נחשת (nachoshet) means "brass" or "bronze".
The Israelites set out from Mount Hor, where Aaron was buried, to go to the Red Sea. However they had to detour around the land of Edom (Numbers 20:21, 25). Frustrated and impatient, they complained against Yahweh and Moses (Num. 21:4-5). This is the last of the complaint stories in the Book of Numbers. Just east of Palestine, God plagued them with "fiery serpents" for their mumurs against Him. For the sake of repentant ones, Moses was instructed by God to build a serpent of bronze that was used as an instrument to heal those who looked upon it (Numbers 21:4-9).
In source criticism by Martin Noth, the bronze serpent passage in Numbers 21:4-9, proceeds smoothly and is free of doublets, thus it does not appear to divide into different 'sources' even with the unusual juxtapostion of 'God' in v.5. The predominating use of the name Yahweh supposes that its appearance is original. In terms of the documentary hypothesis, the narrative can be allocated to the E source.
In 2 Kings 18:4, a bronze serpent was set up in the Jerusalem Temple sanctuary. The Masoretic text says that "he [Hezekiah] called it Nehushtan". According to Young's Literal Translation, Nehushtan means "piece of brass" (2 Kings 18:4). Karen Randolph Joines makes the distinction that it was Hezekiah who discriminatingly called the image Nehushtan, rather than it being some common term used by the Israelites. When Hezekiah had become King, he tore down the Nehushtan. It has been suggested that Hezekiah's destruction of the Nehushtan was a result of the balance of power moving towards Assyria, which permitted him to remain on the throne of Judah as a puppet ruler. Hezekiah demonstrated his loyalty to the new regime by the destruction of an important symbol with Egyptian associations.
Significance in Christianity
The Serpent of bronze in Numbers 21 is a well known image for Christians because of its use by Jesus in the Gospel of John. Jesus discussed his destiny with a Jewish teacher named Nicodemus by referencing a passage in Chukat of the Torah. Jesus gave a direct comparison between the raising up of the Son of Man and the act of the Mosaic serpent being raised up. Charles Spurgeon asserted that in this passage, Jesus was referring to his forthcoming crucifixion, and demonstrating the significance of the cross as spiritual healing from the curse of sin.
- ^ "Modern exegesis holds two different opinions in regard to the meaning of the word "Nehushtan," which is explained either as denoting an image of bronze, and as entirely unconnected with the word "naḥash" (serpent), or as a lengthened form of "naḥash" (comp. νεεσθάν in the Septuagint), and thus as implying that the worship of serpents was of ancient date in Israel. The assumption that the tradition about "Nehushtan" is not older than the time of Hezekiah is, however, not contested." Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. "Nehushtan"; H. H. Rowley, "Zadok and Nehushtan" Journal of Biblical Literature 58.2 (June 1939:113-141) p. 132 observes, "We have no record of this Brazen Serpent before this time, save for the obvious aetiological story in Num. 8 f, which states that this sacred symbol had its origin in the Mosaic age".
- ^ Gordon Loud, Megiddo II: Plates plate 240: 1, 4, from Stratum X (dated by Loud 1650-1550 BC) and Statum VIIB (dated 1250-1150 BC), noted by Joines 1968:245f.
- ^ R.A.S. Macalister, Gezer II, p. 399, fig. 488, noted by Joiner 1968:245 note 3, from the high place area, dated Late Bronze Age.
- ^ Yigael Yadin et al. Hazor III-IV: Plates, pl. 339, 5, 6, dated Late Bronze Age II (Yadiin to Joiner, in Joiner 1968:245 note 4).
- ^ Callaway and Toombs to Joiner (Joiner 1968:246 note 5).
- ^ Lowell K. Handy, The Appearance of Pantheon in Judah, in Diana Vikander Edelman, "The triumph of Elohim", 1995, p.41
- ^ Olson 1996, p. 135
- ^ a b Noth 1968, p. 156
- ^ Joines, Karen Randolph (1968). The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult. JOBL, 87. p. 245, note 1.
- ^ "The Mystery of the Nechushtan", Hershel Shanks, Biblical Archaeology Review, pp.58-63, March/April 2007.
- ^ Olson 1996, p. 137
- ^ C. H. Spurgeon, "The Mysteries of the Brazen Serpent", 1857
- This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Brazen serpent" by Kaufmann Kohler, Isaac Husik, Morris Jastrow Jr., J. Frederic McCurdy, a publication now in the public domain.
- Noth, Martin (1968). Numbers: A Commentary (Issue 613, Vol. 7 ed.). Westminster John Knox Press. p. 155-8. ISBN 9780664223205.
- Olson, Dennis T. (1996). Numbers. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 135-8. ISBN 9780804231046.
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