By Esther Edelsburg
This portion contains a number of topics that give rise to various thoughts and questions – among which stands out the incident of the Waters of Meribah (Num. 20:2-13), and the punishment of Moses and Aaron found in Num. 20:12. For what, exactly, were they punished? The text states, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelites.” There are those who contend that Moses’ sin was that he struck the rock twice instead of speaking to it as he was commanded to do. But, it is this explanation sufficient? Another response emphasizes that it was God who commanded Moses to take up his staff – the same staff with which he performed miracles in Egypt – nonetheless here Moses was told to “speak” and not to use his staff as a magic device, for even without the staff the miracle would have come about. In fact, the story is in opposition to the notion of the power of the staff as a magical device.
Against this background the story of the Bronze Serpent (Num. 21:6-9) seems most surprising. The story is an account of complaint, the last in a series of such of such stories of complaint in the wilderness. The people tired of relying upon their dependence on the Heavens, they were fed up with the “ersatz bread” that God provided for them each day, and all they longed for was for the good, natural foods that were to be had in Egypt.
God is enraged, and “sends forth” (the meaning of the word suggests “set free” as heretofore these forces were prevented from breaking out) the seraph [perhaps “fiery” or poisonous] serpents that struck and killed the people. Why seraph serpents? Because they are creatures native to the wilderness (c.f. “The great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions…” Deut. 8:15). The people sought to live according to the laws of nature, thus we have a kind of quid pro quo. The people, befuddled, turn to Moses and beseech him to pray on their behalf. God’s response is surprising, “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard; and if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover” (Num. 21:8). And so it was. The commentators sensed a problem here, at this time did God allow the use of magical means or turning to supernatural forces? In light of the previous story, it would appear not to be the case. This question is raised in the Mishnah (R.H. 3:5) “Is it possible that a serpent can kill and restore to life? Rather, when the Israelites looked heavenward and subjected their hearts to God they were healed, if not, they were struck down.”
The healing, like the punishment, came via the serpent as a kind of homeopathic treatment, and so thought the Ramban in his commentary to this verse, “The damage was averted by that which brought it about and the illness was cured by its cause.” And Hizkuni notes, “The Holy One of Blessing strikes with a lancet and cures with a lancet.”
This story might well end here, however some five hundred years later the book of II Kings recounts the purification by King Hezekiah of the worship cult of all taint of idolatry, “He abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars… He also broke into pieces the Bronze Serpent that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nechushtan” (IIKi. 18:4). Whatever the origins of this Nechushtan may have been (perhaps an Edomite god brought by King Amaziah) the significance of the verse remains that the Israelites turned the original therapeutic aspect into idolatry – and in the very courtyard of the Temple itself! The medium became the essence and thus the blessing became a curse. When does a blessing become a curse? And, when can a curse become a blessing?