Literature Long Read: The Parable Of Nehushtan, The Bronze Snake

A lot of the background research for my novel The Green Man has involved reading The Bible. That’s perhaps unsurprising given that the story is about a group of Benedictine, Franciscan, and Dominican monks from the 14th century. One of the Biblical stories that I ended up using as a reference point in TGM is generally known as the story of the Bronze Snake. It occurs someway into the Book of Numbers 21, after Moses has led the Hebrews from tyranny and into the desert, but before he converses with God upon Mount Sinai.

The Israelites left Mount Hor and went on the road toward the Red Sea, in order to go around the country of Edom. But the people became impatient on the way and grumbled at God and Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert? There is no bread and no water, and we hate this terrible food!” So the Lord sent them poisonous snakes; they bit the people, and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we grumbled at you and the Lord. Pray that the Lord will take away these snakes.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a bronze snake, and put it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, that person will live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Then when a snake bit anyone, that person looked at the bronze snake and lived.

It’s such a weird, almost throwaway little story that it’s easy to read it and think, “well that was an odd diversion,” and carry on with the meat of the Moses narrative, which culminates in the revelation (or perhaps codification would be a better way of putting it) of the Ten Commandments. If you took this section out of the Moses story, it’d make no difference to the narrative at all.

The Brazen Serpent by James Tissot

And yet there must be something to it. A quick Google image search will reveal untold amounts of incredible pieces of art depicting the scene, a few of which I’ve pinched to post up here. Anything in the Bible must be there for a reason, so I gave it some thought. The more I thought about it, the more the story makes sense.

By this point in the Bible snakes are well established as symbols of disorder and danger, and more particularly, unexpected disorder. I already mentioned that paradise translates as “walled garden”, but paradise is not impregnable. The snakes still manage to find a way in, as we know from the Adam and Eve story.

That’s not just whimsical storytelling either; we can see that in our everyday life. If anyone had ever been in any doubt, then 2020 has taught us that even when you batten down all the hatches and seal yourself away from the outside world (regardless of whether that isolation is imposed by the self or by the state), you still can’t stop unexpected dangers and traumas from stealing in and causing you harm. Perhaps it’s even the case that the more you seal yourself in, the more damage you invite in: loneliness and mental illnesses, suicidal thoughts (though mercifully, not suicide itself), domestic abuse, sedentarism, and alcoholism have all been rampant this year just as much as the Covid-19 virus, and there are many people who subscribe to the theory that the cure is more dangerous than the disease (my personal opinion is that such a position is very much relative and dependent upon your individual circumstances, and the answer can’t be reduced to blanket statements).

It’s interesting to note that the Hebrews being lost and bitten by snakes in the desert happens after they have been freed from tyranny, and they’re bitching and moaning so much it’s like they would have preferred to stay under the yoke of the Pharaoh instead of having to deal with liberty. Liberty brings with it responsibilities, danger, and risk. And the problem with liberty is that, you can’t look to the Pharaoh for succour and subsistence. Things bite you. So what do you do?

You have to look at the things that bite you. More than that, you have to really pay attention to them. By using our perceptive abilities we can see the truth of something. That’s a biological fact just s much as it is an ontological one. For sure, we can be fooled by our eyes some of the time, but if you really look at something, we can discern something of truth about it. And once you look at it, and study it, and come to understand it, then you become better equipped to deal with it, fight it, or resist or avoid it when it rears its head to strike next.

This happens at an individual level. If you have a problem in your life – be it debt, mental illness, relationship trouble, addiction, or whatever – you cannot move on without paying due attention to it. That’s well understood, and it makes sense in your own life; there’s bound to be something in your life where you think, “hmm, I really ought to pay more attention to that” and if you don’t, then it continues to nip at you. There have been several instances in my life where I’ve been forced to look at something and acknowledge it – which is often uncomfortable, sometimes painful – but always cathartic, and useful.

I also think that it can happen at a societal level, and that we as a society (or species) you pay due attention to the things that are biting us and causing us to be dragged into disorder, then we can begin to move away from it, in liberty and with a greater understanding and a little more wisdom. Some good examples of this would be slavery and race relations, Nazism, and Communism. Apart from Covid, 2020 has been notable for the renewed acknowledgement, visibility and interest in race relations, particularly the story of slavery (I particularly enjoyed Samuel L Jackson’s programme on slavery that aired on the BBC earlier in the year). It makes sense; it’s something that clearly is still biting people (and biting them to death in some cases) and so deserves to be very seriously looked at. The act of looking may well be uncomfortable for a lot of people, but in order for this chaotic monster to stop biting it does need to be fully acknowledged.

Similarly, we feel confident and right about our collective revulsion towards Nazism because we have looked at it for so long. Nazis have been shorthand for villains and evil individuals / groups since the Second World War, from the Allied propaganda material right up to 2020, where the major villain for the brilliant Amazon Prime show The Boys was a Nazi, and innumerable times in between.

As for Communism, Solzhenitsyn made the observation that the Soviet Union was permitted to metastasise in such a brutal and unfettered manner because at an individual level, people were tempted to look the other way, turn a blind eye, and simply lie to themselves that all was justified, even as the arrests, interrogations and corpses piled up. When Solzhenitsyn decided to finally tell the truth, even that poisonous empire could not withstand the power of such a humble, simple act. Ditto Ghandi and the British Imperial tyranny. Ditto Nelson Mandela and South African Apartheid. These are the Moses figures erecting the snake, and forcing the world to look. And once the world looks, the snake loses so much of its power.

One area where the bronze snake has not yet been sufficiently erected is the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism. Or perhaps we have turned away from it too early? The lack of coverage of the recent atrocities in France (although not in France itself) seems to reflect a desire not to look at this particular problem, which will only spell trouble. There is a sense among some commentators that taking a proper look at this problem would be problematic, even dangerous, for Muslims because of the possibility of reprisals. But I’d argue that it would be more problematic and dangerous to not look at it, for Muslims just as much as anybody else. Appeasement failed in the face of Hitler and the Nazis, and wilful ignorance allowed the Soviet monster to grow, but those who faced up to the snake defanged it. As Moses was also a revered prophet of Islam, this seems a pertinent thing to consider.

Interestingly, the bronze snake makes another appearance later in the Old Testament, in the second Book of Kings 18.

Hezekiah did what the Lord said was right, just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the places where gods were worshipped. He smashed the stone pillars and cut down the Asherah idols. Also the Israelites had been burning incense to Nehushtan, the bronze snake Moses had made. But Hezekiah broke it into pieces.

Hezekiah orders the destruction of Nehushtan

I think that this represents a type of obsessiveness on the part of the Israelites; that what once had bitten them, they come to perversely worship. It’s possible to be seduced by something you’re studying intensely, even if the initial reason for doing so was justifiable. So my interpretation of this long-delayed postscript to the story is that once an icon has served its purpose then it must be jettisoned, lest it become a focal point for your obsessions, and prevents you from moving forward with the more worthwhile goals in your life. To use one of the previous comparisons, I would argue that the evolution of BLM into a political party is a case in point; it ceases to become a movement for increasing wisdom and understanding, and becomes something more ideological. Becoming overly obsessed with Nazis is, likewise, probably not a great idea. So we have to be clear that, while looking at these chaotic phenomena is critical endeavour, formulating and living the best possible version of our life should always be the ultimate goal. Sometimes we have to clear the garden of snakes, but we don’t want to become obsessed with the snakes to the detriment of everything else.

I found the bronze snake to be such an interesting little parable that I referred to it on at least two occasions in The Green Man, and when you strip away the symbols the story seems universal, applicable to Hebrews lost in the desert, a 14th century monk cast into an existential crisis, or the descendants of slaves, or the people who suffered under Communism, or simply an individual dealing with a crisis in their life that won’t go away. I’ve learned a lot from writing it, and I’ve really looked at a lot of the underlying themes, stories, and questions that the writing has presented.

But once it’s done? It’s time to break away from it and move on.

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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