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In Numbers 21:9 it says:

So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, so that if a snake had bitten someone, when he looked at the bronze snake he lived. [NET]

Where would Moses probably get the bronze to fashion into a serpent when he was leading the Jews around in the desert? Has there been any informed discussion on this point?

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The (relatively) small amount of bronze needed to make that serpent/snake (or נְחַשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת nĕḥaš nĕḥōšet) in the story of Num 21:4-9,1 even if it was as large as the monument now on Mount Nebo in Jordan,...

Mount Nebo, Jordan

...would still have been quite small compared to the amount of bronze (let alone silver and gold) needed to make the utensils required for the Tabernacle as instructed in Exodus 25-30, with its many clasps (Ex 26:11), pillars (Ex 26:37), bronze altar covering (Ex 27:2), pots and pans (Ex 27:3), and the "sea" or bronze laver (Ex 30:18).

So where did all this metal come from? One possible answer would be found in the motif of the "despoiling of the Egyptians".2 It is found in three passages in Exodus, twice in anticipation, and once in fulfilment:

  1. Ex 3 : 21 I will grant this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and it shall be that when you go, you will not go empty-handed. 22 But every woman shall ask of her neighbor and the woman who lives in her house, articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; and you will put them on your sons and daughters. Thus you will plunder the Egyptians.

  2. Ex 11 : 2 "Speak now in the hearing of the people that each man ask from his neighbor and each woman from her neighbor for articles of silver and articles of gold." 3a The LORD gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians.

  3. Ex 12 : 35 Now the sons of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, for they had requested from the Egyptians articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; 36 and the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.

However, there is no "bronze" (or copper) listed among the spoil taken from the Egyptians, and the listing of "gold, silver, clothes" (as it happens, the same plunder that Achan took to such disastrous effect in Joshua 7:21) appears to have to do with the enriching of the community on departure from Egypt, not the resourcing (directly) for tabernacle furnishings.

On the other hand, the tabernacle resources do come from the gifts of the people:

  • Ex 25 : 2 Tell the sons of Israel to raise a contribution for Me; from every man whose heart moves him you shall raise My contribution. 3 This is the contribution which you are to raise from them: gold, silver and bronze...

  • Ex 35 : 4 Moses spoke to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, saying, "This is the thing which the LORD has commanded, saying, 5 'Take from among you a contribution to the LORD; whoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it as the LORD'S contribution: gold, silver, and bronze,...'"

Thus, solicitation and gifts of "bronze/copper" for the tabernacle from the Israelites implies that the metal is already in their own possession. However, the immediate context of Num 21:9 -- the "serpent" episode of OP's interest -- does not depict Moses soliciting metal for the purpose. It is also possible (see the studies in note 1, below) that the bronze serpent was fairly small (but big enough to be seen?, Num 21:8), so not much was needed.

It remains possible, too, that the copper was accessed en route. Commentaries on the book of Numbers in recent years draw attention to the copper mines in the Timnah Valley north of Aqaba as another possible source of the metal in this connection.3

In summary, the biblical narrator is not interested in whether it originated from the Egyptians, or was already in possession of the Israelites, or sourced in the Sinai. Any of these three, however, are possibilities for curious modern readers.


Notes

  1. For further material on this episode, see Wikipedia's "Nehushtan" article; also Karen Randolph Joines, "The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult", Journal of Biblical Literature 87 (1968): 245-256; and more recently Maciej Münnich, "The Cult of Bronze Serpents in Ancient Canaan and Israel" in Iggud: Selected Essays in Jewish Studies (2005): *39-*56.
  2. For one scholarly treatment of this motif, see George W. Coats, "Despoiling the Egyptians", Vetus Testamentum 18 (1968): 450-457.
  3. E.g., R. Dennis Cole, Numbers (B&H Publishing Group, 2000), p. 349-50; Timothy R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers (NICOT; Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 405-6.
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  • More than once in your post you refer to bronze and copper as if the two words are interchangeable in this context. I'm curious now as to what extent the ancient Hebrew vocabulary had different words for distinguishing between different metals. Did they just have one word for copper and bronze? – David H Sep 22 '14 at 3:53
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    @DavidH Did they just have one word for copper and bronze? - Yes, נְחֹשֶׁת = nĕḥōšet is usually glossed either with "copper" or "bronze": see Brown-Driver-Briggs (p. 638, bottom right column and following). By contrast, the more recent HALOT gives "copper-tin alloy, bronze" only. For more on the metal (not semantics) see the recent: E Ben-Yosef, et al, "A New Chronological Framework for Iron Age Copper Production at Timna (Israel)" [PDF] Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 367 (2012): 31-71. – Dɑvïd Sep 22 '14 at 10:50
  • @Davïd Very informative! For clarification, when you say 'halot' is more recent, how recently are we talking about? Also, after asking my question above, I searched 'bronze' at wiktionary and found the Hebrew translation 'ארד' (arad). Do you know how this term compares to the two you described? – David H Sep 22 '14 at 11:28
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    @DavidH - HALOT is a century younger than BDB: 2001 vs 1906. I see "bronze" in English Wikipedia links to ארד in Hebrew, but this is not part of the classical vocabulary, and I'm not sure of its origins. It seems not to be part of Mishnaic/Talmudic period Hebrew either. Sorry to draw a blank on that! Perhaps someone else (@fdb) can help? – Dɑvïd Sep 22 '14 at 11:55
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While it is unclear whether a nomadic people would have the means to mine, smelt, and smith metals sufficient to the needs mentioned in Exodus and Numbers, the Israelites may have accessed such technology and materials through their Midian and Kenite relations who lived nearby. Both groups were known for their mining and metalworking skills.[1]

The Midians of the northwestern Arabah were said to be descendents of Abraham through his wife Katurah (Gen.25:1–2), and it was during the 40 years Moses shepherded for his father-in-law, Jethro, “the priest of Midian,” that Moses met YHWH at Mt. Horeb (Ex.3:1). When Moses returned to the mountain with the freed Israelites, Jethro met them, offering a celebratory sacrifice and providing counsel to Moses and the elders (Ex.18). If Jethro is the same father-in-law mentioned in Judges 1:16, he was also called a Kenite, thought to be a subtribe of Midian. The Kenites journeyed with the Israelites through the desert to Canaan where they were valued for their more advanced artistic skills; they were later absorbed into the tribe of Judah.[2]

Archeological evidence confirms Midian involvement in advanced copper mining and production, in collaboration with the Egyptians and Amalekites, in Timna just north of the Gulf of Aqaba during the period in which the exodus may have occurred.[3] Midians continued operations after the Egyptians retreated in the mid-12th century BCE, and they also converted the former Hathor temple into a tented desert shrine, excavated in the last century and found filled with Midianite pottery and metal jewelry. Nearby was found a copper serpent with a gilded head, often noted as reminiscent of the serpent described in Numbers 21:6-9.[4] The Timnah Valley is now an Israeli nature reserve and educational park, including a life-size facsimile of the biblical tabernacle.

Notes:

  1. http://www.academia.edu/5355993/Zipporah_Cosbi_and_Yael_Blessed_of_Women_in_Tents
  2. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9279-kenites
  3. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Archaeology/timna.html
  4. http://www.megalithic.co.uk/modules.php?op=modload&name=a312&file=index&do=showpic&pid=21299
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Egyptian copper mines were in full production and bronze articles existed in abundance. If, as in accordance with God's directive, the people plundered Egypt (justified because it was the fruit of their slave labor), it is highly likely they carried plenty of bronze to use for purposes of fashioning the serpent.

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I'd say it's likely the Biblical writers overlooked the bronze/copper taken by the Israelites as they left Egypt. Their point might have been to show the plunder of more valuable goods.

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  • I'm very grateful for your participation here. I think you can benefit a lot if you see the kind of answers that this site is looking for. This site is a little different from other sites. Be sure to visit the tour to learn more about this site. Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! – Paul Vargas Feb 27 '15 at 6:18
  • Did you (@Paul Vargas) find anything of value in my answer? – aksub Feb 27 '15 at 6:36
  • Even if it doesn't have references or resources...does it make sense? (@paul Vargas) I'd think someone who has studied the Bible and its context would know if it does make sense or not. – aksub Feb 27 '15 at 7:28
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    Hello @aksub You may want to provide some explanation and context. Don't just give an opinion-based response; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. – Paul Vargas Feb 27 '15 at 7:30
  • Sorry. I don't have citations. I know that it is the nature of most human enterprises to "show off" one's prowess, good fortune, or the rectitude of one's way of life, when writting documents which will most-likely be read by others. Not that this is right or wrong, nor am I attempting a judgement at ALL of the Biblical writings, but it just is a fact. I hope no-one needs me to point this out with sociological/psychological/anthropological studies...if someone does, perhaps this comment would help open their eyes. – aksub Feb 28 '15 at 23:31

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