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I'm reading 2 Kings 18:4 which references Numbers 21,

[Hezekiah] removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the ashera pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.

So the timeline is roughly like:

  • 1250 BC for Numbers 21
  • 950 BC for the United Monarchy of David and Solomon
  • 750 BC for Hezekiah

Those deltas are 300 years and 200 years between intervals. Now here is the thing. This serpent on a pole was a "נחש" which is the kind of serpent first mentioned in Genesis 3:1. Now much of the scholarship I have read places the writing of the Eden story, amongst other contents of Genesis and Exodus, as during the period of Israelite power in the united monarchy. The Hebrew is fairly archaic compared to the Genesis 1 creation narrative which seems to be a product of Babylonian exile, for a variety of reasons.

Does this mean that the story of the serpent was written during a period of serpent worship in the temple? That Hezekiah had to drag out the serpent and pulverize it seems to imply that before Hezekiah ("until those days") the people had been making sacrifices to it.

Should this change how we read the Genesis 3 narrative? There is generally a perspective of negativity applied to the serpent in that story. Is that anachronistic? While the text doesn't specify a period of time other than "until those days", if serpent worship was part of the temple cult during the united monarchy (when Genesis 3 was written or written down) how might that inform our reading of Genesis 3? This even seems to wrap over to the nachash/serpent that was Moses' staff (a symbol of God's power). Was a serpent in a garden a positive image? A complex multivalent image?

Is our hermeneutic of the serpent as evil trickster some sort of anachronistic take? Was the "wise serpent" of Genesis 3:1 instead a positive symbol?

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  • Gus - Excellent question! Perhaps edit your title to reflect the range of specific topics covered in your question. שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם – חִידָה Oct 31 '20 at 11:50
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    VH, that is not my question. The serpent on a pole was not my topic. The point was how it framed the writing of other stories involving serpents. If there was serpent worship at the time of the eden story being written down, does this inform how we can read the character of the serpent. – Gus L. Oct 31 '20 at 11:55
  • In context of 2 Kings 18:4, Israelites were worshipping God's Sign that offered life through acknowledgement of their sin. The ✝ Nechushtan is still idolized today, instead of recognizing the sign as it was intended for repentance. – חִידָה Oct 31 '20 at 12:00
  • If they were worshipping God THROUGH it, as a sign, then why did it need to be dragged out and pulverized. It seems like 2 Kings 18:4 implies that it was being worshipped as an idol. I think people would view the cross in the church today as a sign pointing to God (certainly this is the take in John 3:14-16). – Gus L. Oct 31 '20 at 12:11
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The Nechushtan (נְחֻשְׁתָּֽן) is neither Ha-Satan (הַשָּׂטָן֙), nor an idol :

  1. Ha-Satan (הַשָּׂטָן֙) is a living "Adversary" angel who serves God by testing us to see if our hearts are devoted to serve YHVH (יְהֹוָה֙). - Read the book of Job / Iyov (אִיּוֹב) Chapters 1-2.

  2. Nechushtan (נְחֻשְׁתָּֽן) is not Ha-Satan, because it is a Copper (נְּח֜שֶׁת) Sign. - NOT an idol or angel. - 2 Kings 18:4 [MT]

  • Israelites misused God's [Sign] of salvation which was originally instructed by God to be looked upon for inspirational healing like a Mezuzah (מְזוּזָה).
  1. In context, the Copper Serpent was a holy instrument declared by God in Numbers 21:8 [MT].

"YHVH said to Moshe, "Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live." (וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־משֶׁ֗ה עֲשֵׂ֤ה לְךָ֙ שָׂרָ֔ף וְשִׂ֥ים אֹת֖וֹ עַל־נֵ֑ס וְהָיָה֙ כָּל־הַנָּשׁ֔וּךְ וְרָאָ֥ה אֹת֖וֹ וָחָֽי)

  1. Moshe follows God's Instructions and builds the Copper Serpent ( נְחַ֣שׁ נְח֔שֶׁת ) to help save the children of Yisrael in Numbers 21:9 [MT].

"Moshe made a [copper snake] and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the [copper snake] and live." ( וַיַּ֤עַשׂ משֶׁה֙ נְחַ֣שׁ נְח֔שֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵ֖הוּ עַל־הַנֵּ֑ס וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־נָשַׁ֤ךְ הַנָּחָשׁ֙ אֶת־אִ֔ישׁ וְהִבִּ֛יט אֶל־נְחַ֥שׁ הַנְּח֖שֶׁת וָחָֽי )

  • Originally the Copper Serpent was not an idol, but clearly a God-given instrument for the Children of Yisrael (בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל) to acknowledge their sin.
  • They were to acknowledge their sins on a pole.
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  • This is a modern interpretation (or even an interpretation after Hezekiah). 2 Kings 18:4 seems to indicate that the people at the time of David/Solomon did not agree with your take on this... And that is the period during which we believe the Eden/Exodus narrative were written... So regardless of what you and Hezekiah believe to be the "correct take," the authors of Genesis 3 seem to have a fundamentally different idea. And to understand what the authors of Genesis 3 were trying to say, it's important to understand what they thought about symbols like the nachash/serpent. – Gus L. Oct 31 '20 at 12:01
  • My point is that no matter how "correct" you and others (and myself) may think this theology is, in the context of Hezekiah's actions, 2 Kings 18:4 implies that the authors of Genesis 3 disagreed with you and me. This makes our "correct" take an anachronism. – Gus L. Oct 31 '20 at 12:02
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    +1 - good answer - you might also add some the NT references to Jesus being "lifted up" using the metaphor of the serpent on the pole such as - John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32, 34, Acts 13:37, etc. – Dottard Oct 31 '20 at 12:03

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