Gershon Hepner

Copper Snake, Holy Cow and Wordplay

This tale describes how Israelites all grumbled

at God and Moses in the wilderness.

Although they all by biting snakes were humbled,

God cured them by a magical process

which violated laws that Moses gave

the Israelites. Much later Hezekiah

rejected idols many people crave,

refusing to allow them to expire.

Long journeys made the Israelites most restive.

Their spirit was so short that they protested,

complaining of the shortage of digestive

amenities, as often they expressed it,

declaring how they all remembered fish

they used to eat in Egypt, free of charge,

expressing for fresh cucumbers a wish,

Egyptian melons fabulously large,

and smelly garlic, onions and the leeks

with which their gullets always were indulging.

With such resentment spoke the rebel cliques,

their pockets with fresh manna always bulging.

They spoke not just against the Lord but Moses,

although they’d trusted both when at the Sea

of Reeds God saved them although their prognosis

appeared extremely bad. God heard their plea

and saved them then, but now they had forgotten

the Lord, and called the manna “loathsome bread.”

Left overnight, the manna would go rotten

from maggots that all multiplied and bred.

They’d boil it in a pot or make round flat-cakes.

It tasted like the very rancid layer

of olive oil, which led to stomach aches,

and tested every Sabbath disobeyer

who on the seventh day chose to collect

the manna, though on Fridays all got twice

as much.  To be religiously correct

you had to save it Fridays––without ice!

Because they all loved meat God sent them quails,

though Moses would not nurse them like a maid:

to Egypt they had turned their turncoat tails,

its fleshpots praising with rhodomontade,

complaining of the distant holy land

that seemed unfit for people of their ilk;

hopelessly deprived of honey and fresh milk––

the future promised them just salt and sand.

God sent among the people snakes like seraphs,

which bit them so that very many died;

they burned the people just like Wild West sheriffs

which movies feature riding on horsehide.

While nahash means a snake, nashak means biting,

so there is wordplay at the tale’s beginning.

But wait, because the wordplay’s more exciting:

a copper snake cures those who are not sinning,

and copper is nehoshet, and God says

to Moses: “Make a copper serpent, so

the ones who look at it are cured.  It’s rais-

on d’être is that people all should know

that I’m the Lord who cures those He makes sick.”

It seems nehoshet, which is copper, cures

the bites of any nahash, which is snake.

Among paronomasia’s strange allures

is healing. Words not only make and break,

but help a person who’s been bitten by

a seraph serpent to recover, if

on bible stories readers may rely.

Yet to this tale there is another riff,

for in the book of Kings we all can learn

the copper snake, called later nehushtan,

which once had cured the people who would burn

from bites, became the subject of a ban,

and by King Hezekiah was destroyed.

Despite the fact that Moses had been ordered

by God to make it, he was paranoid

about what close to idol-worship bordered.

Since such an image Deuteronomy

forbids, he smashed the snake to smithereens.

His acts, while clearly lacking bonhomie,

suspended most idolatrous routines

until by other kings they were restored.

When Hezekiah broke what Moses wrought,

it seems he was intolerant toward

the sort of images that Moses fought.

It was no Golden Calf that Moses built––

the image was of copper, not of gold!

To Moses we should not attribute guilt,

and yet the moral of the tale we’ve told

is that it’s hard for Hebrews to abandon

all images, for even God allows

what Moses had forbidden. Memorandum:

we sometimes must respect some sacred cows,

such as the law of the red heifer

preceding one about the copper snake,

nahash, which Moses, classically clever,

by rhyming with nehoshet chose to make

with wordplay, and to Israelites displayed,

constructed from the Hebrew Bible’s tongue

by words with which he just like God word-played,

panim el panim, and punning with Him sung.

The story of the copper snake is told after the law of the red heifer (Num. 19:1-13) in Num 21:8-9:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה עֲשֵׂ֤ה לְךָ֙ שָׂרָ֔ף וְשִׂ֥ים אֹת֖וֹ עַל־נֵ֑ס וְהָיָה֙ כׇּל־הַנָּשׁ֔וּךְ וְרָאָ֥ה אֹת֖וֹ וָחָֽי׃

Then יהוה said to Moses, “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And anyone who was bitten who then looks at it shall recover.”

וַיַּ֤עַשׂ מֹשֶׁה֙ נְחַ֣שׁ נְחֹ֔שֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵ֖הוּ עַל־הַנֵּ֑ס וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־נָשַׁ֤ךְ הַנָּחָשׁ֙ אֶת־אִ֔ישׁ וְהִבִּ֛יט אֶל־נְחַ֥שׁ הַנְּחֹ֖שֶׁת וָחָֽי׃

And Moses made a nehash hanehoshet,  copper snake, and mounted it on a standard; and when nashah hanahash, the snake bit, a  person, anyone who looked at nehash hanehoshet, the copper snake,  would live.

 The punning wordplay in the last line alludes to Deut. 34:10:

וְלֹא־קָ֨ם נָבִ֥יא ע֛וֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל כְּמֹשֶׁ֑ה אֲשֶׁר֙ יְדָע֣וֹ יְהֹוָ֔ה פָּנִ֖ים אֶל־פָּנִֽים׃

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom יהוה singled out, panim el panim, face to face.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at
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