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Parshat Hukat: Snakes and leaders

Why did the Israelites in the desert need a healing intermediary? Why didn't they just pray directly to God for a cure? (Hukat)
Statue of Asclepius, in the Museum of Epidaurus Theatre. (CC BY-SA, Michael F. Mehnert/ Wikimedia Commons)
Statue of Asclepius, in the Museum of Epidaurus Theatre. (CC BY-SA, Michael F. Mehnert/ Wikimedia Commons)

Many people have an intrinsic dislike of snakes. Whether it is because of the way they move, their reptilian eyes, their scaly skin, their forked tongue or their venom, snakes evoke a primal fear within them. Or perhaps it all goes back to the snake in the Garden of Eden, as Robert Frost wrote in The Axe Helve, “The snake stood up for evil in the Garden.”

So it is strange that the symbol of a snake wrapped around a staff has become an international symbol of healing.

According to Greek mythology, Asclepius was the son of Apollo. His mother was a mortal, named Coronis, who was killed by Artemis while still pregnant with Asclepius. According to one tradition, Apollo rescued Asclepius from his mother’s womb as she was being laid out on the funeral pyre.

According to the ancient Greeks, Apollo was the god of healing, but he was also the bringer of disease. He is often referred to as “Apollo Smintheus,” the mouse-god Apollo, because like mice and rats, his arrows were associated with the plague. Apollo was a dangerous, vengeful god, who sometimes cured people but sometimes killed them.

However, his son dedicated himself solely to curing disease and healing people. In his childhood, Apollo taught Asclepius the art of medicine, and then sent him to Chiron, the centaur, to learn more and become an expert healer.

Asclepius married Epione, and had five daughters and three sons. Two of his daughters, Hygeia and Panacea, gave their names to modern health concepts.

Statue of Asclepius, in the Museum of Epidaurus Theatre. (CC BY-SA, Michael F. Mehnert/ Wikimedia Commons)

Asclepius is almost always depicted holding a staff with a snake wrapped around it. This staff, known as the rod of Asclepius, became the symbol of healing, and has been incorporated into modern medical associations around the world.

It is not clear how Asclepius became associated with snakes. For the ancient Greeks, snakes were associated with wisdom, healing and resurrection. Some say that a snake licked Asclepius’s ears clean and taught him secret medicinal wisdom.

According to another tradition, Asclepius was confined to prison until he brought the sea god Glaucus back to life. Asclepius is said to have accidentally killed a snake with his staff while pondering how to resurrect Glaucus. Then he saw another snake come with a herb in its mouth which brought the dead snake back to life. Asclepius used the herb to bring Glaucus back to life, and in so doing made him immortal.

Another hypothesis is that when snakes shed their skins, they appear to be healing themselves. They crawl out of their dead skin and are “reborn” with a fresh new skin.

The Greeks, and later the Romans, built temples to Asclepius that often had Aesculapian snakes slithering around on the floor. These snakes can grow up to two meters (6.6 feet) in length, but are non-venomous. They are spread across most of Europe, and one theory for their wide-spread geographical range is that they were used in temples of Asclepius and when the temples were no longer used, they colonized the local habitat.

Aesculapian Snake in Greece. (CC BY-SA, Antissimo/ Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most famous temples of Asclepius was on the island of Kos, where Hippocrates, known as “the father of medicine,” may have trained. The original version of the Hippocratic Oath, which is the foundation of the doctors’ creed, mentioned Asclepius and his daughters:

I swear by Apollo Physician, by Asclepius, by Hygieia, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture.

Despite the clear connection between Asclepius and the modern medical symbol (including the name of the symbol), I have heard many people claim that the reason medical groups use the staff with the snake is based on this week’s Torah reading.

After the Torah records the deaths of Miriam and Aharon, it relates that the Israelites complained about Moses and about the manna (Numbers 21:5):

Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in the desert? For there is no bread and no water, and our souls are fed up with this miserable bread.

Immediately, snakes come to attack the people, killing many of them. After they recognized their sin, God told Moses to make an image of a serpent and place it on a pole. In a play on words, the Torah relates that Moses made the snake (nachash) out of copper (nechoshet). Anyone who had been bitten by a snake would look at the metal image and survive.

‘Moses and the Brazen Serpent’ by Adriaen van Nieulandt in the Dayton Art Institute. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The Mishna (Rosh Hashana 3:8) explains that the statue had no power, but it directed people to pray to God:

Did the [copper] snake kill? Did the [copper] snake bring back to life? Rather, when Israel looked upwards and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would be cured. But if not, they would melt away.

Even hundreds of years later, after the Israelites had settled the land of Israel and built the Temple, they kept the copper serpent, believing it had healing powers. They forgot that it was merely a representation to remind them to pray to God and worshipped the statue instead.

Until eventually, King Hezekiah destroyed the snake, fearing it had become an idol (II Kings 18:4).

He destroyed the copper snake that Moses had made, for in those days the children of Israel would bring offerings to it and called it nechushtan.

The Mishna (Pesachim 4:9) says that the Sages of that time praised Hezekiah for destroying the metal snake. Rashi explains that it was Hezekiah who called the serpent nechushtan, which he says is a derogatory term, as if to say, “Why do you need this, it is nothing more than a copper snake.”

Since it eventually became an idol, why did God tell Moses to make the copper snake in the first place? Why did the Israelites in the desert simply not pray to God directly to cure them from the snakebites?

Maimonides, in Guide for the Perplexed (III:23) writes that many of the commandments given to the Israelites in the desert were not intended as the ultimate goal, but were merely a way of gradually weaning them away from the culture in which they lived and moving towards pure monotheism. He writes:

It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed.

People in those days sacrificed animals to their gods. So the Israelites were commanded to offer sacrifices to God, because they couldn’t imagine divine worship without any form of sacrifice. Maimonides goes on to explain that sacrifice was not the primary goal, which is why it was limited to certain times and places. Sacrifices were only a means to an end, not an ideal in and of themselves.

Even without sacrifices, we often confuse the means to an end with the goal. We often put so much effort in to our opinions, values and beliefs that we lose sight of their actual purpose.

In The Dawn of the Day, Friedrich Nietzsche likens a mind that is stuck in a rut to a snake.

The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.

We sometimes need to take a step back and examine our core values. Are we heading in the right direction? Or are we substituting what we truly believe in for graven images?

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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