The two different images of the biblical snake
While traveling enroute to the Promised Land – as we continue and read this week Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites in the Ekev Torah portion — he reminds them of the gratitude they owe God for having led them safely “through the great and awesome wilderness of viper snakes and scorpions” (Deuteronomy 8:15), yet, with no adverse incidents related to snakes (or scorpions). The only time that the Torah reports about a bout of deadly snake bites was instigated by God, but not otherwise. It happened as we read in the Hukat portion, after the Israelites began to grumble about the lack of ‘’normal’’ bread and water in the wilderness when they walked the long way around Edom.
It is then when God “sent the viper-serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died.’’ These were not mere normative snakes that are typically of an unaggressive temperament, even of venomous species. Indeed, they ceased their uncharacteristic onslaught after Moses prayed to God, so that even people bitten by ‘’the snake’’ – not by a random snake — recovered when they looked at Moses’ copper model of a serpent that he placed on a pole.
The first biblical reference to snakes is found in Jacob’s deathbed blessing to his son, Dan. It was a blessing, not a curse, to wish him to “be a snake on the road, as asp on the path biting the horse’s heels so its rider falls backward”. Namely, Dan would be able to form a good defensive line against an assaulting enemy. That blessing, then, presents the snake not as an aggressor but as a defender. Indeed, though the snake is a quiet animal that does not intend to bite humans, it would only do so defensively when perceiving a serious threat to its own safety.
When Moses, who requested magical signs from God on Mt. Sinai, before he would leave for Egypt to help and free the enslaved Israelites, sees his staff turning into a snake once he flung it to the ground, he drew back from it. He thus betrayed a primal fright from snakes, which began with the metaphoric serpent in the Garden of Eden that signified trouble, if not death. Still, the snake did not show any aggressive disposition, nor would it lunge at Moses. Had Moses not grasped it, even by its tail at God’s command, the snake would have likely slithered away.
The snake, a non-combative creature, whose image in copper Moses would use to help and cure, however mysteriously under God’s watch, many of the people who were bitten by its own (venomous) kind, will one day become a foremost symbol of a redeemed world. Hence Isaiah’s vision of the eventual world that is in total peace with itself symbolized by ‘’the nursing child playing over the whole of the asp, and the weaned child putting its hand on the adder’s den’’ (11:8).