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So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole.  Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.  Numbers 21:9


He removed the high places, and broke the images, and cut down the groves, and broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.  II Kings 18:4

It is a biblical story filled with enough mystery and drama that it’s worthy of flannel graph and Hollywood.  It’s the account in Numbers of the people of Israel being bitten by serpents, and God’s provision of a way of protection – a way of healing.  A bronze serpent is raised in the wilderness, and those who will look on it will not die.  It’s a symbol of God’s protection, and of trusting His saving provision.

Indeed, the serpent on a pole bears a striking resemblance to the modern Caduceus, the symbol of the medical arts.  And our Lord used that very event described in Numbers to point to God’s provision through our Lord’s death for our salvation.  “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” (John 3:14)  It must have been quite a day in the wilderness – a day worth remembering.

Now I had never thought much about what ever happened to that bronze serpent till I discovered the text in II Kings – and there it was.  Can you imagine it?  For hundreds of years that bronze symbol had been preserved and carted all about.  Someone packed it up in the wilderness and had carried it all through the wanderings.  They kept it when they finally marched into the Promised Land.  Some faithful custodian watched over it at the battles of Jericho and Ai.  Somebody stored it in during the occupation of the land.  Some faithful trustee stored it in during the occupation of the land.  Some faithful trustee polished it during the period of the judges.  Somebody had it when King Saul was anointed, and then David, and then Solomon.  It was tucked away when the civil war between Judah and Israel broke out.

Someone took it up to a grove and erected it again.  The people were burning incense to it as part of pagan, heathen Canaanite ritual.

The tragic story is summarize briefly in verse 4 where we are told that King Hezekiah had to break it into pieces – to destroy it.  And he called it “Nehushtan” – which simply meant “thing of brass” – it is nothing in and of itself.  Don’t worship this “thing!”

What a curious story – full of religious devotion that had protected this old relic through the centuries – and full of tragedy that what had once been a powerful symbol of God’s redemptive work, had now to be destroyed because it was now an idol.  It’s a parable and a warning isn’t it.  The very things that God uses to bless us, His very provision, His own self-designated signs and symbols of His grace and love – they can become so distorted that they themselves must be destroyed.  What was once a means of God’s communication and work, have tragically become the focus of our worship – and thus become idols.

Simple Israelis wandering Palestine don’t have a monopoly on this capacity to corrupt what is wonderful.  We are vulnerable too.  How often do things that God has used in our lives and churches become barrier rather than channels?  How often do we worship the former vehicles, rather than the present Lord?  Do our worship services, our rituals, cherished ceremonies, our favorite retreat sites become idols?  Do we need to “break in pieces” things that, however wonderful they once were, now get in the way?

In Amos, reflecting the same distortions in Israel, God says that the very religious ceremonies of the people now are an offense.  The tradition has lived on, but the substance has been ignored.

I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.  Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.  Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.  Away with the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the music of your harps.  But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24)

What a vital warning to us – to be sure we are worshipping the living God, and not merely in love with history, tradition and ceremonies, which once had spiritual life, but are now relics, memories – and finally, only “Nehushtan.”

Lynn R. Buzzard


– This article comes from AI’s devotional for lawyers titled, “What Does the Lord Require of You?”