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I would like to know the meaning for God's command to Moses to lift a serpent of brass and set it on a pole in the desert, so that all those who had been bitten by serpents would look at the brass serpent on the pole, be cured and live.

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The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 3:8, cited in Rashi to this verse) states:

"Does a snake kill or make live? But rather, this tells us that as long as the Jews looked upward and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven - they would be cured; if not, they would decline."

Ibn Ezra comments that we can't know why G-d specifically told Moshe to make a figure of a snake rather than something else; it was a Divine command beyond our understanding.

Nonetheless, other commentaries do offer possible reasons:

  • It demonstrates G-d's power: the same snake that He gave the power to kill people with its venom, is the same one whose depiction will be the instrument of their healing. (Daas Zekeinim; Ramban)

  • It would remind the Jewish People of the sin they committed by speaking slanderously of G-d and of Moshe (the snake is a symbol of slander, as in the episode of the Tree of Knowledge, where he falsely claimed that G-d didn't want Adam and Chavah to eat from it because He didn't want competition - Gen. 3:6), so that they would repent properly. (Sforno; Ohr Hachayim, who also provides seven other benefits that they'd get from looking at this copper snake and considering its implied message)

  • It would remind them of the instrument by which they had already been punished. This is similar to a father who once had to beat his child, who afterwards hangs the rod on a wall as a reminder to his son to not repeat the act that led to its use. (Baal Haturim)

- and I'm sure there are many other possibilities that have been offered, since the Torah's "measure is longer than the earth, and wider than the very ocean" (Job 11:9).

  • Alex, you mention above that my question is part of "a Divine command beyond our understanding." I beg to disagree. According to Deuteronomy 30:11-14 the Torah commands are not hidden from us, neither far off our understanding. It is neither up in heavens or beyond the sea that we should wonder who could bring It to us, so that we may understand. If we get our researches together and keep sharing them among ourselves, we will eventually find out the truth about the will of G-d. G-d's Word is very near to us, in our own heart. We have only to apply some effort to understand It. BeEzrat HaShem! – Ben Masada Dec 16 '10 at 23:05
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    @Ben Masada I don't think you are disagreeing with Alex in this case. His phrasing "beyond our understanding" was a) a paraphrase of Ibn Ezra's opinion rather than Alex's own, b) in reference not to one of the 613 מצוות in the תורה (which may be the antecedent for the פסוק you quoted in דברים), but to a one-time command to משה in the wilderness and c) among several other suggestions that in fact attribute rationales to the particular choosing of a snake and being raised high. – WAF Dec 16 '10 at 23:29
  • Thanks, WAF. Ben: the verses you cited mean that it is within our capability (and hence, our responsibility) to perform the mitzvos of the Torah and to understand them to the extent that we can, true. But there is no suggestion here that we will be able to plumb the full depths of the reasons for mitzvos; after all, we have mitzvos such as shaatnez and the Red Heifer that are classed as "chukim," supra-rational mitzvos. (cont'd) – Alex Dec 17 '10 at 9:57
  • Indeed, even the "rational" mitzvos (not to kill, steal, etc.) have profound Divine thoughts behind them that are inaccessible to us, and ultimately we keep them because G-d said so (while also trying to understand what we can of them, since that is why He gave us the intelligence to do so). – Alex Dec 17 '10 at 9:58
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I believe the serpent represented their sin, looking up in obedience meant acknowledging their sin to be healed.

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    Hi jasmin. Thanks for coming to Mi Yodeya to share your perspective. Anyone is welcome to answer a question, but we ask and answer questions here from a specifically Jewish perspective. We have non-Jewish participants, but the answers here should be based in Judaism. If you're interested in exploring Christian traditions, check out christianity.stackexchange.com or hermeneutics.stackexchange.com. – Charles Koppelman Oct 7 '13 at 15:06
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    Jasmin, I've edited out the Christian parts of yuor answer. If you can add some (Jewish-appropriate) support for your suggestion it will strengthen your answer, which currently is just the opinion of one anonymous person on the Internet. Thanks. – Monica Cellio Oct 7 '13 at 15:14

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