Abstract: The story of the Israelites getting bitten in the wilderness by “fiery serpents” and then being miraculously healed by the “serpent of brass” (Numbers 21:4–9) is one of the most frequently told stories in scripture — with many of the retellings occurring in the Book of Mormon. Nephi is the first to refer to the story, doing so on two different occasions (1 Nephi 17:41; 2 Nephi 25:20). In each instance, Nephi utilizes the story for different purposes which dictated how he told the story and what he emphasized. These two retellings of the brazen serpent narrative combined to establish a standard interpretation of that story among the Nephites, utilized (and to some extent developed) by later Nephite prophets. In this study, each of the two occasions Nephi made use of this story are contextualized within the iconography and symbolism of pre-exilic Israel and its influences from surrounding cultures. Then, the (minimal) development evident in how this story was interpreted by Nephites across time is considered, comparing it to the way ancient Jewish and early Christian interpretation of the brazen serpent was adapted over time to address specific needs. Based on this analysis, it seems that not only do Nephi’s initial interpretations fit within the context of pre-exilic Israel, but the Book of Mormon’s use of the brazen serpent symbol is not stagnant; rather, it shows indications of having been a real, living tradition that developed along a trajectory comparable to that of authentic ancient traditions.
The story of the Israelites getting bitten in the wilderness by “fiery serpents” then healed by looking upon the “serpent of brass” set on a pole (Numbers 21:4–9) is, according to one writer, “one of the most widely attested miracles in holy writ.”1 Perhaps no other book of scripture refers to the story as frequently as the Book of Mormon, which not only has several explicit references to the story (1 Nephi 17:41; 2 Nephi 25:20; [Page 218]Alma 33:18–22; Helaman 8:13–15), but also makes various typological echoes and allusions to it as part of a larger pattern of Exodus typology occurring throughout the text.2
Naturally, Nephi is the first writer to use this episode, citing it on two separate occasions and within different contexts (1 Nephi 17:41; 2 Nephi 25:20). In each instance, Nephi utilized the story for different purposes which dictated how he told the story and what he emphasized. Despite their different emphases and contexts, these two retellings of the brazen serpent narrative combined to establish a standard interpretation among the Nephites. Later Book of Mormon prophets used the story essentially in the same ways Nephi son of Lehi did, with only minor, albeit somewhat significant, adjustments in the interpretation (see Alma 33:18–22; 37:45; Helaman 8:13–15). Thus, the origins of Nephite interpretations of the brazen serpent episode seem to have emerged from Nephi’s world.
Therefore, to better understand the Book of Mormon’s use of the brazen serpent narrative, I will first examine each of the two occasions Nephi made use of that story, contextualizing them within the iconography and symbolism of pre-exilic Israel and its influences from surrounding cultures. In doing this, I will occasionally tie in the later Book of Mormon references to this story, as appropriate. Then, I will consider the (minimal) development evident in how this story was interpreted by Nephites across time, comparing it to the way ancient Jewish and early Christian interpretation of the brazen serpent was adapted over time to address specific needs and consider the circumstances that drove Nephite adaptations as well. Overall, this contextual approach yields a variety of insights into the Book of Mormon’s use of this symbol and suggests it was based on an authentic strain of ancient Israelite tradition.
“Flying Fiery Serpents”
Nephi’s first time relating the story of the brazen serpent occurred while the family was in Bountiful, as part of an extended argument with his brothers. Nephi used this story to illustrate the stubbornness of the children of Israel — and by analogy, of Laman and Lemuel themselves — and so his focus is less on the brazen serpent and its meaning and more on the serpents that were sent as a means of chastisement, as well as the people’s reaction to this punishment. As he tells it here, there are some key differences in the story in contrast to the account given in the Hebrew Bible. In order to create a context in which to interpret how Nephi tells the story and the differences in his account, I will draw on the iconography of ancient Judah, origins of serpent symbolism in [Page 219]Israelite religion, the geographic setting of both the original story and Nephi’s retelling, and the contested role of the serpent in proper worship of Yahweh (Jehovah) during the 8th–7th centuries bc.
Winged Seraph-Serpents in Texts and Iconography
As Nephi related the story on this occasion, the Israelites had not merely been bitten by “fiery serpents” but “flying fiery serpents” (1 Nephi 17:41).3 In the biblical text, “fiery serpents” is always a translation of śrp, Anglicized as seraph (pl. seraphim), which, as a verb, typically refers to “burning.”4 Sometimes it is paired with the word nḥš, “snake, serpent,” other times śrp itself (without nḥš) refers to a venomous serpent.5 Thus, when the children of Israel complained about their hardships in the wilderness, “the Lord sent fiery serpents [h-nḥšym h-śrpym] among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6). In Deuteronomy 8:15, nḥš śrp are also paired together in reference to the “fiery serpent” in the wilderness,6 likely alluding to this same event. In response, the Israelites went to Moses, confessed to their sins and implored him “pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents [h-nḥš] from us” (Numbers 21:7). The Lord then instructed Moses, “Make thee a fiery serpent [śrp], and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8). Moses then made a nḥš nḥšt, “serpent of brass,” mounted it on a “pole” (ns), and those who looked upon it, lived (Numbers 21:8–9). Subsequently, the brazen serpent was installed in the Jerusalem temple until the reign of Hezekiah, when he had it removed and broken to pieces as part of his religious reforms (2 Kings 18:4).7
Although the seraphim (śrpym) in this story are not described as being able to fly, Isaiah mentioned śrp mʿpp, “fiery flying serpents” that lived in the Negev (Isaiah 30:6; cf. 14:29), generally the same geographical region where the brazen serpent narrative takes place.8 Furthermore, seraphim is the same term Isaiah used to describe the fiery, angelic beings with six wings that he saw as part of his throne-theophany (Isaiah 6:1–7). The image of a royal or divine symbol flanked on both sides by serpents acting as guardians is common in the ancient Near East, including Israel.9 In light of this iconography, plus the typical usage of śrp to refer to a type of serpent, many scholars believe that the angelic seraphim of Isaiah’s vision were most likely winged serpent-like beings who acted as guardians of the heavenly throne.10
In addition, the “source of much of the imagery for Isaiah’s vision appears to have come from physical realities that Isaiah regularly saw in [Page 220]the temple.”11 As such, the seraphim would represent the brazen serpent — the seraph (śrp) the Lord commanded Moses to create (Numbers 21:8) — which was mounted on a pole inside the temple precinct at that time.12 In fact, the discovery of two Israelite bronze bowls depicting winged serpents mounted on poles suggests to some scholars that the brazen serpent itself had wings.13 As with the royal seals, the scenes depicted on these bronze bowls show a pair of winged serpents guarding a sacred or royal symbol, which could be an indication that in Isaiah’s day, there were actually two bronze seraphim in the temple, one on each side of the ark of the covenant, paralleling the cherubim.14
Additional Hebrew seals and other artifacts further depict winged serpents, variously with two wings or four wings.15 Scholars generally equate this winged serpent imagery with the biblical seraph (śrp).16 Ironically, much of this iconography is attested during the reign of Hezekiah, the king who reportedly destroyed the brazen serpent.17 For the most part, seraph-serpent iconography did disappear after the time of Hezekiah, perhaps as a result of his efforts to reform Judah and eliminate anything that could be perceived as idol worship.18 Yet it did not completely vanish. A seal discovered in 2012 — found in a 7th century bc home in the part of Jerusalem believed to be Lehi’s area of residence — depicts a four-winged seraph-serpent, illustrating that the symbol persisted into Lehi’s day.19
This evidence strongly suggests that, whatever the actual nature of the serpents which pestered the children of Israel in the wilderness, in the 8th–7th centuries bc, seraphim (śrpym) were understood to be flying, winged serpents. In fact, renowned Hebrew scholar Moshe Weinfield even translated nḥš śrp as “flying serpents.”20 James Charlesworth similarly interpreted the term śrpym as “winged-serpents” or “fiery winged-serpents.”21 Thus, Nephi’s reference to “flying fiery serpents” reflects the common Israelite understanding of seraph-serpents at that time.22
Origins of the Seraph-Serpent Tradition
Visually, the winged serpents depicted on artifacts from Israel and Judah are clearly inspired by Egyptian iconography.23 “Winged snakes are depicted in Egyptian art and are found frequently in religious texts,” according to Nicole B. Hansen.24 For example, Manfred Lurker noted, “The Book of the Dead crawls with serpent demons, sometimes winged, rearing up or standing on legs, spitting fire or armed with a knife.”25 More specifically, the Israelite seals and other artifacts reflect the imagery of the Egyptian uraeus — the upraised cobra, depicted variously with [Page 221]and without wings, closely associated with the power and protection of the Pharoah.26 The uraeus was also the symbol of the goddess Wadjet, who “was sometimes depicted as a winged snake.”27 Egyptian imagery was in vogue throughout the Syro-Palestinian region, including Israel and Judah, in the 9th–7th centuries bc, so the Egyptian influence on depictions of the seraph-serpents comes as no surprise.28 Most scholars conclude from this that the meaning and symbolism of the seraph-serpents has an Egyptian origin, and that the seraph (like the uraeus) was a type of cobra.29 Certainly, the Egyptian connection to the seraph-serpents is noteworthy in light of Nephi and Lehi’s evident knowledge of Egyptian scribal culture (1 Nephi 1:2).
In recent years, however, another theory has emerged that has even more intriguing implications for the Book of Mormon’s use of this symbol. Nissim Amzallag, professor of Bible, Archaeology, and the Ancient Near East at Ben Gurion University of the Negev,30 has argued that while the imagery used to represent the seraph-serpent was influenced by Egyptian iconography, the symbol itself was not an Egyptian import, but rather was native to the southern Levant.31 More specifically, Amzallag argues that the seraph was the saw-scaled viper common to the desert region south of Judah and that this snake was adopted as a religious symbol by a community of Yahweh-worshipping metallurgists connected to the copper mines in that same region.32 Eventually, through trade and migration, members of this community became integrated into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, infusing a metallurgical dimension into the imagery and symbolism of ancient Israel’s theology.33 Many of the key elements of this theory — the geography, the seraph-serpents, the metallurgical component, and of course the worship of Yahweh — come together in the story of the brazen serpent.34
In light of this model, it is noteworthy that Lehi is said to be from the tribe of Joseph (1 Nephi 5:14, 16; Alma 10:3), while the onomastics of Lehi’s family — especially the name Lehi itself — share an affinity with names attested in the region around the Gulf of Aqaba, where a tribal kingdom called Liḥyan (LḤYN) emerged in the mid-first millennium bc.35 The names Lehi (LḤY),36 Laman (LMN),37 and Nephi (NFY),38 are all attested in inscriptions from that area, while Lemuel appears as an Arabian name in the Old Testament (see Proverbs 31:1, 4), and Sam is “the normal Arabic form of Shem,” according to Hugh Nibley.39 Furthermore, based on several clues in the text, it appears Lehi was a metalworker, and scholars have even hypothesized that he regularly traveled to the mines near the Gulf of Aqaba to obtain copper supplies.40 Thus, if Amzallag’s [Page 222]theory is correct, Lehi’s personal background converges with that of the community for whom the seraph-serpent was an important religious symbol. As such, it is plausible that Lehi had ties to that community, and thus the brazen serpent narrative would have held particular theological import to him and his family.
Serpent Symbolism in Ritual Metallurgy
The very last act Nephi performed before he was confronted by his brothers at Bountiful was to “make tools of the ore which [he] did molten out of the rock” (1 Nephi 17:16). Nephi had been guided to that ore by the Lord (vv. 9–10), after which he constructed “bellows” for blowing the fire, and then ignited the flames to molten the ore (v. 11). In the modern, developed world, all of this strikes the reader as an entirely mundane event. In antiquity, however, these metallurgical processes would have held religious and ritualistic meaning.41 According to Amzallag, there was a “ritual dimension of metallurgy … [that] became an esoteric and hidden fundament of the religions in the Southern Levant and more generally in the ancient Near East.”42 Due to its esoteric and mysterious nature, some regarded metalworking as one of the “angelic arts,” a piece of divine “wisdom” taught to mankind by beings from the heavenly realm. “To possess this wisdom made one as wise as an angel,” explained Margaret Barker.43 The essence of this wisdom was “a body of knowledge and practices which gave power over creation when used in conjunction with supernatural forces.”44 This is exactly what some believed the ancient metalworker could do — since the earth and firmament were perceived as being made from metal, ancient metallurgists were believed to wield the very powers of creation.45
The language used to refer to theophanies in biblical texts can be interpreted as describing the celestial domain as a giant furnace,46 with the Lord blowing through bellows and tuyère to stoke the flames,47 a pillar of smoke and fire emanating out the top,48 and the “glory” (kbd) of the Lord symbolized by the radiant glow of the molten ore.49 Thus, at least symbolically, “YHWH revealed himself to the smith at his work.”50 For Nephi, the opportunity to finally light a fire —after being unable to for at least a portion of their journey (1 Nephi 17:12–13) — and practice his metallurgical craft was an opportunity to receive divine instruction, see the glory of the Lord, and feel the Lord working through him.51
For our purposes, of particular significance is the way the metallurgical process of taking a copper rod or scepter (mṭh), remelting it into molten/liquified copper (nḥšt) and then refashioning it into a new [Page 223]rod or other object imitates the miraculous sign the Lord gave to Moses of turning his staff or rod (mṭh) into a serpent (nḥš) and then back into a staff (Exodus 4:1–5; 7:8–13).52 In addition to the similarity between the Hebrew terms for “serpent” (nḥš) and “copper” (nḥšt), molten or liquified copper would resemble a serpent — an especially fiery serpent — as it “winds on the ground before solidification.”53 This resemblance would naturally be evident to an ancient metalworker in the story of Moses forging a “fiery serpent” (nḥš śrp) out of “copper” (nḥšt) as well (Numbers 21:8–9).54 In Exodus, the transformation of Moses’s rod into a serpent is meant as a sign to Israel that Moses was sent by the Lord (Exodus 4:5). “In other words,” in the eyes of an ancient smith or smelter, at least, “the wonder becomes a demonstration of Moses’s metallurgical skill,” with the implication that by demonstrating such skill, Moses established his “status [as] emissary of YHWH in the eyes of the Israelites.”55
In the context of 1 Nephi 17, Nephi had just engaged in the process of bringing ore to its molten state and reshaping it — and did so with direct assistance from the Lord — thereby demonstrating his own status as one commissioned by the Lord to perform his task.56 Then his brothers enter the scene, “murmur” and deride him, calling him a “fool,” and denying that he was “instructed of the Lord” (1 Nephi 17:17–18). When Nephi mentions the “flying fiery serpents” in his response (v. 41), it seems deliberately crafted to evoke the symbolism of the rod-to-serpent transformation, which was related to the metallurgical process, as described above. After the Lord brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, Nephi says:
And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod,
for they hardened their hearts even as ye have.
And the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity.
He sent flying fiery serpents among them. (1 Nephi 17:41)
The parallelism of the verse seems to suggest that the Lord’s method of “straitening” the Israelites “with his rod” is equated with the seraph-serpents biting the Israelites — a natural association in light of the pervasive use of the rod or staff as a serpentine symbol in the ancient Near East, including the Exodus narratives.57 In the immediate context of Nephi’s narrative, however, he seems to have alluded specifically to the rod-to-serpent transformation performed by Moses and Aaron, and symbolized by taking solid copper (in the form a rod) and bringing it into a molten state reminiscent of a “fiery serpent.” The fact that Nephi himself had just performed a similar act of metallurgy signified that he, like Moses, had encountered the Lord’s glory and been sent as his emissary, directly countering his brothers’ claims.58 It further illustrated [Page 224]that — also contrary to his brothers’ claims — Nephi was no fool: he possessed the wisdom of angels, bestowed by divine instruction.
Seraph-Serpents Along Lehi’s Trail
As elaborated in the previous section, there is a convergence in Nephi’s text of ritual metallurgy, worship of the Lord, and his reference to “flying fiery serpents.” There is also a geographical component to the winged serpent traditions that intersects with the primary setting of 1 Nephi. Biblical, Assyrian, and Greek sources from the 8th–5th centuries bc all consistently identify Sinai and the desert region south of Judah as the place of the flying serpents.59 Isaiah identifies the “fiery flying serpent” (śrp mʿpp) as one of the fearsome beasts of the Negev wilderness (Isaiah 30:6). Esarhaddon, an Assyrian king, reported seeing “yellow snakes spreading wings” while marching his army through this same region in 671 bc.60
Herodotus, a 5th century bc Greek historian, went to “a place in Arabia somewhat near the city of Bouto in order to learn about the winged serpents” (Histories 2.75).61 Bouto was a city in the Nile Delta, in Egypt;62 thus the location Herodotus is referring to would be somewhere around the Egyptian-Sinai border or the northwest Arabian desert. According to legends at that time, “when spring arrives, winged serpents fly from Arabia toward Egypt,” but were stopped at the Egyptian-Sinai border by the ibis bird (Histories 2.75). In that area, Herodotus said that he encountered “the bones and spines of serpents” laying in “heaps” large and small (Histories 2.75). “The snake has a form like that of the water snake and bears wing-like membranes that lack feathers, quite similar to the wings of a bat” (Histories 2.76).
The encounter narrated in Numbers 21:4–9, specifically, is set in the region near the Gulf of Aqaba (also known as the Gulf of Eilat).63 In this region, archaeologists have uncovered a copper serpent in a tent-shrine near the Timna copper mines, dated to the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age.64 This site bears no direct relationship with the Exodus, but for our purposes it is noteworthy that the worshippers there were almost certainly metalworkers, and Amzallag argues it was among the earliest sanctuaries dedicated to Yahweh.65
Upon his initial departure (1 Nephi 2:1–5), Lehi went directly into this same “winged serpent”-infested region described in all these sources. The exact route followed out of Jerusalem cannot be known with certainty, but Warren Aston most recently proposed a route that would lead southwest out of Jerusalem, down toward Beʾer Sheva, through the Negev, past Timna, and to the Gulf of Aqaba.66 This course would have taken them through Makhtesh Ramon, where numerous fossils of extinct amphibian species [Page 225]are visible that, Karen Radner argues, could be interpreted as the bones of winged snakes. Radner thus proposes that this was the place of winged snakes referred to in the accounts of both Herodotus and Esarhaddon.67
After traveling through this region, Lehi’s family established their first long-term encampment in the Valley of Lemuel (1 Nephi 2:6–8), a location that would have been only a few days away from the Timna copper mines — a place scholars believe Lehi was familiar with due to his profession as a metalworker.68 Nephi and his brothers traveled back and forth between here and Jerusalem at least two additional times (1 Nephi 3–4; 7). It is not until 1 Nephi 16:11–12 that Nephi reports the family’s departure from this area. Thus, the bulk of the narrative in 1 Nephi takes place in this region between Jerusalem and the Red Sea, in the midst of the traditional habitat associated with the winged seraph-serpents.
Despite this contact and proximity to the region most closely associated with winged serpents, Nephi did not appeal to the episode in Numbers 21 and the “flying fiery serpents” during this time. While staying in this region, however, the Lehites obtained two artifacts made of brass (nḥšt): the “plates of brass” (1 Nephi 5) and the ball of fine brass, later identified as the “Liahona” (1 Nephi 16:10; cf. Alma 37:38). Scholars have suggested that each of these are framed symbolically as the “serpent of brass” (nḥš nḥšt) in Nephi’s Exodus typology.69 The Liahona in particular is noteworthy as a type for the brazen serpent because not only was it made of “brass,” but it was used to “look upon” in order to gain knowledge from the Lord (1 Nephi 16:26), a process known anciently as “divination.”70 Both serpents and metallurgy were symbolically associated with divination, and the Hebrew root for “divination, enchantment” (nḥš) was closely related to the terms used for serpent and copper (or brass/bronze).71 Furthermore, in some cultures, metalworkers used “copper paraphernalia” in their divination rituals.72 Thus, the term nḥš nḥšt, “serpent of brass,” may have also evoked — to Nephi, at least — the notion of “diviner of brass,” e.g., a copper/bronze object used in divination, such as the Liahona.73
Nephi’s direct citation of the brazen serpent narrative occurred when the family had arrived in Bountiful (1 Nephi 17:41), which lay on the southern shores of Arabia, in the frankincense-producing region of Dhofar.74 The South Arabian cultures that occupied Yemen and controlled the trade in frankincense certainly had their own serpent-based iconography, symbolism, and traditions.75 For example, a cast bronze snake was found near al-Ḥadāʾ, with the name of the god Wadd (wdm) inscribed on it — the deity associated with snakes in the [Page 226]South Arabian pantheon.76 In southeastern Arabia (northern Oman), archaeologists have uncovered one of the most extensive sites of serpent worship in all of the ancient Near East.77 As with the serpent iconography of the southern Levant, the worship of snakes in Oman appears to be connected to copper mining and metallurgy.78
Perhaps most relevant, Herodotus not only talked about “winged serpents” near the border of Egypt and Arabia, as already mentioned, but he also reported that in the region “where frankincense grows … great numbers of winged serpents which are small and have variegated markings … carefully guard each [frankincense] tree” (Histories 3.107). The stories and claims Herodotus makes about these winged serpents are quite fanciful, leaving scholars puzzled as to what he could possibly be referring to.79 While the details are likely garbled and exaggerated, laborers gathering incense surely encountered venomous snakes during their work. Other classical sources more realistically refer to snakes that “leap” or “jump” out at their prey. For instance, Strabo (writing in the 1st centuries bc/ad) described “snakes a spitame long and red in color that can jump as far as a hare and make an incurable bite” living in the territory of the Sabeans (Geography 16.4.19).80
Both the Egyptian cobra and the saw-scaled viper — the main candidates for the biblical seraph-serpents — are also known in Yemen and Dhofar, where frankincense grows.81 The saw-scaled viper is an especially good candidate for the frankincense tree-guarding “winged serpents”: it is known to get into bushes and small trees to prey on birds, and often has a reddish color consistent with Strabo’s description.82
Thus, while traveling through South Arabia and staying in the Dhofar region, Lehi and his family would have encountered the same snake species found in the desert south of Judah and identified with the seraph-serpents from biblical traditions. At least by the time of Herodotus, who wrote about 100 years after Lehi’s journey, local South Arabian legends apparently referred to these snakes as being “winged” and able to fly. This means that between both the Valley of Lemuel and Bountiful — the two locations where most of Nephi’s narrative takes place — the Lehite group had spent a large portion of their time near or within the habitat of the seraph-serpents.83 As such, when Nephi reminded his brothers of the “flying fiery serpents” sent by the Lord to chastise the children of Israel for their murmuring (1 Nephi 17:41), it would have held a relevance that is often lost on readers today: they, too, were traveling and camping in regions believed to be infested by [Page 227]flying serpents, and if they were not faithful, the Lord could just as easily punish them by unleashing those dangerous snakes.84
Suppression of the Seraph-Serpent
As mentioned previously, in ancient Israel the seraph-serpent iconography largely proliferated in the 9th–8th centuries bc after which it faded out and disappeared.85 The reason for this is likely connected to Hezekiah’s removal of the brazen serpent from the temple (see 2 Kings 18:4).86 Prior to that time, the brazen serpent evidently played some kind of role in Israelite worship, but its exact function is not known for certain. It is possible it was more strongly associated with the traditions and worship practices of northern Israelites, which may be why the biblical authors give it such scant attention.87 Most likely, given the story in Numbers 21, it was used in some kind of ritual wherein worshippers would seek to invoke the Lord’s healing power.88 Victor Hurowitz has even argued that the text of Numbers 21:4–9 was a kind of invocation or prayer that the worshipper would ritually recite while burning incense and looking upon the mounted serpent of bronze.89 This means that the Lord’s promise, “that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it [the brazen serpent], shall live” (Number 21:8), was believed to be active and ongoing for generations of Israelite worshippers prior to the reign of Hezekiah.90 Furthermore, based on multilingual wordplays involving the Hebrew terms for “live” (ḥyh, ḥyy, ḥwh) and “snake” (nḥš) with the Aramaic term for “snake” (ḥwy) and the Akkadian terms for “live, life” (naʾāšu, nīšu), Hurowitz argues that the passage would invite worshippers “to use a [brazen serpent] not only to treat snake bites … but to give life” more generally.91 For centuries then, humble Israelites with a variety of ailments evidently sought the Lord’s healing power by approaching the brazen serpent, believing the promise given to Moses still applied in their own day: “that every one that … looketh upon it, shall live.”
All of that changed, however, when Hezekiah had the object destroyed (2 Kings 18:4), reportedly in connection with extensive reforms of Israelite religion. There is ongoing debate among biblical scholars as to the historical reality of — and if real, the nature, extent, and purpose of — Hezekiah’s reforms,92 but most scholars agree that the destruction of the brazen serpent is a historically authentic detail.93 Whatever the exact nature and purpose of its removal, it is clear that the account of this event as recorded in the Deuteronomistic History (2 Kings 18:4) shows disdain for this object and the worship practices connected to it. Richard Lederman, a professor of Bible and Religion at Georgetown University, argues that this account is [Page 228]a “Deuteronomic polemic against forbidden forms of worship,” patterned after Deuteronomy 12:3 (cf. 7:5), thus characterizing the brazen serpent as the idolatrous image of a foreign god, inauthentic to true Israelite religion — despite its reputed Mosaic origins.94 The declaration of it as “Nehushtan” (nḥštn) is probably not a proper name as typically translated but rather a pejorative dismissal of the object as just a “piece of bronze/copper” unworthy of worship.95 According to Leslie S. Wilson, “during or just after the period of King Josiah and the Deuteronomist reporter(s),” the “serpentine (nḥš) traditions became the symbol of all things evil and abhorrent to YHWH.”96
In contrast, ancient metallurgists such as Lehi and Nephi — especially given their ties to the northern kingdom of Israel — likely viewed the brazen serpent as a legitimate Yahwistic symbol and an authentic and integral part of Israelite worship.97 Both serpent symbolism and the metallurgical arts were traits of the ancient “wisdom” tradition — a tradition that the Deuteronomists disapproved of and sought to change.98 This controversy over the origin and legitimacy of the brazen serpent may very well be lurking in the background of Nephi’s expansion and commentary on the brazen serpent narrative.
As certain Book of Mormon scholars have previously argued, it appears Lehi and Nephi embraced at least parts of the ancient wisdom traditions that the Deuteronomistic school of thought vehemently opposed.99 In contrast, Laman and Lemuel were apparently ideologically aligned with the Deuteronomist movement, as is most evident in their criticism of Nephi just before he gave his speech mentioning the brazen serpent narrative (1 Nephi 17:22).100 As already discussed, Nephi’s metallurgical activity just before he was confronted by his brothers established his bona fides — based on pre-Deuteronomistic traditions — as one sent like Moses (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15–18).101 Thus, the conflict between Nephi and his brothers in 1 Nephi 17 is a microcosm of the larger debate over the proper form of Israelite religion that was going on at the time.
With that in mind, consider a key difference between the account in Numbers 21:4–9 and Nephi’s version of the same story. In Nephi’s version, there is a group of people unmentioned in the biblical account who refused to look upon the brazen serpent.
And after they were bitten,
he prepared a way that they might be healed.
And the labor which they had to perform were to look.
And because of the simpleness of the way or the easiness of it,
there were many which perished.
And they did harden their hearts from time to time,
[Page 229]and they did revile against Moses and also against God. (1 Nephi 17:41–42)
Alma, too, mentioned this additional detail, indicating that it continued to play a part in the Nephites’ brazen serpent tradition:
But few understood the meaning of those things —
and this because of the hardness of their hearts.
But there were many which were so hardened that they
would not look;
therefore they perished.
Now the reason that they would not look
is because they did not believe that it would heal them. (Alma 33:20–21)
A similar tradition implying that some did not look and thus perished is found in later Jewish sources.102 If generations of Israelites had continued to look upon the brazen serpent seeking the Lord’s healing power, then the tradition of those who would not look because they did not believe it to be efficacious may have developed after Hezekiah destroyed it, as a polemical response to the desecration and denunciation of the serpent symbol in Deuteronomistic ideology. To those who still believed and followed a pre-reform version of Yahweh-worship, it was the Deuteronomistic elite in Jerusalem who rejected the simple and easy way prepared by the Lord; who failed to understand “the meaning of those things” — that is, the meaning of the serpent and the worship practices involving it. For that, they were doomed to perish, as Lehi had prophesied and as was fulfilled when the Babylonians destroyed the city (1 Nephi 1:13; 2 Kings 25). By aligning themselves with the Deuteronomists, Laman and Lemuel were joining the ranks of those who “did harden their hearts.” Although they claimed to revere Moses and worship Yahweh according to the law, by rejecting a Yahwistic symbol attributed to Moses, they were actually reviling against them both.
The Serpent “Raised Up” in the Wilderness
When Nephi was speaking to his brothers in Bountiful, he did not provide an interpretation of the brazen serpent itself. Later, when Nephi appealed to this story again while commenting on the prophecies of Isaiah (2 Nephi 25:1), the context and setting was different. His conflicts with his brothers were largely behind him, and he had shifted his attention to “proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ” (2 Nephi 11:4), an event he had seen in vision (1 Nephi 11). He appealed [Page 230]to Isaiah as an eyewitness who had also seen the Redeemer in vision (2 Nephi 11:2). Thus, his focus shifted away from the Israelites’ reaction to the punishing “poisonous serpents,” and onto “the serpent which [Moses] did raise up” — that is, the brazen serpent itself (2 Nephi 25:20). Nephi used the serpent that Moses “did raise up” as an illustration of the Lord’s power to deliver and save — which he then implicitly connected to the Messiah he had seen “lifted up upon the cross” (1 Nephi 11:33):
For according to the words of the prophets,
the Messiah cometh … [and]
his name should be Jesus Christ the Son of God.
And as the Lord God liveth that brought Israel up out of the
land of Egypt
and gave unto Moses power that he should heal the nations
after that they had been bitten by the poisonous serpents,
if they would cast their eyes unto the serpent which he did
raise up before them,
yea, behold I say unto you that as these things are true
and as the Lord God liveth,
there is none other name given under heaven
save it be this Jesus Christ of which I have spoken
whereby man can be saved. (2 Nephi 25:19–20)
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus himself made a similar association:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:14–15)
Douglas W. Ullmann reasoned that this passage “captures the main thought of Numbers 21:4–9 and applies it to Jesus Christ’s death,”103 explaining:
the Lord provided only one means of salvation (from the snake bites): the bronze serpent. If anyone refused to look at the uplifted serpent, he was not healed. In a similar way the Jewish leaders of Jesus’s day disbelieved that Jesus was the Messiah (John 3:11), thereby rejecting God’s means of providing them with eternal life. Yet God had provided Jesus [Page 231]Christ as the only means of salvation. If anyone refused to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, he was not saved.104
The story is used “as an illustration of God’s plan for salvation through Jesus Christ,” but the Gospel of John “does not … suggest that the bronze serpent is a type of Christ.”105 Ullmann concludes that, as used in the Gospel of John, “the [bronze] serpent was not intended to be a prediction of any of the details of Jesus’s vicarious death, [but] several points of similarity between the lifting up of the serpent and the lifting up of Jesus Christ made the bronze serpent an appropriate symbol.”106
Brant A. Gardner has similarly argued that “Nephi is not using the [the brazen serpent] incident typologically but rather as evidence of Yahweh’s power as manifest through a prophet.”107 It is true that Nephi, like Jesus himself in John 3:14–15, did not explicitly say that the serpent was a type for Christ, and nothing Nephi said suggests that the serpent was a prophecy of His crucifixion.108 Yet, Nephi did implicitly compare Jesus Christ and the brazen serpent as an illustration that there is no other means of salvation but Christ — precisely as used in John 3:14–15, according to Ullmann. As S. Kent Brown explained:
Nephi highlighted the brazen serpent incident, along with the Lord’s guidance of the Israelites and his gift of water from a rock, as indisputable evidences of Jehovah’s power to save temporally as well as spiritually. Nephi swore an oath “that as these things are true, and as the Lord God liveth, there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ … whereby man can be saved” (2 Nephi 25:20). Hereby, Nephi drew attention to the link between Moses’s actions and Jesus’s atonement.109
Of course, Nephi predates the Gospel of John by several centuries, so it is significant that James Charlesworth argues that this “image[ry] and symbolism … are reflected in Jewish thought long before the composition of the Fourth Gospel.”110 As previously noted, it is difficult to completely recover the role and meaning of the seraph-serpent in the pre-reform Israelite religion which may have influenced Nephi’s thinking. Furthermore, its meaning was probably somewhat fluid rather than fixed.111 As Jacqueline Tabick observed: “it is obvious that the interpretations of a symbol can be made from many possible view points, and … it should also be obvious that the interpretation is bound to be a subjective one, influenced by the cultural background and personal experience of the interpreter.”112 Thus, Nephi’s interpretation needn’t be assumed to represent a universally applied interpretation of the brazen [Page 232]serpent among ancient Israelites; but it should make sense in light of his “cultural background and personal experience.”
Nephi himself had just stressed the importance of understanding the cultural background of scripture — the “manner of the Jews” — in order to be able to interpret it (2 Nephi 25:1–6). Furthermore, although Nephi was clearly commenting on the narrative in Numbers 21:4–9, he was not interpreting it in a vacuum; rather, it was part of his larger commentary on Isaiah 2–14, which was just quoted (2 Nephi 12–24). This block of text includes two other key passages that refer to seraph-serpents — Isaiah 6 / 2 Nephi 16 and Isaiah 14:28–32 / 2 Nephi 24:28–32 — and three passages referring to standards which are “lifted up” — Isaiah 5:26 / 2 Nephi 15:26; Isaiah 11:10, 12 / 2 Nephi 21:10, 12; and Isaiah 13:2 / 2 Nephi 23:2.
Thus, to understand Nephi’s commentary here on the narrative in Numbers 21:4–9, I will consider that narrative together with these Isaiah passages, as well as the cultural background of serpent symbolism and iconography in ancient Israel and the ancient Near East more generally. I will specifically discuss the use of serpents as symbols of healing, life, immortality, resurrection, salvation, purification and atonement; as representations of the Messiah (and kingship more generally), divine messengers and dispensers of justice, and members of the heavenly hosts; as well as the use of serpents on deified battle-standards — all of which are roles, functions, and attributes that at least some ancient Israelites close to Nephi’s time likely connected to the seraph-serpent.113 When discussing each of the qualities of serpent symbolism, I will also consider Book of Mormon commentary on the brazen serpent story against this cultural background and Nephi’s personal experiences (especially his visions), illustrating that such commentary makes logical sense as an interpretation of a pre-exilic symbol.
As previously mentioned, the primary association of the seraph symbol in Israelite religion was likely one of healing, especially healing from snake bites, with Numbers 21:4–9 possibly functioning as ritual text recited by the worshipper as they looked upon the brazen serpent.114 Healing was one of the most widespread and common meanings of the serpent in ancient Near Eastern symbolism.115 According to Charlesworth, the serpent was “the quintessential symbol of healing, health, and rejuvenation in the ancient Near East, including Palestine, from circa 1850 bce to at least 135 ce.”116 Maciej Münnich similarly notes [Page 233]that “throughout the entire Near East the snake was considered a symbol of health and even immortality.”117 Nephi understood that the brazen serpent represented the “power … [to] heal the nations” (2 Nephi 25:20) and Alma, likewise, emphasized the healing function of the serpent (Alma 33:21–22).118 Just before telling the story of Moses raising the brazen serpent, Nephi explained that Jesus Christ would “rise from the dead with healing in his wings” (2 Nephi 25:13).119
Life, Immortality, and Resurrection
Closely related to its healing function, serpents were also often associated with life.120 As already pointed out, Hurowitz argues that multilingual wordplays with terms for “snake” and “life” in Numbers 21:4–9 suggest that the brazen serpent not only healed but gave life.121 Amy Birkan also argues that this narrative puts emphasis on the serpent as more than merely a means of healing but as “the chief emblem of new life.”122 In many ancient Near Eastern myths, it is paradoxically “the slaying of the dragon, or serpent, [that] provides life.”123 As Münnich mentioned (above), the lifegiving powers of the serpent were not limited to mortal life but included the power to give immortality, and thus it was often associated with resurrection, life after death, and eternity.124 As Münnich further explains, “This was usually connected with snakes shedding their skins, which made a semblance of rebirth into eternity.”125 Likewise, in Egypt, according to Lurker, “the snake, because it sloughs its skin, became a symbol of survival after death.”126
After talking about how the “type was raised up in the wilderness, that whosoever would look upon it might live” (Alma 33:19), Alma encouraged his Zoramite audience to “cast about your eyes and begin to believe in the Son of God … that he shall rise again from the dead, which shall bring to pass the resurrection” (Alma 33:22). In a more cryptic allusion to the story, discussed in some detail later, Alma said “if we will look, we may live forever” (Alma 37:46). As noted above, Nephi son of Lehi spoke of Jesus Christ “ris[ing] from the dead with healing in his wings” (2 Nephi 25:13) shortly before he related how the Israelites “would cast their eyes unto the serpent” to be healed; soon thereafter, he stressed that the purpose of his teaching was so his posterity would “look forward unto that life which is in Christ” (2 Nephi 25:20, 27). Later, Nephi son of Helaman most strongly associated the symbol with Christ’s life-giving powers:
Yea, did [Moses] not bear record that the Son of God should come?
And as he lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness,
even so should he be lifted up which should come.
[Page 234]And as many as should look upon that serpent should live,
even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith,
having a contrite spirit, might live,
even unto that life which is eternal. (Helaman 8:14–15)
Given these healing and life-giving associations, it was only natural that the serpent would also become a symbol of salvation, “since healing and salvation are cognitively synonymous” according to Charlesworth.127 Andrew Skinner observes, “As a bringer of salvation and giver of everlasting life, the snake became a divine reptile” in ancient Near Eastern conceptions.128 A prime example of this comes from the Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, a pre-Christian Jewish text.129 Retelling the story of when the Israelites “perished with the stings of crooked serpents,” the author refers to the brazen serpent as “a sign of salvation, to put them in remembrance of the commandment of thy law” (Wisdom of Solomon 16:5, 6).130 “Under God’s command,” explained Emerson B. Powery, “Moses created a bronze serpent to symbolize God’s salvation.”131 When Nephi compared Christ to the serpent, he stressed that it is by Jesus Christ “whereby man can be saved” (2 Nephi 25:20), and Alma mentioned that “he will come to redeem his people” (Alma 33:22).
Purification and Atonement
The role of the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision both overlaps with and extends the symbolic meaning of the seraph-serpents in Numbers 21. When Isaiah begins to fear because he, “a man of unclean lips,” had seen the Lord of Hosts (Isaiah 6:5), it is a seraph who comes to purify him with “a live coal,” declaring “thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged” (v. 6–7). As such, this purifying function is an extension of the healing connotations of serpents generally, one that particularly makes sense when speaking of “fiery” or “burning” (śrp) serpents.132 LeGrande Davies argues the verb śrp, “to burn,” is primarily used to refer to the “cleansing, purifying or refining of ritual objects, people, cities, etc.,” and that this was the purpose of the seraph-serpents in the wilderness as well as the function of the seraphim in Isaiah 6: “The seraphim acted as the agents of the ‘cleansing fire’ to Isaiah, as the ‘cleansing’ or ‘fiery serpents’ of the wilderness acted on the Israelites.”133
The connections to purification are further strengthened by the use of the roots śrp, “to burn” and the homophonic ṣrp, “to refine” earlier in Isaiah (Isaiah 1:7, 25), and the use of rṣph for the burning coal in Isaiah 6:6, forming [Page 235]wordplays with seraphim.134 “The prophet and the people are unclean and sinful,” observed Peter D. Miscall. “Cleanness and innocence are achieved by burning and refining both the prophet and the people; in the process, the guilt, the dross, is removed.”135 Thus, Udo Rüterswörden called this “an atonement act,”136 and Karen Randolph Joines noted that to Isaiah these “winged serpents are agents of divine redemption and healing.”137
Nephi most likely interpreted Isaiah’s vision in context with Lehi’s own throne-theophany (1 Nephi 1:6–14), in which case he probably identified the seraph who purged Isaiah’s sins with the “One descending out of the midst of heaven” in Lehi’s vision — a figure usually interpreted to be Jesus Christ (1 Nephi 1:9).138 Since, as one biblical scholar puts it, “the seraph that cleanses Isaiah … may function as a symbolic allusion to the seraph in Numbers 21:8 that heals the children of Israel,”139 it is significant that Nephi talked about looking upon the brazen serpent in the context of teaching his posterity “to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26) — the very function of the seraph in Isaiah 6:7. Likewise, when comparing Christ to the seraph Moses “raised up in the wilderness,” Alma said He would “come to redeem his people” and “atone for their sins” (Alma 33:19, 22), both roles scholars have associated with the actions of the seraph in Isaiah 6.
Snakes also acted as guardians throughout the ancient world.140 As mentioned previously, this was a common function of the seraph-serpent in Judean iconography in the 8th century bc, and the role is also evident in Isaiah 6, where the seraphim are acting as guardians or gate-keepers of the heavenly throne and the divine council.141 In both Egyptian and Judean iconography, the protective function of the seraph (in Judah) and uraeus (in Egypt) is prominently linked to the king and royal symbolism.142 Nicole B. Hansen explained, “The uraeus was the image of the Egyptian cobra (Naha haje), worn in the front of the king’s headdress. … Thus the uraeus came to be considered a protector of kingship.”143
Eventually, such prominent displays of the protective uraeus led to its adoption as not only a protector or guardian, but also as a direct symbol of royalty, authority, and kingship itself.144 As Charlesworth explains, “the uraeus … was placed in royal palaces and on the heads of pharaohs to symbolize their godly and kingly powers.”145 This same conflation appears to have taken place in Judean iconography. While, as mentioned earlier in this article, the winged serpent was typically depicted as the [Page 236]guardian(s) of a royal symbol, in some instances “the winged seraph alone seems to symbolize Judean kingship.”146
Isaiah evidently drew upon this royal imagery when he warned Philistia, “Rejoice not … because the rod of him that smote thee is broken: for out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a viper, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent” (Isaiah 14:29).147 In this passage, the serpent, viper, and a flying seraph-serpent are presented as the root, trunk, and fruit of a tree — and thus represent succeeding generations of rulers. According to Shawn Zelig Aster, “The root represents previous generations, the trunk represents the present, and the fruit represents the future. Each of the types of serpents mentioned is more rare and more dangerous than the previous one.”148 Thus, the flying seraph-serpent is a future royal figure who will subjugate the Philistines and protect Zion (Isaiah 14:29–32).149
Given its use of Judean royal iconography (a flying seraph-serpent) combined with imagery used elsewhere in Isaiah (11:1) to refer to a future Davidic king or “new David,”150 this passage naturally lends itself to messianic interpretations.151 As John N. Oswalt pointed out, if this is interpreted as “a reference to the Jewish nation or the Davidic monarchy,” then “the Messiah is the flying serpent.”152 Indeed, at least by the early centuries ad, that is precisely how Jewish interpreters were reading the passage, as illustrated by the Targumic rendering: “Rejoice not, all you Philistines, because the ruler who was subjugating you is broken, for from the sons of the sons of Jesse the Messiah will come forth, and his deeds will be among you as a wounding serpent” (Tg. Isaiah 14:29).153 At least one modern scholar similarly argued, “The broader meaning [of Isaiah 14:28–32] seems to be that from the root of Judah, ‘the serpent’s root, the deliverer shall come to save Israel.’ This one is symbolized as ‘a flying serpent.’”154 In light of the interpretation in the Targums, Bruce Chilton suggests “it may just be that the connection between serpent imagery and messianic thinking was something of a conventional one.”155
In the Book of Mormon, both Nephi son of Lehi and Nephi son of Helaman used the title “Messiah” for Jesus Christ when making the comparison with the brazen serpent (2 Nephi 25:19; Helaman 8:13). Furthermore, just as ancient Jewish interpreters reasoned that the Israelites had to look upon the brazen serpent with “a long and insistent gaze” to be healed of a snake bite,156 so Nephi taught that if his people “look forward with steadfastness unto Christ [i.e., the Messiah]”157 they would be “made alive” (2 Nephi 25:24–25).
[Page 237]Divine Messenger and Dispenser of Justice
Isaiah 14:29 also clearly reflects “the use of the serpent and the pit viper to symbolize God’s messenger.”158 As discussed earlier, the transformation of the rod or staff (mṭh) into a serpent (nḥš) was used as a sign that Moses had truly been sent as Yahweh’s messenger to deliver the Israelites from Egypt (Exodus 4:1–5).159 Similar imagery is at play in Isaiah 14:29, where the broken “rod” or “scepter” (šḇṭ) becomes the “serpent’s root” (mšrš nḥš) from whence God’s emissary emerges as a “fiery flying serpent” (śrp mʿpp). Likewise, according to Izaak J. de Hulster, “the seraphs of Isaiah 6 might be understood as carrying out an intermediary role as a type of divine messenger.”160 Other biblical passages likewise identify serpents being commissioned or sent by God to accomplish a specific task (e.g., Genesis 49:17; Amos 9:3).161 In these passages, as Amzallag explained, the serpent is “YHWH’s faithful emissary, involved in protecting the people of Israel and even individuals among this collective.”162
As God’s messenger, the serpent was frequently associated with judgment.163 Charlesworth noticed, “Often biblical authors choose the serpent to symbolize the agent of God’s judgment, usually punishment.”164 For example, Trevor Cochell argues that the flying seraph in Isaiah 14:28– 31, “behaves much as the uraeus in an Egyptian royal context,” bringing “fiery destruction upon the enemies of the true King, Yahweh, and his people. … [T]he mythical fiery serpent (seraph/uraeus) is the symbol of Yahweh’s judgment.”165 This meaning is evident in the brazen serpent narrative, where the seraph-serpents were sent (or released) by the Lord to punish the Israelites for their murmuring (Numbers 21:6).166 In Egypt, the serpent mounted on a pole or standard was often used to represent Pharaoh’s judgment against his enemies — a symbol that Numbers 21 seems to invert by using the same iconography (a serpent mounted on a pole) as a means of sparing the Israelites of a negative judgment.167
Serpents did not exclusively convey the negative aspect of judgment. Charlesworth proclaims, “the serpent … symbolizes God’s messenger who brings justice, judgment, and goodness.”168 As Davies puts it, “The subtlety of the serpent … exemplifies the justice of God, which knows no bounds and can seek out the righteous or wicked anywhere to bring forth justice.”169 In Greco-Roman culture, according to Skinner, it was perceived that “the serpent could give life or take it, let another creature live or cause it to die by invoking, as it were, a kind of ‘instant judgment’ in deciding to strike or not.”170 Thus, it could naturally symbolize God’s judgments to both reward the righteous and punish the wicked. Once again, this very dualism is at play in Numbers 21, “where the Snake is seen as the messenger [Page 238]of both life and death,” as Tabick points out.171 When Alma compared Christ to the brazen serpent, he mentioned “that all men shall stand before him to be judged at the last and judgment day according to their works” (Alma 33:22). Nephi likewise emphasized the coming judgment “at the last day” when he mentioned the raised up serpent (2 Nephi 25:18, 20).
One of the Heavenly Hosts/Sons of God
In most ancient Near Eastern cultures, snakes typically symbolized a specific god or goddess of healing, life, or other properties commonly associated with serpents. Some scholars believe it was the same in Israel, with the brazen serpent representing one of the heavenly hosts — divine beings variously referred to as “gods,” “sons of God/the Most High,” “holy ones,” and “angels,” among other titles.172 “It has long been recognized,” according to Lowell K. Handy, “that this object stood for a deity” which was “clearly part of the Judean pantheon and almost certainly a deity of healing.”173 Charlesworth likewise argues that before Hezekiah’s reforms, “citizens of Judah … most likely perceived the [brazen] serpent as a celestial being,” from within “Yahweh’s heavenly court.”174 Similarly, Tallay Ornan reasoned that the four-winged seraph on a 7th century bc Israelite seal represented a “member in the [heavenly] entourage of Yahweh.”175 Indeed, as discussed earlier, Isaiah — possibly inspired by the brazen serpent(s) in the temple — envisioned members of the of the divine council as seraphim, or winged fiery serpents (Isaiah 6).176
Typically, scholars trying to identify the specific deity represented by the brazen serpent link it to Canaanite healing gods or serpent deities.177 Based on Isaiah’s vision, however, the seraph form was not necessarily limited to a specific individual within the heavenly hosts; furthermore, as discussed in this paper, the seraph-serpent clearly conveyed a wide-range of meanings — well beyond just healing — all within the context of Israelite worship of Yahweh.178 Thus, in seeking to identify a deity which ancient Israelites might have associated with the brazen serpent, it makes sense to look for one that embodies all of the attributes of the seraph-serpent discussed above.
In this light, it is noteworthy that, according to some scholars, early Israelite religion featured a “second god”: a divine redeemer-figure who was one of the “sons of God,” a heavenly guardian, God’s primary agent or emissary (mlʿk, “angel”), and was manifest on earth as the Messiah (the Davidic king).179 The role and identity of this divine son figure was obscured by the Deuteronomistic reformers, but the earliest Christians drew upon surviving traditions about this “Son of God” in their understandings of [Page 239]Jesus.180 Given the overlap between the roles of this particular member of the heavenly hosts and the meanings and functions associated with the seraph-serpent discussed in this paper — both are connected to redemption, messengers, judgment, guardianship, and the Messiah, among other things — it seems plausible that at least some ancient Israelites would have associated the brazen serpent with this same “Son of God.”
This divine emissary evidently played a role in the theology of ancient metallurgists,181 and Latter-day Saint scholars have likewise argued that Lehi and Nephi’s revelations about Jesus Christ make sense against the backdrop of these pre-reform beliefs.182 It thus comes as no surprise that Nephi and later Book of Mormon writers would specifically use the title “Son of God” when identifying Christ with the brazen serpent (2 Nephi 25:19; Alma 33:18, 22; Helaman 8:14–15).
The Deified Battle Standards and the Brazen Serpent
The identification of the brazen serpent as symbolizing a deity or divine being is further implied by Moses’s placing it on a “pole” (Numbers 21:9), which is a translation of ns, which typically means “standard, banner, ensign,” etc.183 Ancient Near Eastern armies often used standards as a means of advancing and rallying their armies, but they often had religious and ideological symbolism as well.184 As Heinz-Josef Fabry explained, “In the ancient Near East, standards symbolize concretely the gods advancing into battle.”185 Specifically, in Egypt, “The principal purpose of the standards was to serve as a physical repository of the power of the gods. … In reality, the gods were thought to be embodied in the standards,” and as such, “Egyptian texts … often use the words standards and gods interchangeably.”186 Similarly, Mordecai Cogan explained that the Assyrian battle-standard known as the “weapon of Ashur,” was “topped by the symbolic representation of Ashur,” the supreme god of the Assyrian Empire.187 Such “deified standards,” as one scholar described them,188 would have surely shaped Israelite perceptions of the brazen serpent on a “pole” or “standard” (ns), contributing to the notion that it symbolized a divine being, as discussed above.
Inherent in the act of placing something on a standard is “raising” or “lifting” it up, so that it can be seen from all around. This is reflected in the etymology of ns, “standard, ensign, banner,” which is likely derived from the rarely used verbal root nss, which means “to lift something up for the purpose of displaying it.”189 In Zechariah 9:16, nss is translated “lifted up as an ensign.”190 Setting up a standard is frequently described using the verbal root nśʾ, a common term in the Hebrew Bible with the primary meaning [Page 240]being “to raise” or “lift up.”191 This can be seen in several of the Isaiah passages that Nephi quoted just before retelling the brazen serpent story:
And he will lift up [w-nśʾ] an ensign [ns] to the nations from far and will hiss unto them from the end of the earth. (2 Nephi 15:26; Isaiah 5:26)
And he shall set up [w-nśʾ] an ensign [ns] for the nations and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. (2 Nephi 21:12; Isaiah 11:12)
Lift ye up [śʾw] a banner [ns] upon the high mountain, exalt the voice unto them, shake the hand that they may go into the gates of the nobles. (2 Nephi 23:2; Isaiah 13:2)
Significantly, the grand army envisioned in Isaiah 5:25–30 (2 Nephi 15:25–30), raising its ensign to rally the nations to war against the wicked, was likely inspired by the Assyrians — the most powerful military force known during the time of Isaiah.192 Based on wall relief carvings in the palace of Sennacherib (ca. 705–681 bc), it seems that at least some Assyrian battle-standards contemporary to Isaiah (and within a hundred years of Nephi’s time) were actually serpents mounted on spears.193 In Isaiah 11:10, 12 (2 Nephi 21:10, 12), the raising an ensign motif is reapplied, this time to the Davidic king in the messianic-age.194 As already discussed, the Davidic monarchy was also associated with serpent symbolism in Isaiah’s day (something likely still known to some in Lehi’s time), and Isaiah 14:29 applies this messianic imagery to a flying seraph. Consequently, Nephi may very well have understood Isaiah’s raised up ensign to be serpentine in nature, and thus fused them with the brazen serpent on a “pole” in his interpretation of Numbers 21.195
This would explain why Nephi spoke of “the serpent which [Moses] did raise up before them” (2 Nephi 25:20), even though the expression nśʾ does not appear in Numbers 21. Likewise, Alma also talked about “a type … raised up in the wilderness” (Alma 33:19), and Nephi son of Helaman says Moses “lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness” (Helaman 8:14). All of this would have made it quite natural for the original Nephi to interpret the deified serpent-standard as “the everlasting God” that he saw “lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world” (1 Nephi 11:33; cf. 19:10; 3 Nephi 27:14–15, 22). It was Nephi son of Helaman, however, who would directly connect the lifting up of both serpent and Savior: “And as he lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so should he be lifted up which should come” (Helaman 8:14).
[Page 241]In Hebrew, nśʾ is a theologically potent term, with a broad semantic range. Not only could it mean “to be lifted or raised up,” and by extension, “exalted,” but it could also mean “to carry, bear, endure,” and even “to suffer.”196 It could specifically be used in the phrase nśʾ ʿwn to express bearing guilt, sin, or iniquity — including taking on the guilt, sins, or iniquities of others — and carried connotations related to forgiveness, reconciliation, and atonement.197 Of course, Nephi knew — as surely as his brother Jacob did — that by being “lifted up” onto the cross, Christ would “suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world” (Jacob 1:8; cf. 1 Nephi 19:9–10). After mentioning the “raised up” serpent, Nephi also explained that they wrote their record so that their posterity would “be reconciled to God” and know where to “look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:23, 26). Alma said that the “raised up” serpent was a type for the Son of God who “shall suffer and die to atone for their sins” (Alma 33:22).198
The Brazen Serpent in the Nephite Interpretive Tradition
As illustrated by the various references made throughout this paper, when later Nephite writers mentioned the brazen serpent narrative, in each instance, they generally interpret it along the same lines Nephi did, specifically using same name-titles (Messiah, Son of God) and talking about qualities and attributes of Christ (atonement, eternal life, rising from the dead, resurrection, judgment) that relate to ancient Near Eastern serpent symbolism. In many cases, these are features that are specifically associated with the seraph-serpent in pre-exilic Israelite texts (i.e., Numbers 21:4–9; Isaiah 6; 14:28) and iconography. Thus, with his two retellings of the brazen serpent narrative, Nephi evidently established a standard interpretation of the story that other Nephite writers adopted with minimal change.
It should be noted, however, that there are some key developments in how the story is used and interpreted within the text. They are modest, even subtle, developments that make sense as natural outgrowths of how Nephi used the story. Similar innovations of interpretation show up in the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition, and do so in response to similar circumstances and pressures. Thus, the Book of Mormon authentically reflects a living interpretative tradition.
Brazen Serpent Typology, Prophecy, and Apologetics in Nephite and Christian Sources
As noted earlier, both Nephi (2 Nephi 25:20) and the Gospel of John (3:14–15) use the “raised up” or “lifted up” serpent as a means of illustrating the [Page 242]Lord’s saving power through Jesus Christ. In neither instance, however, was the brazen serpent taken to be a literal typological prediction — a prophecy in action — of the coming of Jesus Christ. This would quickly change in early Christian interpretations. In the Epistle of Barnabas, dated to between ad 70 and 135, it explicitly states that “Moses maketh a type of Jesus, how that He must suffer, and that He Himself … shall make alive in an emblem when Israel was falling” (Epistle of Barnabas 12:5).199 That type was the brazen serpent, and in Barnabas, Moses explains the symbol in a way that clearly alludes to the future crucifixion:
Whensoever, said he, one of you shall be bitten, let him come to the serpent which is placed on the tree, and let him believe and hope that the serpent being himself dead can make alive; and forthwith he shall be saved. … Here again thou hast in these things also the glory of Jesus, how that in Him and unto Him are all things. (Epistle of Barnabas 12:7)200
Justin Martyr, another 2nd century Christian writer, also argued:
the type and sign erected to counteract the effects of the serpents that bit Israel was clearly intended for the salvation of those who believe that this sign was to show that through the Crucified One death was to come to the serpent, but salvation to those who had been bitten by the serpent and had sought protection of Him who sent His Son into the world to be crucified (Dialogue with Trypho 91.4).201
In these post-New Testament texts, the typology is explicitly stated, and it is assumed that the action of raising the serpent in the wilderness was intended as a prophetic prediction of Christ’s coming. According to Ullmann, who surveyed more than seventy references to the bronze serpent story in early and medieval Christian texts, this becomes the dominant interpretation of the story among Christian exegetes in antiquity, and it was adopted specifically “as an apologetic against the Jews for their disbelief in Christ as the Messiah.”202
This is exactly what happens among Nephite exegetes as well. As S. Kent Brown noted, “This brass serpent was interpreted by later Book of Mormon prophets to typify the Savior.”203 When Alma the Younger first referenced the brazen serpent, he combined elements from Nephi’s two interpretations, using it both to teach of the coming Messiah and also mentioning those who would not look to the serpent and thus perished (Alma 33:18–22). Alma was appealing to the story while preaching amongst the Zoramites, who explicitly denied the [Page 243]coming of Christ (Alma 31:16), and he thus included it as part of a larger argument to persuade them to believe in the Son of God (Alma 33:14–23). In this apologetic setting, Alma went beyond Nephi’s use of the brazen serpent simply as an appropriate symbol of the Lord’s healing and salvific power. For Alma, it was “a type raised up in the wilderness,” which illustrated that the Son of God “was spoken of by Moses” (Alma 33:18–19).204 In other words, Alma interprets it as a prophetic type, intended to represent and therefore predict the future coming of the Son of God.
Similarly, Nephi son of Helaman appealed to the story when preaching to a people who had rejected the Messiah (Helaman 6:34),205 and used it as part of a larger argument meant to persuade them to believe in the coming of Christ (Helaman 8:13–20). Nephi declared that Moses “hath spoken concerning the coming of the Messiah” and rhetorically asked, “did he not bear record that the Son of God should come?” He then cited Moses “lift[ing] up the brazen serpent in the wilderness” as evidence to support his claims (Helaman 8:13–15). Thus, as Nephite prophets engaged apologetically with those who rejected the Messiah, they came to appeal to the brazen serpent as a literal, prophetic prediction of Christ’s coming — a “prophetic metaphor for Jesus’s crucifixion,” as Brown puts it.206
This subtle development from Nephi son of Lehi’s original use and interpretation of the brazen serpent is consistent with how interpretation of this symbol developed in early Christian sources, where in post-New Testament times it quickly came to be viewed as a literal prophetic type for Jesus, intended as a prediction of his death, and used in apologetic arguments with Jews to prove that Jesus was the Messiah. The allusions to Moses having “spoken” of Christ in connection with the raising up of the brazen serpent (Alma 33:19; Helaman 8:13) even hint at the possibility that, like in the Epistle of Barnabas, the Nephites had come to believe that Moses gave a speech prophesying of Christ when he first showed them the raised up serpent.
Later Christian and even Jewish interpreters would eventually develop ever more elaborate allegorical and metaphorical interpretations, which become increasingly more difficult to justify as having any meaningful grounding in the biblical account.207 Such novelties are lacking in the Book of Mormon. Consequently, the minimal interpretive developments that do occur among the Nephites are consistent with the more exegetically sound developments in the interpretation of Numbers 21:4–9 found in ancient Christian sources — and they are developments that emerge in response to the same kind of outside pressures. As such, not only are the foundational features of the Nephite [Page 244]interpretation grounded in the pre-exilic setting from which Nephi established it, but it is also not stagnant, having a pattern of realistic (albeit, conservative) historical development.208
Looking to the Serpent and Beholding God in Jewish and Nephite Tradition
Ancient Jewish commentators developed another interpretation, which seems to have its seeds, at least, in the pre-exilic religion. In rationalizing why the brazen serpent episode did not constitute idol worship, Rabbinic interpreters reasoned that by looking upward to the serpent, the people were actually looking to God. Thus, one writer explained, “whenever Israel looked on high and subjected their heart to their Father in heaven were they healed” (M. Rosh Hashanah 3:8).209 Commenting on this tradition, Nili S. Fox notes, “it was the glance of the afflicted to their Father in heaven (which is why the seraph was placed on a standard), rather than the snake itself, which effected the cure.”210 Philo of Alexandria, writing in the 1st century ad, more explicitly reasoned that those who looked upon the serpent actually saw God. He claimed, “[When a person beholds] the serpent of Moses, and through beholding this, beholds God Himself, he shall live” (Legum Allegoria 2:81).211
Philo’s expression that a person looking at the serpent “beholds God Himself,” but “shall live” is striking in light of Old Testament statements that that man cannot see God and live (Exodus 33:20; Leviticus 16:2, 13). This was a common belief in ancient Israel, and often those who see God or even angels are relieved to discover that they are still alive after the encounter (see Genesis 16:13; 32:30; Deuteronomy 5:22–27; Judges 6:22–23; 13:22–23).212 This fear is expressed in Isaiah’s vision of the Lord on his throne, and it was through the actions of one of the seraphim — winged, serpentine beings likely represented by the brazen serpent(s), as discussed above — that he was enabled to stand in the presence of the Lord and survive (see Isaiah 6:1–7).
What Isaiah’s vision suggests — which later Jewish sources appear to distantly echo — is that the brazen serpent’s healing and life-giving function aided not only those seeking to recover from some sort of ailment, but also those who were seeking to enter the presence of God and survive. As Nicolas Wyatt explained, in Isaiah’s vision the seraphim are “acting as intermediaries between the prophet and Yahweh,”213 enabling him to stand in the Lord’s presence unharmed. According to Lowell K. Handy, the brazen serpent was an “intermediary between God and the people,”214 a common role of snakes in ancient thought.215 At least [Page 245]as understood by Isaiah and later Jewish exegetes (as discussed above), the brazen serpent was specifically seen as mediating an individual’s ability look to and even see God and ultimately live through the experience.216
The Book of Mormon seems to allude to the concept of using the brazen serpent as a means by which one can see God and live. When counseling his son Helaman, Alma spoke of the “easiness of the way” prepared for their fathers, that “if they would look, they might live” (Alma 37:46). In the immediate context, Alma was referring to the Liahona, but Alma’s language clearly alludes back to the story in Numbers 21:4–9 as well.217 Alma thus identified both the Liahona and brazen serpent as means by which “ye [can] look to God and live” (Alma 37:47).218
This interpretation is arguably more innovative than the first one offered by Alma when preaching to the Zoramites, as it is not clearly derivative of Nephi’s explicit references to the story in 1 Nephi 17:41 and 2 Nephi 25:20. Yet Alma’s interpretation here still seems to be a natural outgrowth of the interpretive seeds Nephi planted. As noted previously, Nephi casts the Liahona as a type for the brazen serpent. Nephi also linked the Liahona to seeing God in several subtle ways. First, when describing the discovery of the Liahona at the “tent door” (1 Nephi 16:10), Nephi echoed divine encounters of Abraham and Moses, wherein they saw the Lord (Genesis 18:1; Exodus 33:7–10).219 Second, Don Bradley argues that when Nephi built a temple in the New World (2 Nephi 5:16), the Liahona was one of the sacred relics placed inside, and that it “function[ed] as a physical embodiment of God’s presence.”220 If Bradley is correct, then Nephi was symbolically equating “look[ing] upon the ball” (1 Nephi 16:26) with beholding God’s presence. Lastly, Lehi or Nephi evidently coined the name “Liahona,”221 which arguably means “Look to the Lord!”222 Therefore, the notion of seeing God may have been embedded into the very name of this brass divining instrument.
All of this suggests that while Nephi never explicitly equated looking upon the brazen serpent with being able to see God and live, he provides the foundation for such an interpretation to emerge by making the typological association between the brazen serpent and the Liahona—an object Nephi linked with seeing God in several ways. Alma’s interpretation thus naturally emerges out of Nephi’s earlier typology, just as the similar interpretations by later Jewish commentators are the natural outgrowth of the pre-exilic understanding of the brazen serpent as a life-preserving intermediary between God and man, as reflected by the actions of the seraph in Isaiah 6 — a text that Alma also had access to in the very records [Page 246]he was bestowing upon his son Helaman when he compared looking to the Liahona/brazen serpent with looking to God (Alma 37:1–5).
As the analysis above illustrates, the Book of Mormon’s commentary on the brazen serpent narrative resonates with serpent symbolism and iconography from the ancient Near East, and especially that of the seraph-serpent in pre-exilic Israel. While some of the observations made above rest on firmer ground, and others are more exploratory, all of them come together to make a persuasive case that the Book of Mormon’s use and interpretation of this symbol is an authentic strain of ancient Israelite tradition, one that shows realistic signs of historical development along lines that make sense given the context and circumstances upon which the tradition was expounded.
Contextualizing the Book of Mormon’s references to the brazen serpent narrative within ancient Near Eastern serpent symbolism also adds additional meaning and explanatory power. For instance, it makes sense that the brazen serpent story is alluded to more often in the Book of Mormon than any other book of scripture, since Lehi’s personal background dovetails remarkably well with the community which most strongly associated with the seraph-serpent as a symbol for Yahweh. The typological use of the brass ball (Liahona) as a substitute for the brazen serpent in Nephi’s Exodus typology is illuminated by knowledge of the homophony between “serpent” and “diviner” (both nḥš) and the common association between serpents, divination, and copper/bronze in antiquity. Similarly, details from the immediate narrative context of 1 Nephi 17, like Nephi’s making tools from ore, take on new significance when the ancient connections between metallurgy and serpent symbolism are known and the religious and ritual dimension of metalworking are recognized. Subtle differences in the story — such as the added reference to Israel being straightened with a rod and the serpents being flying seraphs — are explained by iconography and symbolism in pre-exilic Israel. Finally, awareness of the overlap between the geographic setting of 1 Nephi and the habitat of the seraph-serpent helps Nephi’s use of this story hit home in a way modern readers may not always appreciate.
Perhaps most impressive, however, is the way Nephi’s reference to the story in 1 Nephi 17:41 is effectively framed as a microcosm of the larger controversies of his time, which involved the legitimacy of the brazen serpent as a part of proper worship of the Lord. This framing brings together several of the other details just mentioned: Nephi’s metallurgy [Page 247]in 1 Nephi 17:9–16 signals his status as one who has been in the presence of the Lord, received divine knowledge, and is commissioned as his messenger. The symbolism of Nephi’s actions was probably not lost on his brothers, and thus their accusations that follow (1 Nephi 17:17–18) make sense as a reaction to the symbolic implications of his forging tools from ore.223 The differences in how Nephi recounts the story also take on new meaning in this framing. The added reference to a “rod” that is paralleled with the “flying fiery serpents” evokes the imagery of the rod-to-serpent transformation given as a sign to the Israelites that Moses was commissioned by the Lord (Exodus 4:1–5, 30), and “flying fiery serpents” more strongly connects with the winged seraph iconography associated with the Davidic monarchy and often borne on the seals of officials commissioned by the king before being suppressed by the Deuteronomistic reformers. Combined with the added detail that some of the people would not look to the serpent for healing, and therefore perished, these differences seem to be reinforcing a singular message: the seraph-serpent is a legitimate symbol of the Lord and his emissaries, and thus rejecting it, as some had in Nephi’s day, was tantamount to rejecting the Lord; those who did so would perish from the bite of the seraph-serpent — a symbolic point, to be sure, but one made all the more real given that such could indeed be the fate of anyone in Lehi’s party during their time in the wilderness, including at Bountiful.
Nephi’s later use of the brazen serpent in 2 Nephi 25:20 as an illustration of the Lord’s power to deliver and save through the atoning Messiah — Jesus Christ — and subsequent Nephite writers’ adoption of the serpent of brass as a literal type of Christ is also illuminated through ancient Near Eastern serpent symbolism. This association with Christ needn’t be seen as a post-Christian anachronism. In the ancient Near East, the serpent symbolized healing, life, resurrection, salvation, atonement, and judgment; it was often used to symbolize divine beings, and even had messianic connotations. These are, of course, also attributes of Christ, each of which gets mentioned by Book of Mormon authors in close reference to the brazen serpent. Importantly, all of these symbolic associations are evident in Judaism in pre-Christian times, and in many cases are present in the seraph-serpent symbolism of pre-exilic Israel. Thus, it is not hard to see why Book of Mormon authors saw fit to connect this symbol with the Messiah, the preeminent Son of God, which they had seen and learned about through visions and revelations.
Since Nephi’s reference to the brazen serpent in 2 Nephi 25:20 comes as part of his prophetic commentary on Isaiah 2–14 (2 Nephi 12–24), it is [Page 248]particularly noteworthy that many of the important associations between the seraph-serpent and Christ are manifest in Isaiah 6 and 14:28– 32 / 2 Nephi 16; 24:28–32, though the connections would not be evident without knowing the meaning of seraphim in Hebrew and being able to recognize motifs in these passages that are illuminated by a broader knowledge of ancient Near Eastern serpent symbolism. More impressive still is how a knowledge of Hebrew and ancient Near Eastern culture creates a context in which Nephi could conceptually link the serpent on a “pole” with the “ensign” (both ns) that was “lifted up” to gather the nations (Isaiah 5:26; 11:12; 13:2 / 2 Nephi 15:26; 21:12; 23:2) — a symbol that would have been understood as representing a divine being, and based on Assyrian and Egyptian examples, may have been conceptualized as having serpentine form. Thus, in Nephite parlance, the brazen serpent was “raised up” or “lifted up” to “heal the nations” (2 Nephi 25:20; cf. Alma 33:18; Helaman 8:14), and very naturally linked to the “everlasting God” Nephi witnessed being “lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world” (1 Nephi 11:33). Significantly, the Hebrew expression for “lifted up” also has connotations of carrying, bearing, enduring, and suffering — including bearing the guilt, sin, or iniquity of others — and as such is an appropriate expression for Christ’s atoning act on the cross. Thus, Nephi’s interpretation of the brazen serpent narrative makes sense as a midrash of sorts, combining the story in Numbers 21:4–9 with key passages in Isaiah, read through the lens of Nephi’s own visions.224
Finally, a careful reading of Alma 33:18–22 and Helaman 8:13–15 shows that Nephi’s two interpretations of the brazen serpent account developed into a standard interpretation of that event among the Nephites; however, their interpretive tradition did not remain stagnant. Later Book of Mormon prophets echoed the same themes found in 1 Nephi 17:41 and especially 2 Nephi 25:20 but developed them within the context of their own, ongoing polemics with those who contested the reality and existence of the future Messiah. To counter such claims, Nephite prophets appealed to the brazen serpent as a literal type of Christ, raised up in deliberate, prophetic anticipation of Jesus Christ, accompanied by prophetic words about the Son of God, spoken by Moses (see Alma 33:18–22; Helaman 8:13–15). A similar development is documented in ancient Christian writings, which used the brazen serpent as a prophetic type for Jesus as evidence that the Messiah had come in apologetic arguments with Jewish commentators. Furthermore, Alma also pushes Nephi’s typological links between the brazen serpent and the Liahona further, and conceptually links both to the act of looking to God [Page 249](Alma 37:38–47), an interpretation that is consistent with how post-exilic Jewish commentators came to understand the brazen serpent narrative.
Thus, the contextual background of the ancient world, while explored from a variety of different angles and sources, offers more than a disparate series of parallels that yields a random insight or two. Many of the various component parts unite together to create a cohesive context for understanding the Nephite interpretation of the brazen serpent as whole, both its origins and its (subtle) developments over the centuries. Taken as a whole, this cohesive context suggests that the Book of Mormon’s use of the brazen serpent narrative is not a literary fiction, but an authentic strain of ancient Israelite tradition.
In Isaiah’s vision the burning is not limited to destruction, but also has the purpose of purification and redemption. The prophet in Isaiah 6 appears before Yahweh as a representative and a representation of the people of Israel. Just as Israel, the prophet is impure and must experience a fiery purification. The fiery ones represent that purification in their form and bring that purification to the prophet with the burning coal just as Yahweh will bring purification through judgment. (p. 146) …
[Page 284]In the vision of Isaiah 6, the fiery ones surrounding Yahweh and purifying the impure one who encounters Yahweh capture in a single scene the theme in Isaiah of the judgment and purification through fire of Israel, the nations, and creation. (p. 147)
Furthermore, one of the seraphs in Isaiah 6 uses tongs to take a burning coal from the altar. This imagery picks up on the association of the Hebrew root śrp with burning or fire. It is striking, though, that these fiery creatures use (or perhaps even need) tongs to pick up a burning coal. Perhaps this detail underscores the efficacy of the coals as instruments of cleansing and judgment, both of which play a role in Isaiah’s commission.