In the Bible people have a very long, painful and sometimes fatal relationship with serpents. Soon after our introduction to Adam and Eve, we are also introduced to the serpent who is described as the “most cunning among all the wild beasts” (Gen 3:1). What is striking about this primordial serpent is not only his ability to speak, but his persuasiveness. The smooth talk of the serpent led to the grave sin of humans and to the severe punishment that follows. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, the serpent lost its limbs and God placed eternal enmity between serpents and humans. “They shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel.”
In today’s portion we find a similarly painful encounter. The people of Israel complain again to Moses about the harsh conditions in the desert.
“Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” (Num 21:5)
God responds by sending ‘fiery’ serpents to strike at the heels of the complaining people and many of them died. In their distress the Israelites realise their error and ask Moses to intervene on their behalf. God instructs Moses to
“Make a figure of a serpent and mount it on a standard. And anyone who is bitten and looks at it, he shall recover.” (Num 21: 8)
This story poses a few theological issues:
Could the copper serpent really save the People from the serpent’s bite?
The Mishnah tries to give a theological answer to this question:
“Could the serpent really have the power to kill or give life? [Obviously not.] So long as the People of Israel would set their eyes upward and submit to God, they would be healed. And if not, they would wither away.”
(Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8)
Are we to treat the bite of a serpent as divine punishment?
Treating the bite of the serpent as a divine punishment is very problematic. I was born in Israel, a country where snakes are common even in built-up areas, and the most venomous species, the Israeli Viper (Vipera palaestinae) is also the most widespread. You can find them in most places, and even in very urban areas such as Tel Aviv. Every year there are between 200-300 viper bites. The vipers do not seem to be discriminating between young and old, sinner and righteous, local and tourist. The viper cannot swallow humans and the natural inclination of the viper is to skedaddle when people are around. Biting is a last resort and the best bite prevention is common sense and extra care in places where they might be found rather than prayer or the performance of good deeds.
Why were the People of Israel attacked by serpents and not any other type of animal?
What is common to both the story of the primordial serpent from Genesis and to the attack by serpents in the book of Numbers is speech. In both cases the sin is reflected in what was said and done as a result. The serpent caused Adam and Eve to rebel against God by smooth talk. Eve tempted Adam by smooth talk. However, all this does not justify such a severe punishment. How could they know that what they were doing is wrong if they did not taste yet from the fruit of knowledge between good and evil? After tasting from the fruit ‘their eyes were opened’ (Gen 3:7). When challenged by God about eating from the fruit, Adam and Eve fail with their speech. They do not admit their own guilt and instead, they roll responsibility on someone else. This was their true sin and for that they were punished not only with expulsion from the garden, but also with enmity with the creature who introduced them to smooth talk.
In the desert the People of Israel failed to show gratitude to the Almighty, who watered them, fed them and protected them in the desert for forty years. They even complained about the heavenly manna, which they named ‘spoiled bread’ (Num 21:5). It was because of the venom pouring out of their own mouths that venomous serpents bit them. The copper serpent made by Moses had no special powers. It merely served as a visible reminder of the need to look heavenwards and remember God’s commandments.
We should not watch out for crawling serpents that are sent to inflict divine punishment. We should be careful with our own verbal serpents, our complaints, gossip, slandering, shaking responsibility from ourselves and onto others.
We should be careful, with our words, lest they come back to bite us.
Rabbi Yuval Keren
Ordained Leo Baeck College 2009
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.