by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
The first time the Israelites in the wilderness complain about food, they are traveling toward Mount Sinai with all their cows, sheep, and goats. Neither meat nor milk is taboo, yet they say:
If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us to this wilderness to kill this whole congregation by famine! (Exodus/Shemot, 16:3)
Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now our nefashot are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes! (Numbers 11:4-5)
nefashot (נְפָשׁוֹת) = plural of nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = throat, appetite; what animates the body; individual life.
The people are not hungry, merely fed up with their restricted diet. This time, God sends in a huge flock of quail that falls two cubits deep on the ground, and many people die “with the meat still between their teeth”.
This is the generation that refuses to enter Canaan, even after their scouts bring back appetizing fruits. They just want to go back to Egypt. God decrees that they must stay in the wilderness for 40 years.
In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”), most of that generation has died, and the next generation is on its way to Canaan. Yet when they have to take a long detour around the kingdom of Edom, they complain.
They pulled out from Mount Hor by way of a sea of reeds, to go around the land of Edom, and on the way the nefesh of the people became katzar. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: Why bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and there is no water, and our nefesh is katzah with the unappetizing food. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:4-5)
katzar (קָצַר) = was short, was shortened. When used with nefesh, katzar is an idiom meaning “impatient”.
katzah (קָזָה) = at an end, at its limit. When used with nefesh, katzah is an idiom meaning “fed up”.
They sound just like their fathers—but with an important difference.
When the earlier generation gets obsessive about food, they want to go back to Egypt. The second generation complains about the manna only when they have to take a long detour on their way to the “promised land”. They are impatient to reach Canaan and start eating normal food in the land God that wants them to occupy and farm.
Instead of killing them with quail, God responds by letting the snakes in the wilderness bite them.
Then God let loose the burning nechashim against the people. and they bit the people, and many of the people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and they said: We are at fault, because we spoke against God and you. Pray to God, and he will remove the nachash from upon us! And Moses prayed on behalf of the people. (Numbers 21:6-7)
nechashim (נְחָשִׁים) = plural of nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake. (This word is related to the verb nachash (נָחַשׁ) = did divination, read omens.)
The new generation of Israelites has learned that Moses is their intermediary with God. More mature than their fathers, they apologize, and ask Moses to mediate for them.
Why does God respond with snakes? The Torah has already associated the snake (which literally travels on its belly) with food cravings and journeys. In the story of the Garden of Eden, the snake encourages the woman to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. God decrees that the snake will go on its belly and eat dust. (Genesis/Bereishit 3:1-14) Jacob prophesies that the tribe of Dan will be “a snake upon the road”. (Genesis 49:17)
So snake bites are an appropriate punishment—but maybe God’s intent is not punishment. Maybe God is starting to prepare the people for life in Canaan, where they will be independent, and cannot expect any more divine miracles—such as the miraculous (if monotonous) food, and the miraculous removal of snakes from their path.
Naturally, the people ask Moses to ask God to remove the snakes again. Instead, God offers a cure for snake bite.
God said to Moses: Make yourself a saraf and put it on a pole, and all of the bitten will see it and live. So Moses made a nechash nichoshet and he put it on the pole, and if a nachash bit someone, then he would look at the nechash nichoshet and live. (21:8-9)
saraf (שָׂרָף) = a burning creature. (From the verb saraf (שָׂרַף) = burn in a fire. In the book of Isaiah, a saraf is a creature with six wings who lives in the visionary space around God’s throne. In the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, a saraf seems to be a venomous snake.)
nechash nichoshet (נְחַשׁ נִחֹשֶׁת) = a snake of a copper alloy (brass or bronze); a divination of copper.
Why would looking at a copper snake on a pole cure someone of snake bite?
Many commentators argue that since Moses made the snake at God’s command, looking at it reminds snake-bite victims of God and induces a prayerful attitude.
According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the copper snake is a reminder of God’s power to protect people from danger even when they are unaware of it—like the Israelites before God let loose the snakes in their path.
I believe looking at the copper snake means looking at the cause of your problem. It is all too easy for humans to avoid thinking about painful issues. If snakes start biting you, it does not help to complain, or to ignore it, or to consider it an omen for mystical divination. The best approach is to look for reasons.
The Israelites looked and saw that they had just complained about God’s manna. They realized God had kept the snakes away for 40 years, and they knew enough to apologize and ask Moses for help. They received a cure for snake bite.
Alternatively, they might have concluded that the burning snakes lived only along the detour around Edom, and looked forward to heading north again, out of snake country and toward the land God promised them. Either way, they would remember their purpose in life, and view the snake bites as a temporary set-back.
Is something biting you? Do you feel as though you were burned? Then look at the symbolic snake and figure out the causes of your distress. Is it a problem you contributed to with an unwise choice? Is it something you had to go through at the time, but you can avoid in the future? Is it something that cannot be cured, but that you can accept with grace as you focus on your real purpose in life?
Face your snake!