There’s a memorable story in the Old Testament you’ve likely heard before when fiery, flying serpents came among the ancient Israelites. As the story goes, if you looked upon a brass serpent Moses fashioned and placed on a pole, you could be healed. If you didn’t look—well, you died.
With such a stark contrast of fates, you would think it would be a no brainer to look at the serpent—which represents the Savior and His Atonement—and live. But the interesting thing is, not everyone did. The reasons why aren’t exactly clear. But in his April 2019 conference address, Elder Dale G. Renlund gave a few possibilities.
“Perhaps they did not believe that such a simple action could trigger the promised healing. Or perhaps they willfully hardened their hearts and rejected the counsel of God’s prophet,” he said. “The principle of activating blessings that flow from God is eternal. Like those ancient Israelites, we too must act on our faith in Jesus Christ to be blessed.”
The lessons from this story are powerful, but it does leave me wondering—why does the snake in this story represent Christ? As someone who isn’t a fan of reptiles in general, I thought it was time to get down to the bottom of this.
As it turns out, snakes have an interesting history in the ancient Middle East. So here are nine facts from a study by BYU professor Andrew C. Skinner to keep in mind about the slithery creatures and what they symbolized back in the day.
- In Egypt, snakes represented any number of gods of the earth and underworld. Certain life-giving powers were attributed to them. This may have had something to do with the fact that snakes shed their skins and exposed a “new body” by doing so. A serpent biting its tail was a common emblem in Egypt representing eternity and was symbol of survival after death.
- Pharaoh wore the image of a snake on the front of his headdress to symbolize his deity and sovereignty.
- Before the Israelites were delivered, the Lord commanded Moses to throw down his staff in front of Pharaoh and his court to demonstrate that Jehovah was the one true god. When Pharaoh’s magicians turned their staffs into serpents, the serpent of Jehovah swallowed up the other two snakes.
- Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans worshiped a god of medicine in the form of a serpent because it was thought to either give life or take it by giving “instant judgment” and deciding whether or not to strike. It was also a model of immortality.
- Israelites may have been familiar with images of fiery serpents due their exposure to Egyptian mythology. The symbol of the serpent Moses used would therefore show that the serpent truly represented God’s power over life and death and He is “the reality behind the symbol.”
- The serpent later became an idol and object of worship for the Israelites. Hezekiah, a righteous king of Judah, “removed the high places and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it” (2 Kings 18:4).
- In Revelation 12 and 20, the apostle John refers to Satan as “the serpent,” “that old serpent,” and the “great dragon” who ultimately would be overthrown by Christ.
- Book of Mormon prophets understood the symbolism of the serpent and its saving and life-giving power. The story of Moses and the brass serpent is referenced in 1 Nephi 17:40–41, 2 Nephi 25:20, Helaman 8:13–15, and Alma 33:18–22.
- Skinner points out that with the exception of a dove, “as the preeminent counterfeiter and deceiver, Satan could and does usurp other signs and symbols properly applied to God in order to try to legitimize his false identity as a god. This is why Satan chose to appropriate and utilize the sign of the serpent as the best means of deceiving Eve as well as her posterity. … Satan came to Eve clothed, as it were, in the garb of the Messiah, using the signs, symbols, and even the language of the Messiah, promising things that only the Messiah could rightfully promise.”
Read more of Skinner’s study at scholarsarchive.byu.edu.