Following the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites suffer a bitter consequence in the form of serpents. They become impatient after journeying around the land of Edom, and complain about the manna God has been providing. God's anger is provoked, and Numbers 21:6 states that He sends "fiery" (saraph, also translated "venomous" and "poisonous") serpents among the people. Many are bitten and die. Moses is instructed by God in verse 8 to make a bronze poisonous or fiery serpent (also saraph) and set it on a standard or pole, so that those victims who look on it may live. Obeying God, the bronze serpent (nahash) is produced by Moses and those who look on it live, as recounted in verse 9.
The serpents may be called fiery due to their bite, due to the fever caused by the bite, or due to their appearance. One source90 evaluates the various serpents of the region the Hebrews might have been in, and proposes that these serpents could have been the saw-scaled viper Echis, which are quite numerous in certain areas. The venom of this particular snake is more powerful, weight for weight, than any other viper, and this snake is easily aggravated. It tolerates heat and is active in the day. Its venom affects the blood, causing death by massive internal hemorrhage, but death can be slow in coming. This would have given Moses time to fashion the bronze serpent, and to broadcast the news to the great number of afflicted people that they could look on the bronze serpent and live. This bronze serpent later became an object of worship and was destroyed by King Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:4.
The significance of looking on the bronze serpent and living is that the healing is based on faith, not on the copper serpent itself; this was emphasized later in John 3:14, 15, when Jesus refers to this incident to say that the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that all who believe on Him will have eternal life.91 The bronze serpent illustrates that the "instrument of judgment becomes the means of deliverance."92 In this episode, the symbol of pain and death becomes a symbol of healing. Indeed, the bronze serpent may have later influenced the Caduceus symbol for medical arts in Greece.93
Currid sees several connections to Egypt in the Numbers report of the fiery serpents. He notes that whenever the Israelites murmured, they mentioned Egypt and how much they missed it.94 There were Egyptian stories of serpents that belched or engendered fire, in particular the serpent on the Pharaoh's uraeus that spit fire, and the fire-spitting serpent Kheti that protects Ra.95 Even the pole or standard was used in Egypt in connection to their gods, and was believed to embody the power of the god; many standards displayed serpents on top.96 These standards, which were shown with Egyptians going into battle, stood for the protection of Egypt and represented Egypt's fury toward its enemies.97 Currid posits that the bronze serpent was a standard for Israel, giving healing to the Israelites and representing judgment on the Egyptians.98 Currid even proposes that the bronze serpent was a reminder of sympathetic magic, which was practiced by the Egyptians, since figures of animals were often used magically to protect against the same animal, whether scorpion, snake, or crocodile.99 Yahweh was not only showing his power to heal, but also showing his power over Egypt.100
In Egyptian beliefs, serpents were enemies and protectors. The fear of dangerous serpents can work two ways: when its bite brings death, the serpent is the archetypal enemy; but precisely because of this power of death, the serpent is symbolically a potent ally against one's enemies. In the magical worldview in which power is king, then a serpent can become an amulet protecting one from other serpents. The serpent's sinewy movements and ability to quietly sneak up on victims cause fear and fascination; thus, the serpent becomes a two-pronged symbol of both evil or death and of protection.
The serpent in the Garden, either acting as Satan or as an agent of Satan, is clearly evil; it acts against God and entices man to sin. Yet it is also one of the beasts of the field, leading to the conclusion that perhaps the serpent itself was only used by Satan, or that Satan was able to inhabit it briefly. The serpent is cursed, but part of that curse is the prophecy of Genesis 3:15, that the serpent will taste defeat, a reference to Christ's overcoming Satan. The serpent itself, as a non-human creature with no moral capacity, is not evil, but it is associated with evil in this passage.
Jacob's blessing of Dan seems at first negative, since Jacob is asking that Dan be a serpent in the way, one that bites the heels of a horse and causes the rider to fall backward. But Jacob's words come as part of a blessing, and it points to the might of the small tribe of Dan in overcoming its enemies. Although the tribe of Dan later betrays Yahweh by worshiping an idol, there is no clear indication that the serpent imagery in the blessing is foretelling this; the imagery is, at most, ambiguous.
In the Exodus confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, Aaron's serpent is a duplication of the legendary magicians' power of turning a staff into a serpent, but it is also more than a duplication. When Aaron's serpent swallows the magicians' serpents, it is God trumping Pharaoh at his own game, both realistically and metaphorically, since the cobra is a symbol of power in Egypt and its figure decorates the crowns of both Pharaoh and sun god Ra. The serpent is used as an instrument of God's power. Rather than show His power in a way divorced from their culture, Yahweh challenges Pharaoh using the very elements of Egyptian beliefs in serpents and magic to turn the situation around to His advantage.
In the wilderness, the serpent is at its sharpest contrast as both evil and good. It is the ancient enemy, biting and bringing death. Yet God uses the bronze sculpture of a poisonous serpent to represent His mercy and power to heal. If "fiery" in this passage refers to the serpents' deadly venom, then God is telling Moses to make a bronze model of a poisonous snake. Thus, the replica of the very source of poison and death becomes the symbol and means of healing, but the healing is by faith, not occult magic. Yahweh has no need for magic, as do the gods of Egypt. And unlike occult magic in Egypt, the bronze serpent has no powers in itself; it is God who heals, but the people must individually look in faith to that bronze serpent to receive the healing. This episode became the basis for Jesus' statement in John 3:14, 15, that as the serpent in the wilderness was lifted up, so must He be lifted up, that all who believe on Him shall have eternal life. In both cases, the means of death becomes the means of life.
Just as the New Testament has both good and bad references to serpents (Jesus telling the disciples to be "wise as serpents," in Matthew 10:16; the allusion to the bronze serpent in John 3:14; Jesus rebuking the Pharisees as serpents and vipers in Matthew 23:33; and Satan identified as the dragon in Revelation, chapter 12), so does the Pentateuch present the serpent as both good and evil. Although the serpent can be a channel of evil, as in the Garden, and can represent evil, as when the terms for serpents are used to rebuke Pharaoh, the serpent itself is not always evil, as the blessing of Dan and the bronze serpent show us. The serpent can be neutral as well, a tool to display God's power in Pharaoh's court when Aaron's rod turned into a serpent and swallowed the magicians' serpents.
It seems that in the Pentateuch, the serpent is a multi-faceted metaphor and symbol. It does not have a rigid, static meaning, as it is not always used to represent the same thing. The serpent is, after all, a creature created by God. Just as Satan used (or perhaps misused) the serpent for his purposes in the Garden, so did God use the serpent to reproach Pharaoh and to show His power over Egypt, and for the healing of His people in the wilderness. In fact, one can discern a progression, not necessarily intended perhaps, of the serpent in these passages, going from evil in the Garden, to mildly good or perhaps ambiguous in the blessing of Dan, to a more neutral but compelling tool of God's power in Pharaoh's court, and finally becoming a symbol or instrument of healing in the wilderness, an image later used by Christ Himself to illustrate His saving power over death. Thus, the deadly serpent is transformed into an icon of healing and life, just as the death that came in the Garden was trounced by the gift of eternal life offered through Christ's atonement on the cross.