Bamidbar / Numbers 21:5-9 says G-d sent poisonous snakes against the Israelites in the desert for speaking against G-d and Moses. The people were complaining – and that was not the problem. . .
This may seem strange to the non-Jews reading this, but all this kvetching (complaining) was a GOOD thing. Slaves don’t complain (or they will be whipped or killed). The Jews had to feel pretty confident about themselves to be complaining to Moses, let alone to G-d!
They had to begin to think for themselves, to feel for themselves, rather than (as slaves) wait to be told what to do. They had to learn to be free!
The problem was not the fact that the people complained. . . . “'Why did you take us out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread and no water! We are getting disgusted with this insubstantial food.'” Bamidbar / Numbers 21:5.
The problem was their speaking against G-d and His prophet (Moses). Or as my mother used to say, “it isn’t what you say, but HOW you say it.”
After all G-d had done for them the people had to know that He would not let them starve or die of thirst, but rather than asking G-d (through prayer) the people spoke against Him. This is never a good idea!
Make things worse. G-d sent poisonous snakes to begin biting and killing people – who finally got the point:
“The people came to Moses and said, 'We have sinned by speaking against G-d and you. Pray to G-d, and have Him take the snakes away from us.' G-d said to Moses, 'Make yourself [the image of] a venomous snake, and place it on a banner. Everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.'" Bamidbar / Numbers 21:7-9.
Did you notice something interesting here?
The people did not ask Moses to bring a blood sacrifice.
The people asked for prayer.
Prayer, repentance (the people repented of their doings and admitted it (“We have sinned by speaking against G-d and you”).
There are no sacrifices – just repentance, prayer and forgiveness. . .
Amazing that the missionary misses this point entirely – and worse yet concludes from this chapter that idolatry is just fine!
The Chabad website has an interesting interpretive translation (a translation which incorporates many of our thoughts on the passage). Reading it raises many interesting points including “why snakes? The comments in black within parenthesis are mine.
The interpolated translation (interpretive translation) says the following: “The people spoke both against G-d and against Moses, mistakenly putting him on a par with G-d (which is what the Christian bible does by comparing Jesus to an idol on a pole, aka the copper snake) . . G-d said, “Let the snake, who was punished for its slander, come exact punishment from these people who slandered Me.
“Let the snake, to whom all things taste the same, come and exact punishment from these people who eat one thing that tastes like anything they wish (manna).” He sent against the people the venomous snakes, and they bit the people, and many people of Israel died. Other animals started biting the people as well, and their bites also killed, although more slowly than the snakes’ bites.”
“The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against G-d and against you. Pray to G-d that He remove the snakes from us.” Even though the people had wronged him, Moses forgave them completely and even prayed on behalf of the people, asking G-d not only to forgive them and stop punishing them, but to strengthen them spiritually against the sins that had brought on the punishment. (The Torah teaches us that we must seek forgiveness from the people we wrong, and ask G-d to forgive sins against Him. Here the people had wronged both Moses and G-d. They asked Moses to forgive them and to pray for them. They had already repented to G-d, they now asked Moses to forgive them and to go one step farther and pray for them, thus proving he had forgiven them, too).
“G-d answered Moses’ prayer and told him how to accomplish all he had asked for.
“He said to Moses, “I will forgive them, as you have, for having spoken against us. However, in order to strengthen them against sinning in general, it is not enough that they repent for this particular sin; they must repent for all their sins and rededicate themselves to Me completely."
(This is very important: the people must repent for all their sins – not just the most recent one. Where is the blood? Where are the animal sacrifices? How can G-d forgive them without blood? Easy – blood sacrifices have never atoned for major wrongdoings, it has always been repentance, atonement, prayer, kindness, etc. The Christian bible is wrong when it says “only blood atones”).
“Until they do this (repent for all their sins), the snakes and other animals will continue to attack them. Therefore, make yourself—i.e., using your own money, to express how fully you forgive the people and seek their betterment—an image of a venomous snake and put it on a pole, and let whoever was bitten by a snake look at it. This will help them focus on why they are suffering and—when they look intently toward heaven—help them submit their hearts to Me and thereby repent properly. I will then cure them of the rapid effects of the snakes’ bites. Those who need to repent less were bitten by other animals; all they need to do is look fleetingly at the snake image and think about heaven; this will be enough to inspire them to repent properly so I can cure them and they, too, will live.”
Notice that the Torah passage (and the interpolated translation) does not say that the people “prayed to the snake.” Or that the snake is a god, or even an intermediary to G-d. Nope. People are simply to look at it and remember their sins – to remember WHY those snakes bit them (for sinning against G-d). The Talmud tells us: “Now, did the snake kill or did the snake restore to life? No. But when Israel looked upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed; but if they did not, they pined away.” (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 29a).
John 3:14-18 is actually comparing Jesus to this copper snake! The passage from John seems to say that people prayed to a copper snake on a pole! John 3:14-18 condones idolatry!
Our sages knew the snake did not restore life – that it was G-d and the snake was simply to make them think of G-d. . .but the Christian bible seems to think that it was OK to pray to a copper statue of a snake and compares this statue to praying to / through Jesus. . .
The list maker cannot be faulted – the bad “prophetic claim” is from the Christian bible not the list maker. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For G-d so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For G-d did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of G-d’s one and only son.” John 3:14-18.
To pray to the copper snake would be idolatry, so in comparing Jesus to the copper snake the list maker is making saying it is necessary to make Jesus into an idol to “lift him up” in idolatry and “believe in him.” John even goes on to say that people who do not commit this idolatry are condemned because they refuse to become idolaters!
Idolatry is forbidden (see Parsha V'etchanan, aka D’varim / Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11). “Beware, lest you forget the covenant of HaShem your G-d, which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image, the likeness of anything, which HaShem your G-d has forbidden you.” D’varim / Deuteronomy 4:23.
Idol worship is forbidden. Yet John 3 likened Jesus to the copper snake as if it were an idol (making Jesus a false god / idol, too).
As a humorous ending to this comparison the author in John 3 somehow misses the fact that Hizkiyyah / Hezekiah (King of Y’udah, son of King Ahaz of Isaiah 7 fame) destroyed the copper snake for the exact reason that people were beginning to use it as an idol! “He (Hizkiyyah / Hezekiah) abolished the high places, and smashed the monuments, and cut down the asherah, and crushed the copper snake that Moses had made, for until those days the children of Israel were burning incense to it; and he called it נחושתן / nehushtan (a silly lump of copper)." Melachim 2 18:14 / 2 Kings 18:4.
Rashi explains: ”and he called it נחושתן / nehushtan -- לְשׁוֹן בִּזָּיוֹן “a term of contempt” -- a pejorative, as though to say, Why is this necessary? It is nothing but a copper snake.”
נחושתן / nehushtan is a form of נְחֽוֹשֶׁת n'ḥoshet (copper), so that the last three words of M'lachim Beit 18:4 can be translated as “he called it ‘just a silly little lump of copper’.”
It is nothing but a silly lump of copper the author of John compares to Jesus. . .
However, I have seen many missionaries try to compare Jesus to the copper snake as if to say “see, Jews pray to or through “things” just like we pray to Jesus” – yet they never, ever seem familiar with Melachim 2 18:14 / 2 Kings 18:4 which says the copper snake was crushed because people were treating it as if it were an idol.
G-d had Moses craft the copper snake as something for the people to look at and think as a reminder of how their disrespect of G-d resulted in a plague of poisonous snakes. It was to remind them to turn to G-d and only G-d. When people began to misuse the copper snake Hizkiyyah / Hezekiah had it destroyed.
John 3 also claims that Jesus is G-d’s “one and only son” is also false. We are all G-d’s sons and daughters, and G-d clearly states that Israel is his first born son. “'This is what God says: Israel is My son, My firstborn.” (Sh’mot / Exodus 4:22). This is stated time and again in the T’nach. “For, when Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.” Hoshea / Hosea 11:1.
John 3 may claim that Jesus is G-d’s “one and only son” but the bible disagrees with him. G-d created all of mankind, we are all His children. The Jews, as a nation of priests, are considered the “first born” (the “eldest” child being responsible to help his younger siblings as it were). . .
The T'nach also warns us not to follow the son of man (a name often used to describe Jesus in the Christian bible) -- because there is no hope in the son of man.
B'midbar (Numbers) 23:19 “G-d is not a man... or a son of man”
Sh'muél Alef (1 Samuel) 15:29 “Israel’s Eternal One... is not a man”
Comparing Jesus to a copper snake is a very poor comparison. The copper snake was not to be prayed to – and when people began to do so, it was destroyed as a sign of idolatry. If missionaries want to compare Jesus to the copper snake they’d better stop praying to / through him and destroy him (figuratively) as the copper snake was eventually destroyed. Likewise, it is easy enough to make a claim (e.g. “Jesus is G-d’s one and only son”) and quite another to support that claim. The bible makes it clear that G-d is one, alone and that all humans are His children.