Ancient Near East Studies (archaeology, linguistics, comparative religion, etc: ) provides explanations for certain Torah passages that previously were difficult to understand.
A book could probably be written about the serpent motif found in the Tenach.
Consider the Moses brass serpent -
Numbers 21:4 And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became impatient because of the way. 5 And the people spoke against God, and against Moses: 'Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.' 6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses, and said: 'We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that He take away the serpents from us.' And Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live.' 9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it upon the pole; and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived.
Rashi citing Mishnah Rosh Hashana 29a writes the serpent does not cure, but by looking up at it reminds of God.
Yet, Rashi’s explanation is not consistent with verse 8 ‘...when he seeth it, shall live.’. Second, why would God have Moses make a brass serpent ? Just tell the bitten person to pray to God for healing directly.
The probable motivation for the Rashi/Talmud explanation is because the brass serpent borders on Idolatry / magic and so an apologetic excuse is provided.
Ramban extrapolates from the medical opinion of the day and argues that seeing a serpent by a person bitten by a serpent harms the person. So bitten people are to gaze at the brass snake which resembles the offending agent and they live by the will of God.
The problem with Ramban’s explanation is it is based on incorrect medical opinion and it is uncertain if the ancient Israelites shared such a medical opinion.
This is where modern scholarship comes to the fore
Jewish Publication Society - Numbers - Jacob Milgrom 1990.
Page 459 - Regarding Numbers 21:4-9 “The homeopathic use of snakes is a distinctive feature of ancient Egypt”. At the times of Moses Egyptian belief was that serpent images repel serpents and heals wounds from them. “The association of snakes with healing is attested elsewhere in the Near East.” Milgrom relates it to magic - the fate of a person or object can be governed by manipulation of it’s image.
Commentary on the Torah with a New English Translation 2001 by Richard E, Friedman - Page 499 - it appears to be sympathetic magic.
Wikipedia Nehushtan “Snake cults had been well established in Canaan in the Bronze Age: archaeologists have uncovered serpent cult objects in Bronze Age strata at several pre-Israelite cities in Canaan: two at Megiddo, one at Gezer, one in the Kodesh Hakodashim (Holy of Holies) of the Area H temple at Hazor, and two at Shechem.”
Some scholars explain the verses are an etiological account written in later times to explain the presence of the brass serpent at the First Temple. (See for example page 325 Jewish Publication Society - The Jewish Study Bible Berlin and Brettler, 1999 )
- Alter Cocker Jewish Atheist
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