The Copper Serpent: A Lesson in Gratitude and Faith

July 8, 2024

The Torah portion of Chukat (Numbers 19:1–22:1) marks the transition from the Israelites’ second year in the desert to the fortieth and final year of wandering through the wilderness. Their destination is finally within reach as they near the Holy Land, and the years of wandering almost come to a close. As the Israelites approach the borders of Edom, Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom, asking permission to cross through his land. But the king refuses, forcing the Israelites to take a longer route by the Sea of Reeds. Frustrated and weary, the people begin to complain:

This wasn’t the first time the Israelites had grumbled during their journey. They had complained about water, food, and the harsh conditions several times before. However, this time was different. Instead of providing for their needs as He had done in the past, God sent venomous snakes to bite them, causing many Israelites to die. Why? What is the meaning of these serpents?

Two things set this complaint apart from previous ones. First, the people not only complained to Moses but also spoke against God: “And the people spoke against God and against Moses.” They questioned not just Moses’ leadership but also God’s plan for them. Second, their complaint wasn’t just about lack of food and water. They openly despised the manna, the miraculous food God had been providing: “We have come to loathe this miserable food” (Numbers 21:5).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this ingratitude and rejection of God’s care led to severe consequences. God withdrew His protection, allowing the natural dangers of the wilderness, like the serpents, to affect them. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the serpents were always present in the wilderness, but God had been shielding the Israelites from them. When the people complained and showed ingratitude, God stopped holding back these dangers, and the serpents struck:

“Here too, God did not send the serpents, but let them go, did not keep them back…They had always been there in the wilderness, but hitherto they had been kept back by God’s careful protecting power.”

The serpents served as a harsh reminder of God’s constant protection, which the Israelites had taken for granted.

After the people admitted their sin, God told Moses to make a copper serpent and put it on a pole. Anyone bitten by a snake could look up at the copper snake and be healed. This might seem strange, especially since the Torah usually forbids making images like this. But the sages explain:

“Now, does a serpent kill, or does a serpent keep alive? NO! But when Israel directed their thoughts above and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they were healed.”

The copper snake wasn’t a magical object. It was a way to help the people focus on God and remember His power and mercy. As Rabbi Hirsch explains, the copper snake was meant to remind the Israelites of the dangers they faced daily in the wilderness and how God had been protecting them all along. By looking up at the snake, they would realize their dependence on God and appreciate His constant care:

“The serpents’ bite had the sole purpose of letting the people see the dangers which dog a person’s steps when he goes through the wilderness…One who had been bitten had only to fix the image of a serpent firmly in his mind…to remember that the danger is still in existence, dangers that daily and hourly the special care of God lets us escape quite unconsciously.”

The story of the copper snake teaches us about gratitude and faith. It reminds us to recognize and appreciate the divine protection and care we receive every day, often without noticing. When we face tough times, it’s easy to focus on our problems and forget the blessings we have.

In difficult moments, we should turn our hearts and minds to God, acknowledging His presence and help. Through gratitude and faith, we can find healing and a renewed appreciation for the gifts we receive each and every day.

Allowing a Palestinian terror state in the heart of Israel would destroy the Jewish State.Keep God’s Land is dedicated to strengthening and defending Israel’s right to its biblical heartland, with the ultimate goal of Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria.Learn More about this incredible mission today!

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

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