Monday, July 3, 2017

The Serpent on Moses' Staff

Alice C. Linsley

The serpent in the Bible is a neutral symbol. In some references the serpent is an enemy to be trampled under foot (Gen. 3:15). In other references the serpent is to be lifted up (Num. 21 :4-9). The serpent in Eden is said to be wiser than all the other creatures and it tempts the woman to transgress. Jesus urges his disciples to be wise as serpents, yet gentle as lambs.

How can a single entity have two apparently opposite qualities, both good and evil? It is a mystery. Yet it is as real as a mobius strip, and as mysterious as the Biblical merisms of good-evil, night-day and male-female.

mobius strip

The Michelangelo painting above is found in the Sistine Chapel. The bodies poisoned by the snakes occupy the right side, and spread toward the center. The survivors on the left have their their eyes and arms posed imploringly toward the salvific image of the bronze serpent. The way the serpent wraps around the staff is an innovation based on the Greco-Roman portrayal of the rod of Asclepius, a symbol of healing. The staff with the bronze serpent held by Moses would have been a coiled bronze disk. It would have reflected the sun's brilliance.

Bone box of the high priest Joseph Caiaphas

The solar imagery that pertained to the Creator took various forms, as shown in these 2000-year bullae from Celtic Spain. The 6-prong solar rosette on the top right is the merkaba that appears on the ossuaries of the Hebrew ruler-priests, such as the one shown above.

The bronze serpent on the staff of Moses would have resembled the solar image at the bottom right.

(Bronze is an alloy consisting primarily of copper, commonly with about 12% tin and often with the addition of other metals or metalloids such as arsenic, phosphorus or silicon.)

Some have cited the narrative of Moses raising the bronze serpent as an example of serpent worship (ophiolatry). While there is evidence that the serpent was venerated as a sacred animal 70,000 years ago, the Biblical writers deny that Moses tolerated any form of idolatry. The story in Numbers is better understood as the elevation of a symbol of the Creator. The coiled bronze serpent is a solar symbol and the sun was the emblem of the Creator among Abraham's Horite Hebrew people. In other words, the Israelites were urged to look to their Creator for salvation.

The coiled serpent in the hand of a ruler represents the ruler's appointment by God. It is analogous to the sun cradled in the long horns of the bull. Hathor, the mother of Horus, was divinely appointed to conceive the Creator's son when she was overshadowed by the sun, the emblem of the Creator. This is signified by her solar headdress. The coiled serpent conveyed the same idea. Moses was the ruler of the people and the people were to look to him as the Creator's representative.

The coiled serpent can also be found associated with rulers among the Celts. The spiral shape of the coiled serpent is the most widespread image carved on the dolmen of ancient Celtic rulers. This association with rulers appears to have persisted in England until the early 1590's.

This detail from a 400-year-old painting of Elizabeth I shows her grasping a coiled serpent. The coiled serpent is a symbol of the divine appointment of a ruler.

The portrait of Queen Elizabeth I was painted by an unknown artist in the 1580s or early 1590s. The serpent was painted over as a bouquet of flowers, but with the passing of time and the deterioration of the painted surface the serpent has reappeared.

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