Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Chukath 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Chukath 5760/8 July 2000 (15 July abroad)

The Seraph Serpents

Dr. Leah Himmelfarb

Dept. of Bible

The story of the copper serpent is the last in the series of complaints and rebellions of the Israelites on their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan. [1] In the book of Exodus the complaining rebels are not punished, [2] whereas in the book of Numbers every story of dissatisfaction is associated with a disaster visited on the Israelites. To wit: "A fire broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp" (11:1); "the Lord struck the people with a very severe plague" (11:33); "those who spread such calumnies about the land died of plague, by the will of the Lord" (14:37). [3] The response to the complaint at hand is that "the Lord sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died" (21:6). Let us investigate why the punishment this time took the form of seraph serpents. [4]

One approach relates to the wilderness being the principal habitat of seraph snakes.

1) We learn about life in the desert from Moses' speech in Parashat Ekev (Deut. 8:15-16), "[the Lord] who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known." We learn from here that three dangers lay in wait for a person in the wilderness: one, attack by vicious animals -- serpents, seraph snakes and scorpions; [5] two, shortage of water; and three, lack of food. Thus far Divine Providence had warded off these three threats, as related in Psalms 105:39-41: "He spread a cloud for a cover, and fire to light up the night. They asked and He brought them quail, satisfied them with food from heaven. He opened a rock so that water gushed forth."

Where, you may ask, is the protection from the snakes? According to the Midrash one of the seven clouds of Glory "would go before them, ... burning up the serpents and scorpions." [6] But when the people complained that "there is no bread and no water" (Num. 21:5), the Lord exposed the people to the third danger (listed in Deuteronomy 8:15 as the first threat) in order to teach them that just as they had been delivered until now by the strength of the Lord from dangerous reptiles living in the wilderness, so too the other hardships of the desert had been kept from them by the direct intervention of the Lord who sought to ease their trek through the wilderness.

Therefore Rabbenu Bahyai explains, [7] "It does not say 'seraph serpents,' rather, 'the seraph serpents,' because it was not a new creation made expressly for this moment; rather, there were already serpents ... in the wilderness." Similarly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: [8] "They had always been in the wilderness, but until then the Lord had restrained them by His will." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch pays close attention to another point in the text, distinguishing between va-yishlah, in the kal form, meaning to send on a mission, and va-yeshalah, in piel form, meaning 'to set loose,' 'to free', 'not to restrain or stop'. "Va-yeshalah et ha-nehashim ha-seraphim" does not mean that the Lord sent the serpents, rather that he set the serpents free and did not restrain them ... and the serpents of the wilderness did what was natural for them and "they bit the people."

According to the above explanation, that the serpents appeared was not a miracle. The miracle lay in the fact that until then no one had been attacked by them.

2) A second option to explain the punishment for the people's sin is a formal one rather than anything to do with content, along the lines of "measure for measure". Scripture notes: "The people spoke against G-d and against Moses, 'Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness?'" (Num. 21:5). The people were bitter about having been taken out of Egypt in order to die in the wilderness [9] ; so, the Lord actually repaid them just as they had spoken, and the people indeed died in the wilderness from being attacked by serpents, as is characteristic of the wilderness. In other words, the people brought their own punishment upon themselves through their complaint. [10]

Another interpretive approach to the seraph serpents has to do with the story of the primordial serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Life in the Garden of Eden resembled the life of the Israelites in the wilderness. In both places those involved were under close supervision of the Lord who cared for their every want; nevertheless, in both cases, human beings sinned by disobeying G-d. But whereas in the story of the Garden of Eden the serpent led Eve astray by his words, in the wilderness the serpent punished the Israelites for speaking against the Lord and against Moses. Adam and Eve were tempted into eating because the serpent enticed them, whereas the Israelites were struck by the serpents due to their gluttony for food.

In response to the question why the Lord saw fit to bring about their retribution through serpents, the commentaries and Midrash [11] reveal two themes. One has to do with the sin of the primordial serpent.

Since the serpent was the first to speak evil and was cursed, and they [the generation of the desert] did not learn from him, the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let the serpent, who was the first to speak evil, come and exact the punishment from those who spoke evil.

The other has to do with the serpent's punishment:

Although the serpent may eat all the delicacies of the world, they turn to dust in his mouth and his entrails, as it is said, "And the serpent's food shall be earth" (Isa. 65:25); whereas these ate the manna that takes on many flavors, as it is said, "He gave them what they asked for..." (Ps. 106:15). Therefore let the serpent, that eats many varieties yet they all have one taste in his mouth and he does not complain to his Maker, let him come and exact punishment from those who eat a single food yet enjoy in it many flavors.

Finally, a third line of interpretation for the nature of the punishment has to do with the way a serpent bites. In various sources the serpent is described as killing with its tongue, as in Job, "the tongue of the viper kills him" (20:16). Ahituv and Loewenstamm explain:

The impression made by the motion of the serpent's forked tongue led to the view that he kills his victim with his tongue... Therefore it is said of the wicked planning to murder that "they sharpen their tongues like serpents" (Ps. 140:4). [12]

The idea is clear, as ibn Ezra comments on ha-seraphim: "Figuratively they loose their tongue to bite; thus they were sent against them" (on Num. 21:6). [13] The complainers in the desert sinned with their tongues, so, measure for measure, they were struck by the same instrument.

[1] The complaints in Numbers can be viewed as having a short introductory story (Taberah, 11:1-3) and a short concluding story (the copper serpent, 21:4-9).

[2] For example, cf. 14:9-1; 15:22-26; 17:1-6.

[3] In the story of the Waters of Meribah ("Quarrel"; 20:1-13) the Israelites were not punished, but the episode ends with Moses and Aaron being punished: "therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them" (v. 12).

[4] 1) Many scriptural references mention being bitten by a serpent as a punishment from the Lord, such as: Deut. 32:24; Jer. 8:17; Amos 5:19, 9:3; Koheleth 10:8.

2) Many people view the word seraph as an adjective describing serpents, i.e., fiery snakes, or according to Rashi, "snakes that burn people with the venom in their teeth." On the other hand, elsewhere in Scriptures seraph is the name of a specific variety of serpent; for example, "viper and flying seraph" (Isa. 30:6); "serpent, seraph" (Deut. 8:15), the pasek cantillation mark indicating a pause between the two words to emphasize that Scriptures is referring to two separate items in a list of animals (contrary to the translation in the New JPS, which renders the text as "seraph serpents").

[5] Isaiah 30:6, "The Beasts of the Negeb" Pronouncement. Through a land of distress and hardship, of lion and roaring king-beast, of viper and flying seraph," also indicates that the seraph snake is indigenous to the wilderness in the southern part of the land of Israel.

[6] Tanhuma Beshalah 3; also cf. variants in Tanhuma Bemidbar 2; Numbers Rabbah, ch. 1; Deuteronomy Rabbah, ch. 7; Song of Songs Rabbah, ch. 3; and Sifre Be-ha'alotkha 83. [Could it be that the Midrashic language soref nehashim ve-akrabbim is a play on nahash, saraf, ve-akrav?-ed.]

[7] Rabbenu Bahyai on the Torah with Tuv Taam Commentary, Bnai Brak 1992.

[8] Pentateuch with Commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Jerusalem 1986.

[9] Challenging the very exodus from Egypt is characteristic of most of their complaints. For example, cf. Ex. 14:11, 16:3, 17:3; Num. 11:5, 11:20, 14:2-4, 16:13, 20:5.

[10] 1) The same was true in the case of the spies (Num. 14:2-3), and with regard to what was said by Dathan and Abiram (16:12-14).

2) Perhaps the threefold repetition here of "the people" serves to strengthen the formal connection between the sin -- "The people spoke against G-d and against Moses" -- and their punishment -- "the Lord set loose seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the people died."

[11] Tanhuma Chukath §45; variant in Numbers Rabbah, ch. 19. Also Targum Jonathan, Rashi, Rabbenu Bahyai and Kli Yakar.

[12] Nahash, Encyclopedia Mikrait, Vol. 5, p. 822.

[13] Also cf. Sforno on the words, "Make a seraph figure [alt.:fiery serpent]" (Num. 21:8): "The serpent was burned by his idle words, and likewise was their sin and their retribution."

Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.