Have you ever noticed a similarity between medical symbols and the first reading for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (Sept. 14, Nm 21: 4-9), the one about the bronze serpent made by Moses in the desert?
That’s because various medical personnel — including paramedics and the American Medical Association — use the snake-entwined staff to symbolize healing. The rod (or staff) of Asclepius is the ancient name for this emblem, which is sometimes (incorrectly) called a “caduceus.”
Many doctors and medical personnel — including the U.S. Army Medical Corps — use the similar (but different in meaning) double winged staff emblem — the true caduceus. (The U.S. Air Force Medical Corps uses the rod of Asclepius.) The two-snake, winged caduceus emblem is correctly called the staff of Hermes, the Greek messenger god. The two emblems get confused sometimes.
Confusion is also the case when speaking about Moses’ bronze serpent and the rod of Asclepius. The two emblems date back to about the same time in ancient history — the 13th century B.C. Around 1280 B.C., the city of Troy fell. According to Homer’s “Iliad,” Asclepius was a physician who tended the soldiers wounded on the battlefield at Troy.
Fields of Troy
By the time of Hippocrates (d. 380 B.C.), the founder of medicine as a science, Asclepius had become more than a human healer. He had been raised to divine status and was called the son of Apollo. This Asclepius was so skilled a healer that he was even said to have raised someone from the dead — for which Zeus, the king of the gods, killed him. According to the legend, Asclepius received his healing powers because the goddess Athena had been given the blood of Medusa of snake-haired fame.
Biblical experts generally agree that the Exodus took place around the 13th century B.C. The story of the Exodus also contains a story about the healing power of a snake emblem.
“The healing powers associated with the staff of Asclepius and the Israelite bronze serpent may imply a relationship between the two symbols,” said Rabbi Ari Vernon, a contributor to the “Jewish Lights” website in St. Louis. “The ancient Greeks may have borrowed from the ancient Israelites or vice versa. We both may have appropriated it from another local culture. The history, however, is secondary to the lessons that our traditions about the icon teach us.”
In Jewish and Christian faith teachings, the bronze serpent of Moses came about because of the people’s rebellion against God. The Israelites had again grown tired of their journey in the desert and complained against God and Moses, this time about the manna. Angered, God sent seraph (meaning “fiery”) serpents among the people and many died. Repentance quickly followed and the people begged to be saved.
Moses — at the command of God — then fashioned a bronze serpent and raised it on a rod so that anyone who had been bitten by a serpent could look on the bronze serpent and be saved.
Cross of Christ
For Christians, the lesson of the bronze serpent culminates in the cross of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14).
Now, despite the healing power of the bronze serpent, the serpent itself was not a good symbol in Jewish history. Genesis tells us that it was the serpent who tricked Adam and Eve. As Pope Francis noted, when speaking about the same readings on March 14, 2016, the serpent was a “symbol of sin, the serpent that kills.” However, the pope added, speaking of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, it is also “the serpent that saves: this is the mystery of Christ.” Just as the bronze serpent revealed God’s healing, so did the cross — a symbol of death and oppression — reveal salvation.
Mary Healy, who teaches Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, also notes the connection between that which kills and that which heals. In speaking of the bronze serpent, she notes, “The story also portrays the profound connection between sin and its consequences. The mysterious fiery serpents (nechashim sepharim) who bite the rebellious Israelites recall the primordial deception by the serpent (nachash) in Gen 3:1-6. The people have succumbed to the perennial temptation that originated with the serpent in the Garden of Eden — the temptation to distrust and disobey God — and they thus experience the serpent’s own bitter toxin: death.
“More surprisingly,” Healy added, “the method of cure devised by God is also symbolically linked to the sin. That which heals is shaped like that which caused the wound.”
Interestingly, in the account in the Book of Numbers, God does not take away the deadly serpents. Instead, the serpents seem to remain. It is only when someone who is bitten by a snake looks upon the bronze serpent that he or she is saved. In the same way, God did not save Jesus from the cross — even though Jesus asked, if it were possible, to be spared. Instead, the evil of suffering and death remained, but through them God allowed Jesus to be raised up on the cross so he could also be raised up to eternal glory.
Pope Francis noted this paradox and said that this is why “if we want to know the love of God, we look at the crucifix.”
The lesson of the serpent rod of Moses blossoms into the promise that is the cross of Christ. The cross, in and of itself, was a symbol of the oppressive and deadly power of the Roman Empire. However, through God’s mercy, the cross also became the tree of life so that all who look upon it may be saved by God through Christ.
Sources: The “Catholic Encyclopedia; greekmedicine.net; jewishvirtuallibrary.org; biblicalarchaeology.org; W2.vatican.va; stljewishlight.com; jewishlibrary.com; ewtn.com; and speakingofscripture.wordpress.com