And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” (Bemidbar/Numbers 21:8; ESV)
The people of Israel have had a long and difficult history with regard to idolatry. I am speaking of literal, not metaphorical, idols here. I know we can turn anything, whether material or not, into a sort-of idol by giving it a more important place in our lives than God should have. But strictly speaking, as far as the Bible is concerned, an idol is a physical artifact that represents a deity, whether it be the true God or a false god—something God explicitly forbids in the Ten Commandments (see Shemot/Exodus 20:3-5).
In spite of this prohibition, for most of Israel’s history up until the Babylonian exile, idolatry was a regular trap for the people. A great deal of the Hebrew prophetic literature includes either warnings against idolatry or threats of judgment because of it. It would not be until the return from Babylon that this particular sin was finally eradicated. In fact, as Judaism developed from that time, the rejection of idolatry became extreme.
Eventually disdain for images of any kind became part of the fabric of Jewish culture. This was the case even though the original prohibition in the Torah was balanced by the integration of other kinds of imagery, not associated with idolatry in any way. The Mishkan and later the temple included artifacts representing things of nature, as well as earthly and heavenly creatures. There is no hint in Scripture that these God-ordained items were themselves to be worshipped in any way. That God directed the inclusion of such things should put the actual sin of idolatry in proper balance as expressed in the Ten Commandments.
That God himself doesn’t have an issue with utilizing physical representations for legitimate means is clear by the incident referred to in the passage I quoted at the start. God sent deadly snakes as judgment against the people of Israel for their harsh attitude against him. As a result, they were brought to their senses and acknowledged their wrong. The means of healing God provided was quite unusual. He directed Moses to make a bronze serpent on a pole. Any afflicted person who looked at the serpent would be cured.
We don’t hear about the bronze serpent again in Scripture until many centuries later during the time of King Hezekiah’s reforms. Not only did he remove the unauthorized places of worship and rid the land of common idolatrous practices, we read: “And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan)” (2 Melachim/2 Kings 18:4; ESV). We don’t know if the bronze serpent was used as an idol from Moses’ time until then or not. Regardless, what was once a legitimate item for a God-expressed purpose had been turned into an idol. Note that the object itself hadn’t changed; only how the people used it. But what made the difference was that the first use was God ordained; the other was not.
When learning a lesson, it’s important to learn the lesson. We don’t learn lessons by becoming more extreme than what is called for. Israel’s overreaction to the consequences of centuries of idolatry is understandable. But doing more than what God says is just another form of not doing what God says. There was nothing wrong with the original bronze serpent and what it was used for. Idolatry was and is wrong. But God’s prescription for healing was totally fine.
The Jewish overreaction to the sin of idolatry has clouded the reality of the Messiah for many. One of the reasons for Jewish resistance toward considering Yeshua is over his claim to divinity. For many Jewish people the concept of God becoming a man is itself idolatrous even though it is anticipated by the Hebrew Scriptures. They refuse to even consider that the God of Israel would take on human form, since their self-made definition of idolatry doesn’t allow for any representation of heavenly things whatsoever.
It is possible that Yeshua understood the challenge it would be for his people to accept that God would come in human form. That may be one of the reasons why he likened himself to the bronze serpent, when he said to a Jewish ruler and teacher of his day: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15; ESV). But no matter how difficult it might be for Jewish people to look to Yeshua, it doesn’t change the fact that he is our only hope.