Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Philo on the Fiery Serpents and the Brazen Serpent

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Philo on the Brazen Serpent of Moses

Bronze Snake - Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld - Die Bibel in Bildern (1851-60).  Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

Num 21:6-9
6. And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

7. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

8. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

9. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

Philo of AlexandriaAllegorical Interpretation 2.77-87, 93

XIX. … (77) On this account, too, that part in us which is analogous to the people, and which acts the part of a multitude, when it seeks “the houses in Egypt,”{#nu 21:5.} that is to say, in its corporeal habitation, becomes entangled in pleasures which bring on death; not that death which is a separation of soul and body, but that which is the destruction of the soul by vice. For Moses says, “And the Lord God sent among the people deadly serpents, and

they bit the people, and a great multitude of the children of Israel Died.” {#nu 21:6.} For in real truth there is nothing which so much bringeth death upon the soul as an immoderate indulgence in pleasures.

(78) And that which perishes is not the dominant portion in us but the subject one, that which acts the part of the multitude; and it receives death up to this point, namely, until it turns to repentance, and confesses its sin, for the Israelites, coming to Moses, say, “We have sinned in that we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray, therefore, for us to the Lord, and let him take away the serpents from us.” It is well put here, not we have sinned because we have spoken against the Lord, but because we were inclined to sin we have spoken against the Lord, for when the mind sins and departs from virtue, it blames divine things, imputing its own sins to God.

XX. (79) How, then, can there be any remedy for this evil? When another serpent is created, the enemy of the serpent which came to Eve, namely, the word of temperance: for temperance is opposite to pleasure, which is a varied evil, being a varied virtue, and one ready to repel its enemy pleasure. Accordingly, God commands Moses to make the serpent according to temperance; and he says, “Make thyself a serpent, and set it up for a sign.” Do you see that Moses makes this serpent for no one else but for himself? for God commands him, “Make it for thyself,” in order that you may know that temperance is not the gift of every one, but only of that man who loves God.

(80) And we must consider why Moses makes a brazen serpent, when no command was given to him respecting the material of which it was to be formed. May it not have been for this reason? In the first place, the graces of God are immaterial, being themselves only ideas, and destitute of any distinctive quality; but the graces of mortal men are only beheld in connection with matter. In the second place, not only does Moses love the incorporeal virtues, but our own souls, not being able to put off their bodies, do likewise aim at corporeal virtue,

(81) and reason, in accordance with temperance, is likened to the strong and solid substance of brass, inasmuch as it is form and not easily cut through. And perhaps brass may also have been selected inasmuch as temperance in the man who loves God is a most honourable thing, and like gold; though it has only a secondary place in a man who has received wisdom and improved in it. “And whomsoever the one serpent bites, if he looks upon the brazen serpent shall live:” in which Moses speaks truly, for if the mind that has been bitten by pleasure, that is by the serpent which was sent to Eve, shall have strength to behold the beauty of temperance, that is to say, the serpent made by Moses in a manner affecting the soul, and to behold God himself through the medium of the serpent, it shall live. Only let it see and contemplate it intellectually.

XXI. (82) Do you not see that wisdom when dominant, which is Sarah, says, “For whosoever shall hear it shall rejoice with Me.”{24}{#ge 21:6.} But suppose that any were able to hear that virtue has brought forth happiness, namely, Isaac, immediately he will sing a congratulatory hymn. As, therefore, it can only be one who has heard the news that can sympathise in one’s joy, so also it can only be he who has clearly seen temperance and God, who is safe from death.

(83) But many souls that have been in love with perseverance and temperance, when removed to a distance from the passions, have nevertheless withstood the power of God, and have undergone a change for the worse, while their Master has made a display of himself and of the work of creation; of himself, that he is always immovable, and of the work of creation, that it vibrates as if in a scale, and inclines opposite ways at different times.

(84) For Moses speaks to the Israelites of God, “Who led ye then through that great and terrible wilderness, where there were biting serpents, and scorpions, and thirst; where there was no water? who brought forth for thee out of the hard rock a fountain of water? who fed thee with manna in the desert, which thy fathers knew Not?“{25}{#de 8:14.} Do you not see that not only did the soul, while longing for the passions which prevailed in Egypt, fall under the power of the serpents, but that, also, while it was in the wilderness, it was bitten by pleasure, that affection of varied and serpent-like appearance? And the work of pleasure has received a most appropriate name, for it is called a biting.

(85) Moreover, not only they who were in the desert were bitten by serpents, but also they who were scattered abroad, for I, also, often having left the men who were my kinsmen and my friends, and my country, and having gone into the desert in order that I might perceive some of those things which are worthy of being beheld, have profited nothing. But my mind, being separated from me, or being bitten by passion, has withdrawn towards the things opposite to them. And there are times when in the midst of a multitude composed of infinite numbers of men, I can bring my mind into solitude, God having scattered for me the crowd which perplexes my soul, and having taught me that it is not the difference of place that is the cause of good an devil, but rather God, who moves and drives this vehicle of the soul wherever he pleases.

(86) Moreover, the soul falls in with a scorpion, that is to say, with dispersion in the wilderness; and the thirst, which is that of the passions, seizes on it until God sends forth upon it the stream of his own accurate wisdom, and causes the changed soul to drink of unchangeable health; for the abrupt rock is the wisdom of God, which being both sublime and the first of things he quarried out of his own powers, and of it he gives drink to the souls that love God; and they, when they have drunk, are also filled with the most universal manna; for manna is called something which is the primary genus of every thing. But the most universal of all things is God; and in the second place the word of God. But other things have an existence only in word, but in deed they are at times equivalent to that which has no existence.

XXII. (87) See now the difference between him who turns to sin in the desert and him who sins in Egypt. For the one is bitten by serpents which cause death, that is to say by insatiable pleasures which inflict death; but the other, he who meditates in the wilderness, is only bitten by pleasure and driven astray, but is not killed. And the one, indeed, is healed by temperance, which is the brazen serpent which was made by the wise Moses; but the other is supplied by God with a most beautiful draught to drink, namely, wisdom, from the fountain which He himself has brought forth out of his own wisdom.

(88) Nor, indeed, does the pleasure which is in the form of a serpent, abstain from attacking that most sincere lover of God, Moses, for we read as follows; “If, therefore, they will not obey me, nor listen to my voice–for they will say, God has not been seen by you–what shall I say to them? And the Lord said unto Moses, What is that which is in thy hand? And he said, A rod. And God said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses fled from it. And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch forth thy hand, and take hold of it by the tail. And having stretched forth his hand, he took hold of it by the tail, and it became a rod in his hand. And the Lord said unto him, That they may believe Thee.”{26}{#ex 4:3.}

(89) How can any one believe God? If he has learnt that all other things are changed, but that he alone is unchangeable. Therefore, God asks of the wise Moses what there is in the practical life of his soul; for the hand is the symbol of action. And he answers, Instruction, which he calls a rod. On which account Jacob the supplanter of the passions, says, “For in my staff did I pass over this Jordan.”{27}{#ge 32:10.} But Jordan being interpreted means descent. And of the lower, and earthly, and perishable nature, vice and passion are component parts; and the mind of the ascetic passes over them in the course of its education. For it is too low a notion to explain his saying literally; as if it meant that he crossed the river, holding his staff in his hand.

(93) but it will be in your hand, that is in the action of a wise man, which, indeed, is true. But it is impossible to take hold of and to master pleasure, unless the hand be first stretched out, that is to say, unless the soul confesses that all actions and all progress is derived from God; and attributes nothing to himself. Accordingly he, when he saw this serpent, decided to flee from it? But he prepared another principle, that of temperance, which is the brazen serpent: that whosoever was bitten by pleasure, when he looked on temperance, might live a real life.

Philo of AlexandriaOn Agriculture (On Husbandry; De Agr) 95-99

XXI. (94) It is not unnaturally, therefore, that Moses, singing his song of triumph on the destruction of the riders, nevertheless prays fore complete safety for the horsemen; for these are able, putting their bridles into the mouths of the irrational powers, to check the impetuosity of their superabundant violence. What then his prayer is must be told: he says, “Let Dan be a serpent in the way, sitting in the path, biting the heel of the horse; and the horseman shall fall backwards, awaiting the salvation of the Lord.”{14}{#ge 49:17.}

(95) But we must explain what is the enigmatical meaning which he conceals under this prayer, the name of Dan, being interpreted, means “judgment;” therefore he here likens that power of the soul which investigates, and accurately examines, and distinguishes between, and, in some degree, decides on each part of the soul, to a dragon (and the dragon is an animal various in its movements, and exceedingly cunning, and ready to display its courage, and very powerful to repel those who begin acts of violence), but not to that friendly serpent, the counsellor of life, which is wont to be called Eve in his national language, but to the one made by Moses, of the material of brass, which, when those who had been bitten by the poisonous serpents, and who were at the point of death beheld, they are said to have lived and not to have died.

XXII. (96) And these things thus expressed resemble visions and prodigies; I mean the account of one dragon uttering the voice of a man and pouring his sophistries into most innocent dispositions, and deceiving the woman with plausible arguments of persuasion; and of another becoming a cause of complete safety to those who looked upon it.

(97) But, in the allegorical explanations of these statements, all that bears a fabulous appearance is got rid of in a moment, and the truth is discovered in a most evident manner. The serpent, then, which appeared to the woman, that is to life depending on the outward senses and on the flesh, we pronounce to have been pleasure, crawling forward with an indirect motion, full of innumerable wiles, unable to raise itself up, ever cast down on the ground, creeping only upon the good things of the earth, seeking lurking places in the body, burying itself in each of the outward senses as in pits or caverns, a plotter against man, designing destruction to a being better than itself, eager to kill with its poisonous but painless bite. But the brazen serpent, made by Moses, we explain as being the disposition opposite to pleasure, namely, patient endurance, on which account it is that he is represented as having made it of brass, which is a very strong material.

(98) He, then, who with sound judgment contemplates the appearance of patient endurance, even if he has been previously bitten by the allurements of pleasures, must inevitably live; for the one holds over his soul a death to be averted by no prayers, but self-restraint proffers him health and preservation of life; and temperance, which repels evils, is a remedy and perfect antidote for intemperance.

(99) And every wise man looks upon what is good as dear to him, which is also altogether calculated to ensure his preservation. So that when Moses prays that it may happen to Dan, either himself, to be that serpent (for the words may be understood in either sense), he means a serpent closely resembling the one which has been made by himself, but not like the one which appeared to Eve, for then the prayer is an entreaty for good things;

(100) therefore the character of patient endurance is good, and capable of receiving immortality, which is the perfect good. But the character of pleasure is evil, bringing in its train the greatest of all punishments, death. On which account Moses says, “Let Dan become a serpent,” and that not in any other place rather than in the road.

(101) For the indulgences of intemperance and gluttony, and whatever other vices the immoderate and insatiable pleasures, when completely filled with an abundance of all external things, produce and bring forth, do not allow the soul to proceed onwards by the plain and straight road, but compel it to fall into ravines and gulfs, until they utterly destroy it; but those practices which adhere to patience, and endurance, and moderation, and all other virtues, keep the soul in the straight road, leaving no stumbling block in the way, against which it can stumble and fall. Very naturally, therefore, has Moses declared that temperance clings to the right way, because it is plain that the contrary habit, intemperance, is always straying from the road.


Written by John Uebersax

March 20, 2010 at 4:36 pm

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