The copper figure or representation of a serpent made by Moses during Israel’s trek in the wilderness. Near the border of Edom the people showed a rebellious spirit, complaining about the miraculously provided manna and the water supply. Jehovah therefore punished them by sending poisonous serpents among them and many persons died from serpent bites. After the people showed repentance and Moses interceded for them, Jehovah told him to make a figure in the form of a serpent and to place it upon a signal pole. Moses complied, and “it did occur that if a serpent had bitten a man and he gazed at the copper serpent, he then kept alive.”—Num. 21:4-9; 1 Cor. 10:9.
The Scriptures do not identify the type of venomous serpent Jehovah sent among the people. The Hebrew expression for “poisonous serpents” (han-nehha·shimʹ has·sera·phimʹ) at Numbers 21:6 can denote a “fiery serpent,” perhaps from the burning or inflammation-causing effect of its poison. This may indicate that the bite caused a burning sensation because of inflammation or thirst.
The Israelites kept the copper serpent and later improperly began to worship it, making sacrificial smoke to it. Hence, as part of his religious reforms, Judean King Hezekiah (745-716 B.C.E.) had the now more than seven-hundred-year-old copper serpent crushed to pieces because the people had made an idol of it. According to the Hebrew text the account at 2 Kings 18:4 reads in part quite literally, “one (he) began to call it Ne·hushʹtan.” Some translations leave the word “Nehushtan” untranslated (AT; Ro; RS), and suggested meanings of the Hebrew term nehhush·tanʹ are “only a bit of bronze” or “a bronze thing” and, probably, “bronze-god.” The New World Translation appropriately says that the copper serpent “used to be called the copper serpent-idol.”—See Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros, by Koehler and Baumgartner, p. 610.
Jesus Christ made clear the prophetic meaning of the wilderness event involving the copper serpent when he told Nicodemus: “Moreover, no man has ascended into heaven but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of man must be lifted up, that everyone believing in him may have everlasting life.” (John 3:13-15) Like the copper serpent Moses placed on a pole in the wilderness, the Son of God was impaled or fastened on a stake, thus appearing to many as an evildoer and a groveling sinner, like a snake, being in the position of one cursed. (Deut. 21:22, 23; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24) In the wilderness a person who had been bitten by one of the poisonous serpents Jehovah sent among the Israelites evidently had to gaze at the copper serpent in faith. Similarly, to gain everlasting life through Christ it is necessary to exercise faith in him.