The Danger of Symbols

April 25, 2012 - 5:00 am

“He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)” — 2 Kings 18:4

Having just witnessed their brothers and sisters in the northern kingdom of Israel being driven away to exile by the Assyrians, King Hezekiah of Judah begins to institute some sweeping reforms to turn the nation away from idolatry. As we see in our verse, he began by smashing all the sacred stones and cutting down the Asherah poles.

But then, Hezekiah seems to take his reforms a step further — he breaks into pieces the bronze snake that Moses had made. What? If this was something that Moses had made, surely it could not have been idolatrous, and so what right did Hezekiah have to break such a sacred object?

The rabbis provide fascinating insight into the nature of religious symbols based on this verse. As you may remember, the serpent appeared earlier in the history of Israel while the people were in the wilderness. They had just secured a victory over the King of Arad, but still had not made it to the Promised Land. They began to complain, and as punishment for their lack of faith, God sent poisonous snakes among them.

The people cried out to Moses to save them, and as God commanded him to do, Moses created a bronze serpent, attached it to a pole, and told everyone who was bitten to look at it. All who did were immediately healed. (Read the full account in Numbers 21:4–9.)

The rabbis ask how it is possible that a metallic serpent could heal the nation of Israel? They explain that it served as a symbol so that when Moses raised it up to the sky, the people remembered to pray to God. The prayer itself healed the people, not the metallic serpent. For centuries, the rabbis explained, the bronze snake served as the symbol and memorial to the need for constant prayer to God.

At the time of Hezekiah, however, the symbol became more important than what it symbolized — it became the object of worship, rather than as a reminder to worship. And that is the essence of idolatry. The people forgot that it served as a physical reminder to look toward God and began to worship the snake itself; so therefore, Hezekiah was justified to destroy it.

We can learn an important lesson about the value of physical religious objects from this story. Though we treat them with holiness, we must remember that they are always symbols that guide us toward the Divine, never objects of worship in and of themselves.


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