Copper Snake

This tale describes how Israelites all grumbled
at God and Moses in the wilderness.
Although they all by biting snakes were humbled,
God cured them by a magical process
which violated laws that Moses gave
the Israelites. Much later Hezekiah
rejected idols many people crave,
refusing to allow them to expire.

Long journeys made the Israelites most restive.
Their spirit was so short that they protested,
complaining of the shortage of digestive
amenities, as often they expressed it,
declaring how they all remembered fish
they used to eat in Egypt, free of charge,
expressing for fresh cucumbers a wish,
Egyptian melons fabulously large,
and smelly garlic, onions and the leeks
with which their gullets always were indulging.
With such resentment spoke the rebel cliques,
with pockets with fresh manna always bulging.

They spoke not just against the Lord but Moses,
although they’d trusted both when at the Sea
of Reeds God saved them although their prognosis
appeared extremely bad. God heard their plea
and saved them then, but now they had forgotten
the Lord, and called the manna “loathsome bread.”
Left overnight, the manna would go rotten
from maggots that all multiplied and bred.
They’d boil it in a pot or make round cakes.
It tasted like the very upper layer
of olive oil, which led to stomach aches,
and tested every Hebrew disobeyer
who’d go out on the Sabbath to collect
the manna, though on Friday they’d got twice
as much. To be religiously correct
you had to save it Fridays––without ice!

Because they all loved meat God sent them quails,
though Moses would not nurse them like a maid,
but yet to Egypt they’d have turned their tails,
while praising it with vain rhodomontade,
complaining of the very distant land
that seemed unfit for people of their ilk;
there was no hope of honey or fresh milk––
the future only promised salt and sand.

God sent among the people snakes like seraphs,
which bit them so that very many died;
they burned the people just like Wild West sheriffs
which movies feature riding on horsehide.
While nahash means a snake, nashak means biting,
so there is wordplay at the tale’s beginning.
But wait, because the wordplay’s more exciting:
a copper snake cures those who are not sinning,
and copper is nehoshet, and God says
to Moses: “Make a copper serpent, so
the ones who look at it are cured. It’s rais-
on d’être is that people all should know
that I’m the Lord who cures those He makes sick.”
It seems nehoshet, which is copper, cures
the bites of any nahash, which is snake.
Among paronomasia’s strange allures
is healing. Words not only make and break,
but help a person who’s been bitten by
a seraph serpent to recover, if
on bible stories readers may rely.

Yet to this tale there is another riff,
for in the book of Kings we learn
the copper snake, called later nehushtan,
which once had cured the people who would burn
from bites, became the subject of a ban,
and by King Hezekiah was destroyed.
Despite the fact that Moses had been ordered
by God to make it, he was paranoid
about what close to idol-worship bordered.
Since such an image Deuteronomy
forbids, he smashed the snake to smithereens.
His acts, while clearly lacking bonhomie,
suspended most idolatrous routines
until by other kings they were restored.
When Hezekiah broke what Moses wrought,
it seems he was intolerant toward
the sort of images that Moses fought,
but then like Aaron finally accepted.
It was no Golden Calf that Moses built––
the image was of copper, not of gold!
To Moses we should not attribute guilt,
but yet the moral of the tale we’ve told
is that it’s hard for Hebrews to abandon
all images, for even God allows
what Moses had forbidden. Memorandum:
we sometimes must respect some sacred cows.


by gershon hepner

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