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The Staff of Asklepios and the Brazen Serpent

By Barry Wilkins.

When I qualified as a doctor I was not required, mercifully, to 'take' the Hippocratic Oath, which begins, 'I swear by Asklepios and [his daughters] Hygieia [hygiene] and Panakeia [panacea] …'.[1] Asklepios was the mythological Greek god of medicine. Associated with him is an emblem consisting of a staff or pole entwined by a snake, of ancient origin. It is adopted into many medical symbols, including insignia of the British Medical Association and the WHO.

Closely resembling it, but without any obvious connection, is the brazen [bronze] serpent that God commanded Moses to make in Numbers 21:4-9 after a plague of 'fiery' snakes beset the people of Israel when they complained against God and Moses; 'Make a fiery serpent and set it on a standard [i.e. lift it up as a visible insignia of their predicament], and everyone who is bitten and looks on it shall live.' The attached image, captured in Jordan a few years ago, is of a modern bronze sculpture of this atop Mount Nebo whence Moses looked upon the Promised Land, never to enter it himself. The real thing was discovered hundreds of years after the wilderness experience by the good King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4) who destroyed it because the people had been worshipping it instead of the Living God who had rescued them countless times. It was then nicknamed Nehushtan, this being derived from the Hebrew for 'snake' and for 'bronze', the two words themselves being very close.

When we encounter Nicodemus in John 3:14-15, Jesus says to him, “And 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.” He was referring here to his coming death on the cross, where, as St Paul describes graphically, in 2 Corinthians 5:21, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin." And in Galatians 3:13 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law [2] by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (quoting Deuteronomy 21:22).

It is a wonderful thing that snake-bitten, sinful Israelites in the wilderness could be saved by looking, as it were, upon their sin represented by the serpent (same word as the serpent in Eden in Genesis 3) on the pole. It looks forward to and typifies, the great deliverance wrought by our Christ on his 'tree'. What an amazing thing that our sin did not remain there, nailed there as an advertisement. But that our Lord rose again to win the ultimate victory that the bronze snake never could achieve. The emblem of our sin (Christ on the cross) has been replaced by the insignia of new life in Christ (the resurrection). The Pharisee, Nicodemus, was won over, it seems, because there he is, after Jesus's death, assisting Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:39), "Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of [herbs] ... ".

My friends, do we not all come to Jesus' by night', as it were, because of our sinful natures? But if we look upon the cross, and see Jesus there, 'made sin for us', and believe that our sins are forgiven, then we live in the daylight of his victory.

P.S. For a superb sermon by Charles Spurgeon on John 3:14 and the brazen serpent, see

[1] Apart from the opening invocation, the rest of the Hippocratic Oath is good stuff, about doing the right thing by your patients.

[2] The ‘curse of the law’ is not that the law was ineffective or bad, rather it is that we cannot possibly keep any of it, let alone all of it, and therefore it kills us spiritually.


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