What Can We Learn from the Brass Serpent?

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As Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, they came to a place where there were “fiery serpents.” Many people were bitten by the snakes and died. God told Moses to make a snake out of brass and place it on top of a pole. Whenever any of the people was bitten by one of these snakes, all they had to do was look at the brass serpent, and they would live (Numbers 21:6-9).

Incidentally, the term “fiery serpents” is sometimes translated as “venomous snakes” or “poisonous snakes” (Numbers 21:6 on biblehub.com). The phrase “fiery flying serpent” (which appears twice in the Book of Isaiah) is rendered in some translations as “a darting, venomous serpent” (Isaiah 14:29, Isaiah 30:6 on biblehub.com). “Fiery” probably refers to the burning sensation caused by the venom, and “flying” likely refers to the snake’s speed and agility.

When Nephi’s brothers refused to help him build a ship, he used this story to motivate them to action:

[The Lord] sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished (1 Nephi 17:41).

Nephi later referenced this story as evidence that Moses had been given great power by God:

And as the Lord God liveth that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt, and gave unto Moses power that he should heal the nations after they had been bitten by the poisonous serpents, if they would cast their eyes unto the serpent which he did raise up before them, and also gave him power that he should smite the rock and the water should come forth; yea, behold I say unto you, that as these things are true, and as the Lord God liveth, there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ, of which I have spoken, whereby man can be saved (2 Nephi 25:20).

The prophet Alma elaborated on why some of the people refused to look at the brass serpent:

A type was raised up in the wilderness, that whosoever would look upon it might live. And many did look and live.
But few understood the meaning of those things, and this because of the hardness of their hearts. But there were many who were so hardened that they would not look, therefore they perished. Now the reason they would not look is because they did not believe that it would heal them (Alma 33:19-20, italics added).

And a later prophet named Nephi testified to the people of Zarahemla that this story is symbolic of what we must do. Just as the ancient Israelites had to look at the serpent to be physically healed, we must look toward Jesus Christ in order to be spiritually healed:

Yea, did he not bear record that the Son of God should come? And as he lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he be lifted up who should come.
And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal (Helaman 8:14-15).

I see a number of principles in this story:

  1. We should obey God’s commandments even if they seem simplistic to us.
  2. It is important to recognize who has the power to save us.
  3. We demonstrate our belief through our actions.
  4. We can be healed by looking to the Savior: turning our minds and our hearts toward Him.

Note that, even though the action they had to take was miniscule compared to the blessing they sought, they nevertheless had to do something in order to receive the blessing. It didn’t just happen. As Elder Dale G. Renlund observed:

How much energy does it take to look at something? All who looked accessed the powers of heaven and were healed. Other Israelites who were bitten failed to look at the brazen serpent and died. Perhaps they lacked the faith to look. Perhaps they did not believe that such a simple action could trigger the promised healing. Or perhaps they willfully hardened their hearts and rejected the counsel of God’s prophet….
Like those ancient Israelites, we too must act on our faith in Jesus Christ to be blessed…. That being said, you do not earn a blessing—that notion is false—but you do have to qualify for it. Our salvation comes only through the merits and grace of Jesus Christ. The immensity of His atoning sacrifice means that [His blessings are] infinite; our puny actions approach zero in comparison. But they are not zero, and they are not insignificant; in the dark, a match that is lit can be seen for miles. In fact, it can be seen in heaven because small acts of faith are required to ignite God’s promises (“Abound with Blessings,” General Conference, April 2019).

Today, I will choose to take actions that demonstrate my faith in God. I will choose to “look upon the Son of God with faith.” I will remember that small acts of faith can unlock His immense healing power and “ignite [His] promises” in my life.

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