The Brass Serpent and COVID-19

There is a brief but dramatic story in the book of Numbers. The children of Israel are being bitten by poisonous snakes. Moses heals them by means of a small sculpture mounted on a pole:

And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

Numbers 21:6-9

Several Book of Mormon prophets referenced this story. Nephi and Alma, in particular, added a further dimension to it:

  • Nephi indicated that some people refused to look. The action of looking at the brass serpent was just too simple for them. They couldn’t bring themselves to do it. (See 1 Nephi 17:41.)
  • Alma explained the thought process behind this irrational behavior: “Now the reason they would not look is because they did not believe that it would heal them” (Alma 33:20).

Tragic but relatable, isn’t it? How often do we refuse to try something because we’ve decided in advance that it won’t work? How much more could we accomplish, how many problems could we avoid or overcome, if we conquered our fears and took advantage of the opportunities God has made available to us?

One person who is not afraid to try new things is President Russell M. Nelson. After a successful career as a heart surgeon, he serves today as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Shortly after the COVID-19 vaccine became available for his age group, President Nelson posted the following on social media:

Later that day, the First Presidency of the Church released a statement which included the following guidance:

The Church urges its members, employees and missionaries to be good global citizens and help quell the pandemic by safeguarding themselves and others through immunization. Individuals are responsible to make their own decisions about vaccination. In making that determination, we recommend that, where possible, they counsel with a competent medical professional about their personal circumstances and needs.

The First Presidency and Apostles Over Age 70 Receive the COVID-19 Vaccine,” News Release, 19 January 2021

About two months later, church leaders added the following to the policy section of the church’s General Handbook:

Vaccinations administered by competent medical professionals protect health and preserve life. Members of the Church are encouraged to safeguard themselves, their children, and their communities through vaccination.

General Handbook, 38.7.13

In December 1832, Joseph Smith received a revelation in which the Lord lamented that His children are often unwilling to receive the gifts He offers them:

What doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift.

Doctrine and Covenants 88:33

When the children of Israel were suffering from snakebites, they didn’t ask for a brass serpent. They wanted the poisonous snakes gone. God didn’t remove the snakes, and He didn’t stop them from biting people. Instead, He provided a gift which would nullify the effect of the snakebites. But the children of Israel had to do something to receive the gift: they had to look up.

Receiving God’s gifts often requires an act of faith on our part.

Today, I will accept the gifts God has given me by acting in faith. I will encourage my family and friends to be wise, to look up, and to receive the gifts God has made available to them.

12 thoughts on “The Brass Serpent and COVID-19

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  1. This is powerful. I have followed your blog through emails and I have really enjoyed it, but this is the first one I have felt the need to post on. Thank you for your wise words!

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  2. How is the brass serpent (which God told a prophet to make) the same thing as an untested drug that mega corporations are producing?

    This seems oddly manipulative and coercive to those members who truly do not want to risk their health with an untested drug to “protect” against a disease with a 99.7% survivability rate.

    Repent.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I always appreciate sincere reactions from my readers.
      To answer your question: one similarity between the brass serpent and the COVID-19 vaccines is that both were endorsed by prophets of God as mitigants for a health crisis. The day after I published this post, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged members of the church around the world to be vaccinated: “To provide personal protection from such severe infections,” they wrote, “we urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective” (https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/first-presidency-message-covid-19-august-2021).
      It is inaccurate to refer to approved COVID-19 vaccines as an “untested drug.” All three vaccines which were approved by the FDA had to undergo three phases of rigorous testing in order to receive approval. Additionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 357 million doses of the vaccines have been administered in the United States through August 16, 2021:
      https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/safety/safety-of-vaccines.html
      Here’s an article from Johns Hopkins Medicine about COVID-19 vaccine safety:
      https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/is-the-covid19-vaccine-safe
      I hope you find this information useful as you make decisions about your health and the health of your family.
      Thanks,
      Paul

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  3. Action Lad sounds like a non-action lad. Is the Covid vaccine our modern-day brass serpent?
    — We had a world-wide fast asking to be saved from the pandemic.
    — Our prophet has called the vaccine a “godsend.”
    — Given the effectiveness of the vaccine, the rapid production of the vaccine, and the efficiency of deployment – given the usual ineptitude of our governments – that is enough for me to recognize the vaccine as a true miracle and answer to prayers.
    — Now, the prophet has asked the Saints to just ‘look at the serpent and be healed.’ “Yet many would not look because they did not believe it would heal them.” (Alma 33:20)
    — What kind of people are these non-vaxers? We can read more about them in 1 Nephi 17:41-43. It is a sad state of affairs for them.
    — It is not only about survivability. It is also about the other lives that are being altered and often destroyed. I wouldn’t care if the non-vaxers died, except that I do care about their children, families, and friends who’s lives get upended by massive medical bills, death, or permanent disabilities caused by the virus. And that, my friend, is far reaching. You should soften your heart and begin to care about others.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Eric. I agree with you that there is safety in following the prophet and that vaccination decisions affect not only the individual but the people around them. My only caution is this: in our enthusiasm to encourage people to follow the prophet, let’s not condemn those who, for whatever reason, choose not to be vaccinated.
      King Benjamin made it clear that our compassion for others must not be dependent on their decisions. (See Mosiah 4:17-20.) If we had to earn one another’s love and support, we would all be very lonely! I have friends who have not been vaccinated and have been diagnosed with COVID-19. I feel badly for them and want to do everything I can to support them in their recovery. I know that you feel the same way about your family and friends.
      Thanks again for your comment, and have a great day!
      Paul

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  4. Thanks for this post. I’ve been having similar thoughts based on President Nelson’s prayer that he offered on youtube in November followed by the invitation to be grateful. In these he promised healing. So simple, right? I’m working on a similar post for my blog that will be up shortly. I believe that the world received a healing blessing in November 2020 if we just look. Thanks for sharing.
    https://choosefaith.wordpress.com/

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