🔼The name Nehushtan: Summary
- Serpent, Bronze
- From the noun נחש (nahash), serpent, bronze or oracle.
🔼The name Nehushtan in the Bible
When Israel was under attack by fiery serpents, YHWH instructed Moses to make an artificial fiery serpent because anyone who had been bitten by a real one would be saved by looking at the fake one (Numbers 21:8). The reader has no idea what the Lord meant or how all this would work, but Moses figured he'd make a fiery serpent out of bronze (נחש נחשת; nahash nehoshet or "bronze serpent" consists of twice the same word), and it worked; people lived!
Much has been written about this bronze serpent, but its enigma is still much alive. Because what was it? How did it work, not technically but theologically? How did the bronze serpent not violate the First Commandment, the one that prohibits the making of a graven image to venerate (Exodus 20:4)? In his discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus compares his own imminent elevated position on the cross with the raising of the serpent by Moses (John 3:14), but he does not compare the mechanism of salvation with however the bronze serpent might have worked. Believing in Christ is not the same as believing in anything hard enough to make it beneficial; Jesus is actually doing something on the other end of our belief. The bronze serpent wouldn't have; it was as inert as the next effigy.
Was Nehushtan perhaps based on the power of suggestion? An elaborate brazen placebo (possibly comparable to Jesus' smearing mud in the eyes of the blind man; John 9:6)? Or is the whole fiery snake story perhaps a big symbol?
Realize that in the days of Moses the production and processing of bronze was the highest form of technology, and nothing short of miraculous. David compared the very Words of the Lord to silver refined in fire seven times, which glorifies God as much as it does technology (Psalm 12:6). The hotter your fire, the stronger your metals and the stronger your metals, the stronger your army. Even today, in war and in business, victors are determined by the superiority of their technology. Being able to crank up a fire seven times hotter than normal says as much about the level of technological sophistication as it does about a country's national (and intellectual) sophistication (Daniel 3:19). And being able to stand that kind of heat says as much about faith in the Almighty as it does about the bronze serpent (Daniel 3:17-18). Perhaps the live fiery snakes (נחשים השרפים; nahashim haseraphim; fiery bronzies) represent the rise of technology and the bronze snake represents centralized protocols and standards; an early ISO 9000 so to speak, with safety and efficiency for all. And the obvious mistake is easily made, especially in a culture that is susceptible to ophiolatry (snake-worship).
What once was a good idea, can easily turn into a ridiculous cult. In our day and age, people on work floors all over the civilized world spend more time filling out safety-forms and permits that nobody will ever look at again than actually working. Valuable time is lost in the paper mill, and actual practical safety is cut short because of it. Efficiency has gone down the tube ever since we fell for its allure. Same as the Israelites. They started burning incense to the bronze serpent, completely defeating its original purpose. And they had given it a name, Nehushtan, as if it was an individual, and could exist out of its practical context.
When the good king Hezekiah stepped up to the throne, his first order of business was to remove all pagan centers of worship, and the Asherah and Nehushtan (2 Kings 18:4). But he couldn't destroy the fatal human tendency to glorify tools and vehicles. Israel had earlier "played the harlot" with an ephod Gideon had made (Judges 8:27). Their society, and that of its Christian offshoot, was once focused on That-What-Is but would go under in a swamp of symbols, credo's and liturgies. For centuries we've been looking for the Ark of the Covenant, for the Ark of Noah and for the Holy Grail, like we have no sense or any to speak of. Perhaps, when Jesus was addressing Nicodemus, he compared himself to Moses' bronze serpent because he knew that someday folks all over the world would kneel in devotion to a ridiculous gypsum image of him in his darkest hour.
In our article on the Greek verb υψοω (hupsoo), meaning to raise up, we suggest that Nehushtan may have symbolized a similar diversification in technology as prior was achieved in government (Exodus 18:19-23).
🔼Etymology of the name Nehushtan
The name Nehushtan is an extended version of either the noun נחשת (nehoshet), meaning copper or bronze, or the noun נחשת (nehoshet) meaning harlotries. Both these nouns come from the root group נחשׁ (nahash):
The most fundamental meaning of the root נחש (nahash) is that of intuitive knowledge and near-accidental skill. It describes an ability to achieve a great technological feat — particularly smelting bronze — but crucially without truly understanding what makes the magic happen: the fire or the prayer, the air blasted into the furnace or the zealous faith of the technicians.
Dictionaries commonly spread the following words out over four separate roots, but to the ancients, these words all expressed the same core meaning:
The noun נחש (nahash) is the Bible's most common word for snake. Snakes in the Bible always represent some kind of mental process, usually intuitive and usually impure or otherwise detrimental.
The identical verb נחש (nahash) means to divine or soothsay. Its derived noun, again identical, נחש (nahash) means divination or enchantment.
Either this same verb נחש (nahash), or an identical other one, also appears to have described the production of bronze. It's not used as such in the Bible but the following derivations are: Noun נחשת (nehoshet) refers to copper or bronze, or items made from bronze. Adjective נחוש (nahush) means bronze. And noun נחושה (nehusha) or נחשה (nehusha) means copper or bronze.
The meaning of the name Nehushtan is very obvious. The final letter ן (nun) serves as a diminutive, but not in the sense of making it small or cute but rather in the sense of its value. The core of the name consists of both a reference to the material it was made of, but also the overestimation of the technology it was made with.
The name Nehushtan may originally have been a simple reference to its revered origin (bronze-craft), but to the critical author of Kings, it clarifies, relativizes and accuses, and that's why he wrote it down. To him the name itself becomes a character in the story, and it means Overrated Piece Of Destructive Junk.
For a meaning of the name Nehushtan, NOBSE Study Bible Name List reads a modest Piece Of Brass and Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names proposes A Little Brazen Serpent.
BDB Theological Dictionary doesn't offer an interpretation of the name Nehushtan, but does list it under the verb נחש (nahash III), and submits "probably = bronze god" (their italics).