Serpents, Seraphs and Memory
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a seraph and mount it on a standard…” [and so] Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and live.
— Numbers 21:8-9
[King Hezekiah] also broke into pieces the copper serpent that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; he called it Nehushtan.
— Second Kings 18:4
Seraphs stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly.
— Isaiah 6:2
In the beginning of King Hezekiah’s reign, sometime around 715 BCE, hundreds of years after the Exodus, an ancient idol, the Nehushtan, finally was destroyed. Created by Moses and also referred to at one point as a “seraph — a burning thing” — the Nehushtan survived the lengthy era of the judges and more than a dozen generations of illustrious kings, including the likes of David, Solomon, Asa, Jehosaphat and Jehoash. Where was the Nehushtan kept all this time, and how and when had it become an idol? Had it been worshipped for centuries, or only in the relatively late reign of Hezekiah? How did the memory of its origin and purpose become so distorted in Israel? Clearly Moses the monotheist had not intended to create an idol. As for the preservation and stability of memory, the Second Book of Chronicles mentions that the same King Hezekiah repaired, purified and rededicated the temple that had long lain in disrepair. He then reinstated the Passover, and the text tells us that “since the time of King Solomon, son of David of Israel, nothing like [this great celebration and gathering] had happened in Jerusalem.” How many generations, how many tribes of Israel, had forgotten to fully celebrate the Passover? And finally, what is the connection between the copper serpent that Moses made, at one point called a seraph, and the angelic seraphim mentioned by Isaiah who prophesied in the time of Hezekiah?
To understand and perhaps answer these varied questions of remembering, we must never forget a fundamental fact: A memory is never the actual thing remembered. Memory is a strange, complex and unreliable replica, part facsimile of the thing remembered and — more mysteriously — a part of the person remembering with all that person’s acquired prejudices, predispositions and preconditioning. Our brains — spectacular, woven structures — are themselves looms, which weave our disparate memories together, cross-linking them across time, and enabling our creativity through infinite juxtapositions and permutations. In the end, our memories often are sadly unstable.
Though memory is intrinsically flawed, it is still the only way we have to preserve within ourselves something from what passes before us in the unstoppable current of time with its increasing entropy. God sent serpents to bite the children of Israel, a harsh punishment for those complainers whose memories of His providence were so short and who would not remember or acknowledge His many mercies. Moses made a replica serpent, perhaps to remind the people of their sin or on account of some ancient theory of healing unclear to us nowadays. But somewhere along the line, the meaning of that replica changed as our memories are wont to do — in this instance becoming an idol — and King Hezekiah decided the replica needed to be destroyed. But there are odd and unexpected advantages to our unstable faculty of remembering. Sometimes we can go back and make new memories out of old notions. This is the beginning of creativity and often wisdom. And when this happens, the fiery, biting, avenging serpents become not idols to be worshipped but, in the mind of Isaiah, the ministering angels hovering around the Throne of Glory, calling out to one another: Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts!
Aryeh Lev Stollman, a neuroradiologist, is the author of two novels, “The Far Euphrates” and “The Illuminated Soul,” and a story collection, “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy.”