“Is it true that the Brazen Serpent lifted up by Moses in the wilderness symbolized Christ?” Ensign, Sept. 1983, 49
Ermel J. Morton, patriarch in the Rexburg Idaho East Stake and retired instructor at Ricks College. The use of the serpent as a symbol of divinity was used by many ancient cultures, including the descendents of the Book of Mormon people. In Mesoamerica, the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl (coatl meaning serpent), was for centuries used as a symbol of a great white God who visited their ancestors.
However, I believe that the comparison in Numbers 21:5–9 is a simile; and like all similes that are correctly constructed, it has only one point of comparison. [Num. 21:5–9] The point of similarity here is the lifting up of the serpent and the lifting up of Christ, both for the purpose of healing the people. That this is the point of comparison is seen from a statement of the Savior in the Gospel of John:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
“That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:14–15.)
The correlative conjunctions as and so join the verbs lifted up, in the case of the serpent, and must be lifted up, in the case of the Savior. It is the two actions of lifting up that are being compared, together with the purpose of the lifting up—that of healing, the one for the healing of the Israelites from poisonous snake bites and the other for the healing of mankind from sin.
Moses raised up the image of a serpent on the pole because the Lord commanded him to do so. (See Num. 21:8.) It may be that the Lord used this symbol to point their minds toward faith in him as a means of healing them. If they would but look up at the serpent and exercise faith in the words of Moses, they would be healed. In the same way, a person who will look up to Christ and his atoning sacrifice, as culminated on the cross, and will exercise faith in Christ will be healed. Nephi, the son of Lehi, states that the Lord gave Moses the power to heal the people. The power of healing, therefore, was not in the Brazen Serpent but in obedience to the instructions of Moses. Note Nephi’s explanation:
“And as the Lord God liveth that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt, and gave Moses power that he should heal the nations [tribes of Israel] 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 …” (2 Ne. 25:20; italics added).
Similarly, Alma describes the Brazen Serpent as a type or symbol for the healing of the people, not the source of the healing.
“Behold, he [Christ] was spoken of by Moses; yea, and behold a type [symbol] 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.)
The evident meaning of Alma’s statement is that obedience to the command given through Moses to look on the serpent brought healing just as obedience to the command of God to look on His Son for a remission of sins brings healing. Here again the source of the healing of the Israelites was not the serpent but rather their obedience to the command of God through Moses.
Nephi, the son of Helaman, also made some interesting comments on the comparison:
“Yea, did he [Moses] 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.” (Hel. 8:14–15; italics added.)
It is evident that Moses used the lifting up of the serpent as a symbol to represent healing through Christ. He bore testimony of Christ’s atonement and used the Brazen Serpent as a teaching cerning salvation and the forgiveness of sins through the atonement of the Savior.