The Healing Serpent: Recovering Long Lost Jewish Fragments in Parashat Hukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

From Torah Queeries, edited by David Shneer, Greg Drinkwater, and Joshua Lesser, New York University Press, 2009

When Ezra returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile, he brought a version of the Torah virtually identical to the one we have today.  All subsequent Jewish reflection on the text was recorded as commentary.  Ezra and the scribes who edited the final version of the Torah out of other texts, however, did not preserve earlier versions.  They intentionally sought to create the impression that the Torah has always spoken with one, normative voice.  They did a masterful but imperfect job of editing out diverse strands of the tradition.  Queering the Torah thus involves more than questioning the received text; it also involves digging beneath it for echoes of suppressed ancestors.  One such echo is the copper serpent story in Parashat Hukkat.  

The Israelites in this parashah complain, as they do throughout the Book of Numbers.  Who can blame them?  By now, their dramatic rescue at the Sea of Reeds and their receipt of the Torah at Mount Sinai are distant memories.  They find themselves wandering in the wilderness without a reliable source of water (Numbers 20:2), attacked by the Canaanite king of Arad (Numbers 21:10), detouring around Edom (Numbers 21:4).  With no end to their  trek in sight, they want to return home, even to Egyptian slavery.  They believe, understandably, that they are going to die in the desert, before reaching the Promised Land.  Moses loses his temper, striking the rock in anger and frustration at the people’s impatience, and he himself is punished for his unseemly behavior (Numbers 20:6-13).

God too loses his temper and punishes the Israelites for their faithlessness by sending serpents whose bites are lethal causing many Israelites to die.  Thus, the people are induced to acknowledge their sinful murmuring and to beg Moses to plead for God to rescue them.  At God’s instruction, Moses makes a copper serpent and mounts it high and visible on a standard; suffering snakebite victims who look at the serpent do not die.

This narrative is problematic for those who believe that the Torah consistently reflects uniformly exalted values and that immediately following its revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites did not engage in totemic, magical practices.  We will deal first with the values problem.

Repeatedly in the stories of Israel’s wilderness trek, we may feel the urgent need to question the narrative’s basic underlying premise: that God is a tyrannical tribal chieftain who requires absolute, unambivalent loyalty, who has a quick temper and punishes insubordination in extreme ways, and who is oh-so-merciful in being willing to relent when the sinners confess and repent.  We are heirs to a heritage, whose formative narratives demand, on pain of death, absolute obedience and conformity to the norm, leaving precious little space for multivocality or diversity. The Golden Calf episode is the classic example of this worldview; the narrative in Parashat Hukkat is but a minor echo.  Both stories of ‘insubordination,’ however, can be read as accounts of Israelite practices that were condemned only in later centuries by those who wrote the stories down.

The narrator of the copper serpent episode leaves some seams exposed. We are able to peer beneath the normative, monotheistic façade that contemporary Bible scholars tell us was constructed in eighth-century Jerusalem.  Traumatized by the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 721 BCE and Jerusalem’s narrow escape from the Assyrian siege, Judean leaders blamed the catastrophe on the allegedly idolatrous practices of the North.  That is, the North must have done something to deserve its fall.  They warned the people of Jerusalem (including many refugees from the North) not to repeat those mistakes, lest Judea fall as well.[i] 

This is the context in which the pentateuchal documents were edited into their final form, and we can assume that the editors were interested in condemning traces in the narratives of older practices and beliefs that were current and acceptable, but which they now viewed as deviant and worthy of punishment.  In the wake of the Assyrian destruction of much of the Judean countryside, they were centralizing and normalizing the cult in the Jerusalem temple, where they could control practices.  These condemnations thus reveal more about their contemporary concerns than about the age-old stories themselves.

If queering the text means questioning the norms that it sets, then we must begin by questioning the assumption that all biblical voices had the norm-setting agenda of late First Temple editors.  If they are admonishing the people not to act like the exiled people of the Northern Kingdom, then they must have been addressing an audience whom they thought were inclined to engage in the practices they were now condemning.  Thus, not all Judeans were piously inclined to eradicate diversity. Similarly, in centralizing the cult at the Temple in Jerusalem, they condemned heterogeneous practices that until this point, had been current in the local high places outside of Jerusalem, and which had never before been made homogeneous.  Contrary to the assumption of the prophets, the practices that they condemned were not idolatrous deviations from pristine older rituals; rather they were older, accepted practices that were being newly condemned.

The literary counterpart to these leaders were a group of Biblical historians often called the “Deuteronomist,” who edited the Book of Deuteronomy as well as the historical books called First Prophets and who lived in the eighth and seventh centuries.  The Deuteronomist presents Israelite history through a cycle:  we sinned, we were punished, we repented, and we were saved.  Having witnessed the destruction of Samaria and the near-destruction of Jerusalem and Judea, they urged the people to change their sinful ways and ward off further destruction, and they read this theology back into earlier narratives:  3000 were slaughtered by the Levites after the sin of the Golden Calf; many were killed by the serpents after the Israelites complained.  But then, the rest of us were delivered when we repented.  So, let us now repent and be saved.  A queer perspective questions whether the pressure to conform to a monolithic norm, developed as a post-traumatic response to the catastrophic Assyrian invasion, need be regarded as the only authentic strand that we inherit from our Judean ancestors.

Queering our text also means imagining the voices that were silenced by the redactors.  The seams in the façade of the edited text are the ancient narratives that remain.  They are cast in the text as illustrations that support the editors’ agenda, but they nevertheless give us a glimpse into our ancestors’ narratives before those stories were edited into moralizing fables.  The Israelite men are healed from their venomous snakebites by looking at the copper serpent.  They whine, having lost their virility in their inability to stand fast and firm in their faith.  Moses built what sounds like a very impressive phallus.  Just looking at it heals them, restoring their masculinity.  The story probably survived as a warning against lack of faith, but it preserves a snapshot of other Israelite beliefs that were becoming unacceptable in the eight century.

Freud had something to say about looking at snakes.  In his 1922 essay, “Medusa’s Head,” he identifies the terror of Medusa as the fear of castration, linked to the sight of female (mother’s) genitals, surrounded by hair, minus a penis.  Medusa’s hair is often represented as snakes.  Frightened at the thought of castration, men see phalluses everywhere.  The sight of Medusa’s head turns the terrified (male) viewer into stone, stiff with terror—terrified, yet erect once more. Displaying the male genitals—whether on Medusa’s head, as a giant copper serpent, or in a locker room pissing contest—is an apotropaic act, defending oneself against the terror of castration with bravado.[ii]

The Israelites are certainly terrified, not to mention bitchy.  Listen to their words as they address God and Moses: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness?  There is no bread or water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” (Numbers 21:5)[iii]  Assailed by lethal serpents, they are cured by gazing upon a copper serpent, erect and larger than life.  As per Freud, the serpent is both lethal and redemptive. 

The sequence of our questions might proceed as follows:  Could it be that earlier Israelite traditions included a narrative in which Moses, at God’s instruction, uses a phallic totem to heal the sick?  Does pure monotheism allow for that?  Had they always believed uniformly in the One God who didn’t need magical props?  The copper serpent narrative reveals a layer of primal Israelite symbolism that is illumined by Freud’s analysis.

Subjecting Numbers 21:4-9 to Freud’s analysis of the Greek Medusa myth also allows us to learn from Helene Cixous’s criticism of that analysis.[iv]  Addressing the phallocentric tradition of writing, Cixous argues:

For what [men] have said so far, for the most part, stems from the opposition activity/passivity from the power relation between a fantasized obligatory virility meant to invade, to colonize, and the consequential phantasm of woman as a “dark continent” to penetrate and to “pacify.”…Conquering her, they’ve made haste to depart from her borders, to get out of sight, out of body.[v]

Men don’t want to linger.  They don’t want to view the phallus-less woman.  Men’s fear of looking at the Medusa is their fear of castration.  Women remind them of this primal fear, so they avert their gaze.  Looking itself is lethal.[vi]  Cixous exhorts women to refuse to play the roles assigned to them in this phallocentric psychodrama.  Women need not continue to be passive, dark, and therefore threatening.

Too bad for them if they fall apart upon discovering that women aren’t men, or that the mother doesn’t have one….You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her.  And she’s not deadly.  She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.[vii]

Moses in Parashat Hukkat wants the stricken Israelites to look and be healed.  The feminist Cixous exhorts men to look at women in order to transcend their fears.  But the overwhelming weight of rabbinic tradition commands us not to look at the physical world lest we be tempted.  As an example, I choose the early sixteenth-century Italian biblical commentator Rabbu Obadiah Sforno because he represents the culmination of the medieval (hence “traditional”) approach to Bible commentary and because his allegorical reading is so clear and precise in its separation of body and spirit.  Here are his comments on the word “serpent” in Genesis 3:1:

And the serpent.  “He is Satan; he is the evil inclination (yetzer hara).”[viii] [That is,] he does great damage while being barely visible….Our text refers to the evil inclination, the cause of sin, as a “serpent,” in that it resembles a serpent, whose utility is slight, while its damage is great and its visibility is small.

The rabbis said that “Samael rode upon him.”[ix]  That  is, the power of desire leads us to sin by means of the power of the imagination, which brings to it images of material pleasure that deflect it from the path of perfection intended by God, may God be blessed….The rabbis taught that the eye and the heart are the agents of sin, just as [the Torah] warns us, “Do not follow your heart and eyes [after which you go lusting].” (Numbers 15:39)

According to Sforno and so many of his predecessors, we (at least, we men) should not look at anything.  Our eyes provide the pleasurable views that fuel the imagination and that feed desire that lead us to go a-whoring.  Look instead at the tzitzit (fringes) on your tallit (prayer shawl) so that you don’t think about material things, thereby feeding your lust with your imagination.  The threat of castration for the murmuring Israelites in Parashat Hukkat, as for mind-wandering, prayer-shawled men at prayer, comes from God the Almighty.  Don’t complain, don’t fantasize, don’t lust, or you’ll be dealt with most severely.  Images of material pleasure thwart God’s intention and will.  According to Sforno, God frowns not only on pleasure but on fantasies of pleasure. 

How can this narrative be told in a way that helps us to avoid re-inscribing the message that the other is dangerous and should be subjugated—whether it is the other gender, or the other, imaginative impulse, or the body and its pleasures, or lust?   Here is at least one place in which we are given a precedent for looking—and for its healing power.  The Israelites look at a totemic phallus and are healed.  They look because God commands them to look. Numbers 21:4-9 doesn’t have the weight to counterbalance the third paragraph of the Shema (Do not follow your own heart and eyes [Numbers 15:39]), but it is a start, one small step toward embodiment, toward celebrating physical pleasure as divine.  To be healed, you must look.

But it is not only desire-inducing material images at which we are forbidden to look.  Moses is also commanded not to look at God’s face.  Looking at God’s face is lethal. (Exodus 33:20)   Traditionally, the explanations of these two different prohibitions are worlds apart.  One can wonder, nevertheless, whether at some earlier period, it was an embodied God at whom one could not look—the One with an outstretched arm and flaring nostrils, the One who occupied a very definite physical space in the Temple’s Holy of Holies, the One seen by Isaiah in robes and Ezekiel in flight, the One whose physical measurements were calculated and recorded in the Shiur Komah literature.  You don’t look into the eyes or at the groin of a father or a chieftain and leave undamaged. 

Imagine then that we could travel to Judea at a time prior to the Assyrian invasion, before the two Israelite kingdoms had been ravaged by a brutal imperial power, before Judean leaders feared for their survival and sought to fend off additional divine punishment by suppressing what they now regarded as sin.  Imagine a society in which the cult was not centralized and diverse customs flourished at local shrines, where nobody thought it idolatrous to bake cakes to the Queen of Heaven or to cast calves or bulls to represent the seat of an invisible but very embodied God, and where serpent totems healed.  Without necessarily embracing these ancient beliefs as credible in the twenty-first century, we can be liberated by their diversity to see that norms were imposed then, just as they are today, by those who seek power and make dubious claims to ancient authority.   

Once we free ourselves from the censors, we can look where we have been forbidden to look.  Unafraid that “copper serpents” are idolatrous, we might be freer to explore symbols and rituals that are, after all, Jewishly authentic.  Understanding that we need not accept the portrayal of God as an autocratic, vindictive tribal chieftain, we might discover benign, supportive, nonjudgmental aspects of God that we had never noticed.  And rediscovering God’s body, we might reclaim the blessedness of our own bodies, affirming that materiality and physical pleasure are divine gifts rather than temptations.

[i] For a review of the current literature, see Jason Radine, The Book of Amos and the Development of Judean Political Identity, University of Michigan doctoral dissertation, 2007.

[ii] Sigmund Freud, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), pp. 202-203.

[iii] Translation from Tanakh (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999).

[iv] Helene Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, in New French Feminisms: An Anthology, edited by Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), pp. 245-264.  I thank Dr. Lori Lefkovitz  for sending me to Cixous.

[v] Cixous, p. 247, n. 1.

[vi] Cixous, p. 254f.

[vii] Cixous, p. 255.

[viii] B. Baba Batra 16a.

[ix] Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 13.

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