Why Hezekiah Destroyed the Bronze Serpent and What It Can Teach Us About Worship.
When was the last time you heard Hezekiah mentioned in a sermon? When did you last read about him in a book? If you are an average American Christian, you might be straining to arrive at an answer. Most likely, the last time you heard about Hezekiah was when someone lamely told everyone to turn in their Bibles to “Hezekiah 8:16”. Church jokes: the comedic wasteland that gave birth to the somewhat better Stuff Christians Like and The Babylon Bee—that is, until every other Babylon Bee article became about politics.
Hezekiah is an important biblical figure. He was one of the few Old Testament kings to receive a largely positive assessment in scripture. As ruler of the southern kingdom of Judah during a difficult period when the Assyrian empire had taken the northern kingdom of Israel into exile and pushed all the way to the gate of Jerusalem, he had an important historical role to play. He is remembered for his conversations with the prophet Isaiah, recovery from a life-threatening illness, restoration of true religion after the disastrous reign of his father, and poor decision to allow visiting officials from Babylon to view his treasures.
Yes, despite the occasional slip-up, Hezekiah is viewed in a largely positive manner, but it is worth noting that not everyone in his own day viewed him that way. One particular episode in Hezekiah’s life suggests that while we may remember him today as a man devoted to the God of Israel, there were some who saw him as an opponent of the same. Let’s pick up the story in 2 Kings chapter 18.
Jerusalem Under Siege
In his fourteenth year on the throne, around the year 701 B.C./B.C.E., Hezekiah was forced to resume paying tribute to King Sennacherib of Assyria after the latter had seized most of the fortified cities in Judah. He sent the Assyrians silver from the Temple treasury and gold that had been removed from the Temple doors. This must have been deeply humiliating for the Judean king, but having witnessed the Assyrians’ destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel about two decades prior, when his father first began the policy of sending Temple treasure to Assyria (2 Kings 16:8), Hezekiah likely felt it was a necessary sacrifice to preserve the city of Jerusalem.
Unfortunately for Hezekiah, this payment did not satisfy Sennacherib. The Assyrian king sent three men—named as Tartan, Rab-saris, and Rabshakeh—to Jerusalem along with a large army. They approached the city and “stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which is on the highway of the fuller’s field.” (v. 17) Several years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had confronted Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, at this same location and relayed one of the most famous prophecies in all of scripture: “Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) Now a second battle of words was to take place between the representatives of King Sennacherib of Assyria and King Hezekiah of Judah.
Standing before the walls of Jerusalem, in earshot of the Judean defenders, the Assyrian representative Rabshakeh offered up many boastful words, warning Hezekiah and his people not to depend on the support of the Egyptian Pharaoh to deliver them from their situation. He then told them not to depend on their God either, and the rationale he gave is rather interesting. Rabshakeh proclaimed, “But if you say to me, ‘We trust in the LORD our God,’ is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and has said to Judah and to Jerusalem, ‘You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem’?” (2 Kings 18:22)
You read that correctly. In a rather ironic twist, the representative of a pagan nation attempted to discredit Hezekiah by painting him as anti-Yahweh, thus diminishing Yahweh Himself.
Was Hezekiah Anti-Yahweh?
The Assyrian official’s accusations raise two questions: 1) Did Hezekiah really remove the altars and high places of Yahweh? 2) If so, why did he do it? To answer these questions, we must return to an earlier portion of the chapter, where we read the following about King Hezekiah’s reign.
He did right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father David had done. He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan.
2 Kings 18:3-4
This passage reveals that Hezekiah was attacking two different problems that had entered into public worship in Judah. The first was that places of worship had been constructed for false deities, and the people were offering incense and reverence at those locations. This was a clear violation of what are usually counted as the first and second of the Ten Commandments. “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them…” (Exodus 20:3-5a)
The second problem is in some ways more interesting. We are told that Hezekiah took the bronze serpent constructed by Moses and broke it into pieces. The backstory about the serpent comes in the Book of Numbers, when the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness.
The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.’ And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.’ And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.
As can be clearly seen in this passage, God Himself commanded Moses to make the bronze serpent, and He commanded any of the Israelites who were stricken to gaze upon it. This object was then preserved until the days of Hezekiah, when the Judeans were burning incense to it.
At this point, it is worth asking what was so wrong with the people of Judah burning incense before the serpent. After all, God had commanded them to make it. Not only that, but He had commanded them to look at it. Whereas those who prayed before wood carvings of Canaanite fertility goddesses clearly had sinful motives, I cannot help but wonder if many people in Hezekiah’s day didn’t think that burning incense before the bronze serpent was a perfectly legitimate way to honor Yahweh.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “But the Ten Commandments said not to worship images, so it was clearly illegitimate.” Yes, that is exactly what God commanded, but what if those Judeans had made an argument like this? “We’re not worshiping the serpent. The serpent points our thoughts to the true God. We are told to burn incense to God. Why not do it by this image He told us to create, which reminds us of Him and His power to deliver?”
Had those ancient Judeans had access to the New Testament, they could have also made the argument that the bronze serpent was a type of Christ, and they would have been right. Jesus said as much to Nicodemus. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
Consider again the taunting words of the Assyrian representative, Rabshakeh. He did not accuse Hezekiah of destroying centers of worship to foreign gods. He accused him of ending worship of Yahweh. No doubt, Rabshakeh had his own agenda to push in this situation, and his command of the facts seems to be somewhat lacking: the high places and altars Hezekiah destroyed were not for the worship of Yahweh. However, Rabshakeh may have been entirely right in the case of the bronze serpent. This object was created as a symbol of Yahweh’s deliverance, and Hezekiah certainly did break it into pieces.
So I ask again, why did Hezekiah insist on destroying the bronze serpent, a priceless reminder of God’s faithfulness to His covenant people? I believe the answer is that while those who burned incense before the serpent may have been intending to worship Yahweh, they were doing so in a manner He had not commanded. Remember, God never told the Israelites in the days of Moses to worship the image. He told them simply to look at it. That may seem like a small difference, but it was important enough to cause Hezekiah to destroy the bronze serpent. He evidently believed that even if the people worshiped the correct God, it was still idolatry if they did so in the wrong way.
A Cow Even Chick-fil-A Could Hate
Here it is useful to remember another case of idolatry that occurred much earlier in Israel’s history, before the bronze serpent was created. While Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the commandments of the Law, the people of Israel despaired. They approached Aaron, Moses’s brother and the nation’s first high priest, and said, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (Exodus 32:1b)
Aaron did oversee the creation of a golden calf that would become an object of worship. However, neither he nor the people ultimately created a completely new identity for this god or associated it with any of the other Ancient Near Eastern deities. Instead, they claimed it represented Yahweh, or something very like Him.
Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.’ Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.’ So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.
Whatever their original intentions, the people of Israel seem to have eventually attempted to make their image worship somewhat Yahweh positive. They didn’t proclaim, “Hail to Baal! Phooey on Yahweh!” They declared that the reverence they gave to the golden calf was intended for the deity who brought them out of Egypt.
I think it unlikely that they believed the golden calf was Yahweh: not when they had seen His glory descended upon Mount Sinai. They must have known that the true God had an existence outside the work of their hands, but that did not keep them from saying, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Though the word god is lower case there, I can’t help wondering if in some sense the Israelites thought they were legitimately worshipping Yahweh. Even Aaron said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” (The word there is not the sacred name Yahweh but the more generic Adonai.) This god was specifically identified as the one who brought them out of Egypt. The difference was that they were choosing how they wanted to approach the divine. They were setting the rules and expressing themselves according to their sinful nature rather than honoring God’s rules and behaving according to godliness.
There is certainly room for debate as to the Israelites’ true intentions, but there can be no mistaking what happened next. God declared that the Israelites had corrupted themselves (v. 7) and said to Moses, “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” (v.10) In the end, thanks in part to the intercession of Moses, the Lord did not completely destroy the nation, but many people did end up dead. This indicates the severity of the nation’s actions.
Those Boys Were on Fire
When we consider this incident in light of the later narrative about Hezekiah’s destruction of the bronze serpent, we begin to discern the importance of not only worshiping Yahweh, but worshiping Him correctly. A third story that is worth noting in this regard occurred later in Israel’s wilderness wanderings. It tells of the sad deaths of Aaron’s two sons and fellow priests, Nadab and Abihu.
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘It is what the Lord spoke, saying,
“By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy,
And before all the people I will be honored.”’
So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.
We do not know exactly what the “strange fire” offered by Nadab and Abihu entailed. However, we do know that 1) it was something not commanded by Yahweh and 2) they were evidently attempting to offer it to Him as a legitimate act of worship. Unfortunately, it was not the thought that counted in this case: it was the letter of the Law.
This was the same principle of which Hezekiah was entirely aware. He knew that even if some people were offering incense to God before the bronze serpent with good intentions, it was still an offense to that same God. Why? Because God had not commanded it. He had told the nation of Israel how to worship Him. It was not enough to say that something was being done on His behalf or, importantly, that an image could stand in for the object of veneration.
“He did right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father David had done. He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan. He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who were before him. For he clung to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses.”
2 Kings 18:3-6
Hezekiah received this praise because, unlike his immediate father Ahaz, he did not take the commands of the Lord lightly. He was passionate about protecting the true worship of Yahweh, so much so that he was willing to destroy something precious and anger a lot of people. Why? Because he was more concerned about the glory of God than his own glory—more concerned with pleasing his Maker than his constituents.
Does this mean that we should begin accusing fellow Christians of idolatry whenever they do not conform to our understanding of the RPW? Probably not. While there are important issues here that all Christians need to consider, the whole purpose of the RPW is to glorify God, and we are not doing that if we show a lack of love. These are tough questions that lead us to wrestle. We must be patient with those who are still working through them.
Most of all, we must realize that what glorifies God most is also what is best for human flourishing. Augustine of Hippo acknowledged this many years ago.
“Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and of Your wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You—man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that You resist the proud,—yet man, this part of Your creation, desires to praise You. You move us to delight in praising You; for You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
Augustine, Confessions, Book 1, Chapter 1
All scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.
 Translated by J.G. Pilkington. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.<http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/110101.htm>.