Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


Nehushtan (Heb. ןָּתְשֻחְנ) is the name of the copper serpent that King Hezekiah broke into pieces (II Kings 18:4). The name suggests both its serpentine shape (naḥash) as well as the material (neḥoshet) of which it was made. Since the smashing of the copper serpent parallels the shattering of the pillars and the cutting down of the Asherah (ibid.), it was probably located in the Temple court in Jerusalem. It was thus one of the cultic symbols of the people who assembled in the Temple courts. Like the local shrines (bamot), however, and like the two other objects named in the verse, it was illegitimate in the Deuteronomic view, in accordance with which Hezekiah abolished the former and destroyed the latter (ibid.).

The Nehushtan probably stood in the Temple court, and the people believed that it had the power of curing sicknesses. Serpents are also associated with fertility. In this respect the copper serpent differed from the cherubim, whose location was in the innermost sanctum of the Temple, hidden from human sight.

Some scholars hold that the copper serpent in Jerusalem was set near

“the stone of Zoheleth (“the crawler’s [i.e., serpent’s] stone”), which is beside En-Rogel” (I Kings 1:9), that is, outside the Temple enclosure. However, there are no grounds for connecting the copper serpent with the stone of Zoheleth. At the latter, sheep and oxen were sacrificed (ibid.), whereas only meal-offerings were offered to the copper serpent.

The account in Numbers 21:6–9 states that its form was that of a saraf, traditionally, a “fiery serpent.” It probably had wings, for so serafim are described in the Bible (cf. Isa. 14:29; 30:6). Herodotus (2:75; 3:109) also states that in his day people told of the existence of flying serpents in the Arabian desert.

Some scholars assume that the copper serpent entered the Israelite cult as a Canaanite heritage and only popular belief ascribed it to Moses, but this is to assume that we know more about “popular” vs. “official” religion in ancient Israel than we do. (For the problem of “official” vs. “popular,” see Berlinerblau.) M. Noth contends that this tradition is somewhat later than the others associated with the Exodus from Egypt, since it can only have arisen after David had captured Jerusalem. H. Gressmann suggested that Moses adopted the copper serpent from the Midianites, but this has been rejected by other scholars. Ackerman believes that Asherah was connected with serpents so that the destruction of Asherah and the serpent would likewise be connected. Note that Nehushta, a name similar to that of the serpent, was borne by the mother of King Jehoiakin (II Kings 24:8).


T. Noeldeke, in: ZDMG, 12 (1888), 482; H. Gressmann, Mose und seine Zeit (1913), 284–5; W.F. Albright, in: AJSLL, 36 (1920), 258–94; S.A. Cook, The Religion of Ancient Palestine in the Light of Archaeology (1930), 98ff., 117–20; M. Noth, Überlieferungsgeschichte des Pentateuch (1948), 133–4; M. Haran, in: VT, 10 (1960), 117–8. ADD BIBLIOGRAPHY: E. Williams-Forte, in: E. Williams-Forte and L. Gorelick (eds.), Ancient Seals and the Bible (with illustrations; 1983), 18–43; M. Cogan and H. Tadmor, II Kings (AB; 1988), 217; S. Ackerman, in: JBL, 112 (1993), 385–401; J. Berlinerblau: in, R. Chazan et al (eds., Ki Baruch Hu … Studies B.A. Levine (1999), 153–70

[Menahem Haran /

S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.