Neal Rappleye explores how the story of the brass serpent was used and interpreted both anciently and in the Book of Mormon. He concludes that the Book of Mormon’s use of that narrative reflects how it was used in the ancient world, with nearly all of the nuanced symbology associated with the brass serpent being incorporated into the text. Rappleye also details how the interpretation of the brass serpent story evolved over time in ways similar to how it evolved among early Christians.
In this article, Neal Rappleye examines the biblical narrative of the brass serpent, providing insight into how that story was employed by Nephi and other ancient Book of Mormon prophets. He also carefully discusses its use in the context of the story’s ancient origins, its Israelite application, and how it was later interpreted within early Christianity. His primary argument is that Nephi’s initial “non-typological” use of the brass serpent narrative (i.e., as a fitting symbol of the Messiah) aligns with its use in the Gospel of John (with other Old World applications of that symbol likely predating John’s gospel). He also argues that later Nephite prophets’ extension of the story as a specific prediction (or “prophecy in action”) of the coming of Christ fits with how Christians adapted the story in the centuries after Christ’s death.
Aside from those core arguments, Rappleye provides a thorough exploration of brass serpent symbology, and it’s this exploration that serves as the true meat of the paper. He begins by discussing the fiery serpents themselves, particularly the detail of “flying fiery serpents,” which isn’t present in the biblical version of the story, but that Nephi adds to the narrative. Rappleye frames this detail as a good match for how the concept of fiery serpents (śrp, or seraph) is often treated anciently. Isaiah refers to “fiery flying serpents” that lived in the same area where the brass serpent narrative would’ve taken place, and he uses the plural of śrp, or seraphim, to describe the fiery winged angels he saw within his throne-theophany. Ancient Israelite depictions of mounted serpents dating to Lehi’s day also often show them with wings.
Despite some evidence that the imagery of the fiery serpent is Egyptian in origin, the symbol itself may have come from the desert areas south of Judah, where Yahweh-worshipping metallurgists adopted the saw-scaled viper as a religious symbol. (Note: the linked video shows clearly how the “flying” adjective could’ve been applied to these snakes.) The links between fiery flying serpents and this area are further supported by ancient Assyrian and Greek sources. Lehi, himself a suspected metallurgist, may have had ties to that same area, with the names Lehi, Laman, and Nephi all being attested there on inscriptions dating around Lehi’s day. Lehi’s family would have journeyed close to this area and through the habitat of the saw-scaled viper as they travelled south of Jerusalem.
Though the iconography of the brass serpent was suppressed during the reign of Hezekiah, Lehi’s roots in northern Israel and his potential ties to metalworking might have led him to retain it as an authentic part of the worship of Yahweh, tying into the “wisdom” tradition that can be seen elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. This connects to another detail that Nephi adds to the story—that some refused to look at the serpent and perished because of that refusal. Rappleye argues that this detail, which is present in later Jewish sources, may have been added in response to the Deutronomistic reformers’ rejection of the serpent symbol.
Rappleye also provides a summary of various aspects of pre-exilic symbology related to the brazen serpent, as well as how that symbology is incorporated into that narrative within the Book of Mormon. This includes ideas related to:
- Healing, with the brazen serpent being “the quintessential symbol of healing, health, and rejuvenation” for the better part of two millennia in the ancient Near East. Nephi associates Christ with this healing power when describing that he would rise from the dead with “healing in his wings.”
- Life, immortality, and resurrection, with the serpent’s lifegiving properties extending to the power to grant immortality, in connection with snakes shedding their skins. Both Alma and Helaman use the brazen serpent as a sign that Christ would bring to pass the resurrection.
- Salvation, as essentially synonymous with healing, being indicated as such within the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, as well as both Nephi’s and Alma’s description of Christ as Savior and Redeemer.
- Purification and Atonement, with the verb śrp associated with the concepts of fiery cleansing and the removal of sin and guilt, a concept again referred to by both Nephi and Alma.
- Kingship, with the symbols of snakes often serving as the guardians of royalty, and with the serpent being used by Isaiah as a symbol of the coming Messiah. That connection is made explicit by both Nephi and Helaman.
- Judgement, with snakes acting as emissaries of God’s punishment, another concept associated with both Nephi’s and Alma’s descriptions of the brass serpent.
- Divinity, with consensus among scholars that the serpent was part of the Judean pantheon as a deity of healing and among the “sons of God” within Yahweh’s heavenly court. Alma, Nephi, and Helaman all use the title Son of God when connecting Christ to the concept of the brazen serpent.
- Being raised or lifted as a standard to be seen or looked toward. It was common ancient practice for images of gods to be lifted as standards within battle, as reflected by Isaiah and quoted just before Nephi’s retelling of the brass serpent story, with the term raised up or lifted up being used in connection with Christ by Nephi, Alma and Helaman. Rappleye describes the underlying Hebrew term as “theologically potent”, meaning not just "to lift up," but also “to exalt”, “to carry, bear, endure”, or even “to suffer.”
Rappleye concludes by explicating the ancient idea that looking to the serpent for healing and salvation instead represented looking to God. Since the Old Testament states that man can’t both see God and live at the same time, there is evidence that the brass serpent represented a type of mediator between God and his people, through which people could survive the process of entering his presence. Something similar may be occurring with the Liahona when Nephi equates “look[ing] upon the ball” with seeing God—the term "Liahona" may, itself, mean “look to the lord”.
The depth and breadth of the information Rappleye provides here is impressive, and it helps provide a partial answer to some of the lingering questions I’ve had about the well-developed theology of Christ present in the Book of Mormon. Despite the temptation to assume that such a theology had to come from Joseph Smith, this evidence suggests that many or even all of the raw material required for that theology was already present in the symbology of the brass serpent. Though direct revelation about the Messiah was an obvious factor in Nephi’s case, I could see him using what he knew of brass serpent theology to flesh out his understanding of Christ, the atonement, and the resurrection, and in a way similar to how early Christians would do so centuries later.
With that in mind, it would be interesting to see a similar review looking at how the story of the brass serpent was treated in the early nineteenth century. I suspect that we would probably see many of these similar themes reflected, given that they have been present both anciently and in early Christianity, but perhaps there are some interesting details that could provide further insight on the origin of the Book of Mormon’s narrative. But whether or not the Book of Mormon’s brass serpent concepts fit well in the nineteenth century, Rappleye has done enough to tentatively convince me that they fit well in the ancient world.