Ambulance Snake: Bible Literacy

Star-of-life-goldYesterday, while driving my 9-year-old son home from a baseball game, he asked me why the ambulance in front of us had a sign with a snake-on-stick (the “Star of Life“).  Coincidentally (or was it God’s Will?), I had just begun penning the previous day’s post on “Bible Literacy” and I was delighted to tell him.  And here is the story for you (albeit a little more textured):

Well, son, one way to understand the snake is to hear a story from the Hebrew Bible written thousands of years ago.  The snake comes from one of its stories.  The snake symbol may also come from a Greek god stories, but let’s start with the Hebrew god story first.

Nehushtan:  The Hebrew God StoryThe_Brazen_Serpent

In the book of Numbers, right after Yahweh helps Israel obliterate the Canaanites, Yahweh punishes the Jews themselves by sending fiery serpents to bite and kill them just because they were griping about their food on their trip.  But Moses pleas on the Jews’ behalf and Yahweh gives in, but instead of just making the snakes disappear, he has Moses build a bronze serpent on a shaft that cures those who were bit if they just look at the snake.  [BTW, in Jeremiah 8:17, Jahweh again threatens people with snakes but says, “this time, no charm ! “].

3 The LORD heard the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites; then they utterly destroyed them and their cities. Thus the name of the place was called Hormah.  4 Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey.  5 The people spoke against God and Moses, “(E)Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.”  6  The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.  7  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.  8  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.” 9  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.
—  Numbers 21: 3-9 (NASB)Oh yes, the actual name of the snake-staff, Nehushtan, come from another Bible story in 2 Kings 18:4 where a Jewish puppet King destroys the shaft because the Jews are now worshiping it.

But the snake on a stick has been a cultural symbol for a long time both before and after the time of Moses.

Rod of Asclepius: The Greek God Story

The Greek god Asclepius was he son of Apollo and a practitioner of medicine. The Asclepian cult used the symbol to symbolize healing.  You can read this wiki article for all the details.

Caduceus: Another Greek God Story

To make matters more confusing, Iris, the messenger of Hera (wife and sister of Zeus), carried a shaft with two snakes and wings.  As the myths evolved, Hermes (the messengers of the gods) carried the shaft.  Hermes (Roman god, Mercury) was the guide of the dead and protector of merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars and thieves — nothing to do with medicine.  But because it was a shaft with snakes, in North America it got confused with The Rod of Asclepius, and became yet another medical symbol.


Actually, the main reason this symbol probably persists in the Christian West is due to the sanctification that the author of John in the NT gave to it, needing always to make Jesus predicting his sacrificial death and to tie his life to OT themes,  by making Jesus say:

14“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
— John 3:14-15 (NASB)

Western culture is permeated with Bible symbols and Greek symbols and we may never know the exact origins of this symbol, and it is possible they both share the same common source.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

17 responses to “Ambulance Snake: Bible Literacy

  1. Cally


    This post was great! I too have wondered what this symbol means. By the way sending me to all those sites I happened to like this definition the best:

    Very simple, sweet and to the point, the next page actually describes where they got the symbol from. Truly fascinating. Thanks!

  2. Always nice to read another’s take on stuff like this.

  3. RAGGA

    But is it a co-incident that the same symbol was on Babylonia Nimrod’s crown and is found again on the Roman’s Pope’s crown? As it appears on our ermegency system, dont be fooled, this snake represnts Chitauri/serpeants/reptalia/freemason/illuminati/lucifer who control our social system, prison system and money!

  4. Just because conspiracy theories attract wackoos, doesn’t mean they are complete horseshit, I guess.

  5. Flo Bourbeau

    I just read the story of Moses and the serpent in my bible and I immediately thought about that same symbol appearing on an ambulance. I wondered if there was a connection between the two and I was pleasantly surprized that there was.

  6. @ Flo: Hey, I am very glad my blog offered some info on the connection you were looking for. Hopefully the post made clear how the symbols are manipulated and used.

  7. SlaveofChrist

    Who ever posted this commentary about the sacred scripture, does not anything about language, history, science, grammar, specially about doctrines and thyology of the Holy Scripture. That is A.T. AND N.T.. HERE IS ADVICE SINNER REPENT AND STOP PLAYING WITH THE WORD OF GOD. YOUR THOUGHT ARE EVIL AND AGAINST THE SCRIPTURE. YES IS DOGMATIC, BUT SINCE WE LIVE IN A MORAL POSTMODERNISM ETHICAL I MUST REBUKE YOU HUMAN BEING.

  8. “Slave of Christ” — your comment is bizarre. Poor grammar, poor spelling and all that mixed with typical religious fanatic insanity and caps. Thank you for validating my blog.

  9. Jack Dwelly

    Seems ironic that the serpent who brought about the original sin (that caused GOD to cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden ) would
    be carried daily as the Geneva Convention adopted universal symbol of rescue and healing .

  10. Victor Falcon

    Very good article that better explains the symbol in a biblical context and not just a secular perspective.

  11. No ones bizz

    Seems you want to insult the bible by the way you tell the story. Smh.

  12. @ no one’s bizz: The bible is a compilation of many written works , written by many different authors, edited over centuries. “The Bible” is not one book. Yes, I am indeed criticizing the way people read these various stories, and from your comment, I’d guess you’d be one of them.

  13. Frame

    Good evening, well I can say well said about the symbolic meaning of the serpent wrapped on the rod . Biblically you were so correct.

    I have been researching about symbols, signs and colours . For one to understand the visions and dreams the above instruments are very key . So the symbol of snake is a spiritual entity while the rod represents the power . There are so many of them that are not understood by many people which is why so many illnesses and mishaps are experienced. There’s a very long lost of the signs and symbols which I think will be better if authored in a book or so .

  14. Sharon sengamali

    Actually I was searching for the answer. It’s really useful.

  15. Hi Sabio,

    I appreciate your blog on this subject. I am a christian and respect everyones right to believe what they choose to believe or not. Each person must be sufficiently convinced in his/her own mind according to the evidence seen before believing in anything. If you would like further evidence to either believe or disprove the Bible, I would suggest you study the books or Daniel and Revelation. These books gave prophecies that foretold world history . This history accurately identifies the world powers that would be in control of politics and religion from about 600 BC all the way today. This is something the Bible can claim above any other religious book. Study Daniel chapter 2. Get bible studies on Daniel and Revelation. When studied correctly, using the Bible to interpret itself. The prophecies in the Bible line up perfectly with factual historical evidence. Again, no one can be convinced unless there is sufficient evidence to come to a logical conclusion. I would even suggest you try to prove these prophecies wrong. But you will have to first take a sincere look at them to do so. Amazing study guides on Daniel and Revelation.

  16. Hey Tony,

    Thank you for dropping in.
    As one of my blog commentors rules (see policies), I ask commentors to react to the post and not evangelize.
    You broke that rule.
    You did very polite, classic evangelism.
    Also, it is apparent you haven’t read any of my other posts (which if fine) but then you’d realize that you were attempting to evangelize a naive non-Christian — I am a former Christian and very much aware of all the things you are trying to say.

    Tell-tale is your phrase “When studied correctly, using the Bile to interpret itself”. This is the major problem with many Christians. The Bible, like any other ancient text must be evaluated using both historical and textual analysis in the same way we examine any other book claiming historicity.

    Both Daniel and Revelation can also be understood as retro-historical works. But I don’t want to interact with your proselytizing, but again, you can react to MY post if you like, though. It is interesting to see there are still blogging missionary Christians out there — as blogging has largely been replace by Twitter, Youtube, Instagram and such.

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