Yesterday, 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 Story
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.