The people, in their pain, asked God to forgive them for criticising Him. God now told Moses to make a serpent of brass and place it on a pole, so that if anyone were bitten they could look up at the brass serpent and be cured.
It’s all a great puzzle. Obviously the subject of the serpents has some hidden meaning – but what can that meaning be?
The two elements of the story seem to be suffering and cure, both represented by the same symbol.
Rashi says (quoting the Mishnah in RH 29a) that the story teaches that whenever we suffer we should look upwards to God – otherwise we may die in our agony.
The Ramban calls it “a miracle within a miracle” – the disease being healed by its own cause. The analogy to modern methods of healing is rather evident.
Looked at in this sense we understand a verse from elsewhere in the Bible – “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). One and the same faculty – human speech – can bring us pain but we can overcome it by using the same faculty in a constructive, loving way.
A medieval moralist (Yonah ben Avraham Gerondi) writes that whatever part of the body caused sin can be utilised to bring atonement – if we used our feet to walk astray (see Psalm 1), we can now bring recovery by walking to do a good deed; if we used our hands to do a violent act we should now use the hands to embrace and support another person.
As an illustration we might quote Jacob Epstein who as a boy crushed a bird to death in his hands; thereafter he determined to use his hands to create beautiful works of sculpture.