Story of the Chosen People - Helene Guerber

The Brazen Serpent

The people of Israel were very angry when they heard that their wanderings were to last so long, so angry that they began to fight the Amalekites and Canaanites, so as to force their way into the promised land. But they soon had cause to repent of this rash behavior, for they were defeated with great slaughter, and driven back into the desert.

Here they wandered about for forty years, fed by the heavenly manna; and, by a merciful miracle, their garments, which they could not replace, did not wear out in all that time.

Very few events are recorded as having happened during those long, weary years; but we find that a man was stoned because he failed to keep the law, and picked up sticks on the Sabbath Day. Another time three men rebelled against Moses and Aaron, and wished to offer up sacrifices on the altar, although God had said that only the sons of Aaron should be his priests.

In punishment for their disobedience, these three men were swallowed up alive by the earth, which opened wide beneath their feet. Then, too, their followers were all burned to death by a fire which came out of the tabernacle.

As the Israelites murmured because these men had been punished for their disobedience, they, too, were called upon to suffer. A frightful plague killed more than fourteen thousand of them, and ceased only when Moses begged God to spare his mistaken people.

To show the Israelites once for all that the house of Aaron was to serve as priests, God now bade the head of each tribe bring his rod, or staff, and lay it upon the altar in the tabernacle. On the next day when Moses entered the holy tent, he found Aaronís rod all covered with buds and blossoms, while the others were only dry sticks as before.

In memory of this miracle, Aaronís rod was placed in the Ark of the Covenant, or sacred chest, which also contained the pot of manna and the stone tables of the law; and this ark, as you will see, was carefully treasured up for many years by the priests who served the Lord.

Terrified into submission by all these signs and wonders, the Israelites gave no more trouble for some time. They walked on and on, and in the fortieth year from the time of the Exodus, or "coming out" of Egypt, they again reached the wilderness near Kadesh.

Thus they had been wandering around the desert in a circle, and now they came back to their former resting place. Here Miriam, the aged sister of Moses, sickened, died, and was duly buried. Here, too, the people who were suffering from thirst murmured again, so God bade Moses speak to the rock and thus procure water.

Instead of doing exactly as he had been told, Moses lifted his rod and struck the rock. The waters gushed forth, but God punished Moses for his impatience by telling him that he would never be allowed to enter the land which had been promised to the Chosen People.

Still advised by God, Moses now led the Israelites to Mount Hor, where Aaron died and was buried. Eleazar, his son, became high priest in his turn, and it was he who now offered up sacrifices for the people.

After mourning thirty days, the Israelites started on again, but they had not gone far when new murmurs were heard. They were punished for this lack of faith by a host of serpents, which bit and poisoned them all. The people died in great numbers, until God, in pity, bade Moses make a brazen serpent, and set it up in the midst of the camp. God then told Moses that he would cure the bites of all those who gazed upon the serpent, thus showing that they wished to be healed.

This brazen serpent was long preserved as a relic by the Israelites. When they forgot the worship of God, they set it up as an idol, and bowed down before it until it was thrown down and broken by order of one of their kings.

We are told that the fragments of the serpent were preserved, and in time passed into the treasury of the Turks. An ambassador from Italy saw them there, four hundred and seventy-one years after the time of Christ and it is said that he carried them off to the church of St. Ambrose at Milan. where the brazen serpent is still gazed at by travelers from every clime.