I once saw a TV program about some small churches in the Appalachian Mountains in the United States that practiced snake handling as a regular part of their worship services. Congregants cited Mark 16:18 and Paul’s encounter with a poisonous snake in Acts 28:1-6 as reasons they participated in such a dangerous activity; it demonstrated their faith in God and His protection. The TV narrator, however, went on to state that each year several church members were bitten, some fatally so
Snake Worship — in Church?
When the symbol overshadows the real thing
By Atuanya Cheatham DuBreui
I once saw a TV program about some small churches in the Appalachian Mountains in the United States that practiced snake handling as a regular part of their worship services. Congregants cited Mark 16:18 and Paul’s encounter with a poisonous snake in Acts 28:1-6 as reasons they participated in such a dangerous activity; it demonstrated their faith in God and His protection. The TV narrator, however, went on to state that each year several church members were bitten, some fatally so.
Faulty interpretations of Scripture? Presumptuous faith? Possibly, but these daring Appalachians are not the first to include snakes in their worship experience.
In 2 Kings 18 we meet King Hezekiah of Judah. His father, Ahaz, had been an evil, idolatrous monarch who led the nation into spiritual apostasy and moral decay. As a result, God allowed the Assyrians to capture and occupy several major Judean cities.
Hezekiah, unlike his father, “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Kings 18:3).* He knew that in order to save his people, he must rid the country of its infatuation with idolatry and turn the hearts of his people back to God. Therefore, he began a major reformation in the land, destroying the high places, smashing sacred stones, and cutting down Asherah poles.
He also ordered the Levites to purify the Temple of God, removing “everything unclean” that had been set up in God’s house to worship idols! Among the items on this demolition list was an interesting historical relic: “The bronze snake [that] Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it” (verse 4). Snake worship—at church?
Faith and Object Lessons
You may recall the story behind the bronze serpent. A few centuries before, the Israelites had been a wandering nation of former slaves following God and His chosen leader Moses through the wilderness en route to the land of Canaan. Although God always provided for the Israelite’s every need, He also tested their faith at times by allowing their supplies to get drastically low, or having them face intimidating obstacles. Unfortunately, the Israelites often failed these tests and took to bitter complaining against both God and their leaders. In response, the Lord sent “venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died” (Num. 21:6).
The Israelites got the message. They cried out to Moses and pleaded with him to speak to God on their behalf. In His love and mercy for His wayward children, God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and set it on a pole. Anyone bitten by a snake could look up in faith at this symbol of sin and be healed; those who refused God’s means of salvation, however, were doomed to die.
In and of itself, this bronze snake had no healing properties. Like the sanctuary services, the burnt offerings and sacrifices, and the holy days, the serpent was yet another object lesson by which God revealed the simplicity and beauty of His plan of salvation.
Just as literal serpents had bitten people and brought death, so Satan, the original serpent, had deceived humanity’s first parents and poisoned them with the deadly venom of sin.
Instead of leaving us to our chosen fate, however, Christ became a serpent on a pole. He became sin for us. He traded our poisoned natures for His pure and holy character. He accepted the slow, painful, and inevitable death that was ours so that we might have the abundant life that was His.
And all the Israelites had to do was look up in faith to the Savior and accept the healing and salvation He offers. And it’s all we too have to do.
As years passed, however, the Israelites lost sight of this beautiful illustration of God’s love and salvation. Some began to look at the serpent as a good-luck charm, an omen of good fortune. They began to attribute their healing, their blessings, and their prosperity not to God but to the serpent. They began to honor and rely upon the symbol rather than the Savior it symbolized.
As they had once burned sweet incense in the Temple to God representing their prayers and thanksgiving to Him, they now burned incense to the brazen serpent. Hezekiah knew he had to destroy this rival for his people’s hearts if they were ever to turn to the true God.
Snake Worship Remix
By the time Jesus arrived as a humble teacher in Israel, the Jews had put away idol worship with a vengeance, but they had created a new, subtler form of “snake worship” instead. They were vigilant guardians of tradition, customs, and “human rules they have been taught” (Isa. 29:13). At some point the Jews, especially the Pharisees, had concluded that their salvation was not based upon God and His mercy, but was the direct result of their heritage and nationality, their meticulous adherence to the law (by both letter and tradition), and the majesty of the Temple in which they worshipped.
Christ did not criticize the majority of these practices. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with most of them, except that those who relied upon them as a means of salvation had “neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). The Jews had taken the law in its most literal and technical form, and endowed it with sanctifying and saving powers that it did not possess.
Jesus pointed out that these Jews only honored God with their mouths, but their hearts were far from Him. They talked about God, but few of them really talked to Him or knew Him personally. They worshipped the law of God, while ignoring the God whom the law described.
Look Up and Live!
One warm evening Nicodemus, a leading member of the Jewish ruling council, secretly sought an interview with Jesus. Like many of his Pharisaic associates, Nicodemus was guilty of burning incense to the “brazen serpents” of his own making.
After explaining the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart, Jesus stated: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14, 15). Jesus reminded Nicodemus that it is not sacred symbols or longstanding traditions; it is not prophetic messages or even godly prophets; it is not anything we do (or don’t do) that saves us. It is Christ (cf. Eph. 2:8, 9)!
Do we have any brazen serpents to which we are burning incense? They can be objects, people, ideas and teachings, traditions and customs, attitudes or practices, even ministries and activities, On the surface they appear godly, and may even have a history of serving God’s purposes; but they now stand as idols, blocking our access to and worship of the one true God to which they once pointed.
It is so easy for any of us to value much higher what we do (or don’t do), what church we attend, or what we know than loving “the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” and writing the commandments He has given on our hearts (Deut. 6:5, 6).
When King Hezekiah destroyed the brazen serpent, he helped the Israelites see the true, living God. As we lift up Christ—not the things that symbolize or represent Him—we too are freed to experience God’s healing, and taste the joy of salvation found in Christ, our true Savior and Redeemer.
1 All Scripture quotations in this article have been taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Atuanya Cheatham DuBreuil lives in Wesley Chapel, Florida, United States. She is married to John-Antony, and is a mother of three.
ON THE BORDER: This sculpture on Mt. Nebo, the site where tradition says Moses viewed the promised land, represents both the serpent in the wilderness that brought healing, and the Son of Man who brings salvation.