December 31, 2013 § 4 Comments
You’ve probably seen the familiar logo of a snake on a pole affixed to the side of an ambulance or embroidered on your doctor’s lab coat. This is called an Asclepian staff. In the U.S. it has very often taken the form of 2 snakes on a pole—properly termed Caduceus—but worldwide, a single serpentined Asclepian staff wound around a pole has become a fairly universal symbol for medicine and healing, used commonly by hospitals and medical facilities. Ever wonder where this came from and what snakes have to do with healing?
While its origin is not absolutely certain, Asclepius is the name of a physician said to live in Greece around 1,200 BC. Eventually he was worshiped by the Greeks as the God of Healing. The Hippocratic Oath, originally written by Hippocates, upon which healthcare professionals to this day swear to practice medicine honestly, begins with a witness to Asclepius.
Why a snake on a stick? One theory holds that in ancient times, infection by parasitic guinea worms was pretty common, and the typical treatment involved cutting a slit in the skin just ahead of the worm’s visible path (it traveled just under the skin). When the worm exited the cut, the physician would slowly wind the worm around a stick until it was completely removed. Physicians would advertise this treatment with an image of a worm on a stick. Accounts of this treatment date back to the 2nd Century BC. Today, guinea worm infections (also called Dracunculasis) are really only found in a few African countries, but the same type of treatment is still used to extract the parasite.
If we go back further, we find references to a snake on a pole as early as the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert of Sinai, which most scholars date to around 1,400 BC. In Numbers 21:4-9, Moses leads the Israelites the long way around Edom, and they grew tired and irritated from the extra hike. God had cared for them by providing manna, but they complained about it because it was too bland (I don’t like bland sandwich bread either—I go for kaiser rolls). They complained about their sore feet even though God had promised their sandals wouldn’t wear out. Their whining so angered God that He caused a sudden spike in the desert’s venomous snake population. The snakes were unavoidable, and many Israelites were getting bitten and dying. They repented and begged Moses to pray away the snakes. Moses appealed to God on their behalf, and God gave Moses a little metalworking project: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” (vs. 8-9)
The Caduceus, the two-snake version carried by the Greek Hermes, has its own history, mainly stories connecting it with the occult and its popular use by magicians and alchemists. You can buy a “Caduceus Power Wand” at your local occult/new age/magic outlet, an item supposedly depicting a rod (often winged) separating two mating serpents derived from an ancient Greek myth about a blind transsexual prophet named Tiresias. While it’s likely unrelated to the Asclepian staff, it’s possible that Moses’ single bronze snake took a detour through the occult and inspired the Caduceus. Second Kings 18:4 tells us that an some of the children of Israel completely missed the point and worshiped “the bronze snake Moses had made”, naming it Nehushtan and burning incense to it. Israel’s King Hezekiah tore it down with a host of other idols 600 years after Moses, but long before the image resurfaced in Greek lore.
This “look and live” symbol served its purpose for the Israelites, but in the First Century served its ultimate purpose for the rest of a fallen humanity. In John 3:14-15, Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This early symbol for healing amidst the plague of snakes was a picture of Christ on the cross, the remedy for the plague of sin. If we look (believe) on the cross that represents Jesus’ sacrifice for us, we live, forever healed from the disease of sin.
But if this was the intent of the snake on a pole, to foreshadow Christ hundreds of years later, why use a snake, the universal symbol of all things nasty? Why not something more friendly like a dove or a lamb? Or heroic, like a lion? Or medical, like a bandage? The answer is in 2 Corinthians 5:21, where Paul says, “God made Him (Jesus) who had no sin to BE sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (Emphasis mine) In effect, Jesus took on all of our sin while on the cross, which was in those moments too much for even God the Father to look at. But now we recognize the cross of Christ as the universal symbol of our soul’s healing, and we can LOOK and LIVE.