“Save It Be This Jesus Christ”

Alan C. Miner

In chapter 25 of 2 Nephi, after Nephi has introduced the title “Christ” (the Anointed) for the Messiah, he then launches into the story of Moses leading the nation of Israel out of bondage in the land of Egypt. “The Lord God … gave unto Moses power that he should heal the nations after they have been bitten by the poisonous serpents, if they would cast their eyes unto the serpent which he did raise up before them …” (2 Nephi 25:20). Hugh Nibley asks, “Can someone please explain to us how he could heal them by the serpent if they had been made mortally ill by the bite of a serpent?” Remember, we are told [in Numbers 21:6-9] that the serpents came in great numbers and bit the people. Moses raised a brazen serpent on a staff, and whoever looked at the serpent would be healed. So by the curse the curse is removed? What is the point of that? And what do they mean by “washed white in the blood of the Lamb”? Why would the blood of the Lamb wash you white? [That is, both the example of a serpent healing and blood washing white seem paradoxical, so what is the explanation?] The key is ambivalent meaning. It’s explained [scripturally] in the Book of Mormon and nowhere else what these things mean.

The serpent, of course, is the most ambivalent of emblems. You know what the caduceus is, the emblem of doctors. You know the caduceus is the two serpents intertwined, which is the sign of the healer. Aesculapius founded it, but it was originally the staff of Hermes. There were two serpents copulating on a staff. He picked it up and made it his symbol. The one stands for life and the other for death. There are always the two serpents. To this day in the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Serbian Church, the staff of the archbishop, head of the church, always consists of a cross with two serpents entwined on it. There are two serpents facing each other on the cross. It’s a strange thing; they go back like this and face each other. All the episcopal staves and patriarchal staves of the Orient and the old eastern churches have the two serpents. One is life and the other is death, and you must have both--this opposition in all things. It’s very clear among the Hopis in the snake dance… . and this is an Egyptian formula too. You must pass through the serpent. In this earth we must pass through the serpent; we go to the lowest stage… . But the two serpents are the serpents that oppose each other and they represent both parts of life. We have to have life, and we have to have death. On this earth the two go together. The bite of the serpent ends it, but by the serpent are we saved. Obviously, the reason the Egyptians take the serpent as a symbol of resurrection is that it sheds its skin and becomes really new and shiny every year. It leaves its old skin behind. Everything is left behind and out it comes like a new creature, reborn. It’s one of the most striking symbols of rebirth… . Anyway, the ambivalence of the serpent is very ancient, and it’s a symbol that was understood by the ancients. But a thing like that seems so contradictory to us; it’s not so, though. [Hugh W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 1, pp. 328-329] [Note* For a discussion on the symbolism of blood turning a garment white, see the commentary on 2 Nephi 5:21.] [Note* Moses was a symbol of Joseph Smith & Christ: see the commentary on 2 Nephi 3:9.] [See the commentary on Helaman 8:14-15]

Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon: A Cultural Commentary