The brazen serpent. Chapel, Keble College, Oxford, designed by William Butterfield. The Book of Numbers relates that after the Lord sent a plague of serpents to punish the Jews for their lack of faith, Moses interceded with God and was instructed:

Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live" (Numbers 21:8).

John 3:14, in which Christ proclaims "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wildemess, even so must the Son of man be lifted up," taught Christians to see the brazen serpent as a divinely authenticated type of the Crucifixion, but commentators also emphasize that it is an image of saving faith. According to the usual reading of this type, the brazen serpent in the wilderness, which God gave to the people when they repented of their lack of faith, teaches man that he can be saved only by faith in Christ crucified.

Commentators like Thomas Scott emphasize that the brazen serpent is an image of saving faith precisely because the actions commanded by God were themselves so apparently unlikely to produce any beneficial result, and, similarly, without the eye of faith one would hardly think that salvation could conceivably come from gazing with belief at some person suffering painful execution. The commentators also remark that Moses set up the brass image upon a pole in the midst of the Israelite camp, like a standard.

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Photograph, formatting, and text by George P. Landow. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Thompson, Paul. William Butterfield, Victorian Architect. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971.

Last modified 25 August 2012