Why is the Medical Symbol a Snake on a Stick?

There are actually two versions of the symbol known as a caduceus, and the stick is actually a staff that was carried by the Olympian god Hermes in Greek mythology. Hermes was a messenger between the gods and humans (which explains the wings).

The image of serpents wrapped around a staff is a familiar logo in the medical field, decorating pharmaceutical packaging and hospitals alike, but snakes bites are generally bad news. The symbol of the medical profession being serpents might seem ill-fitting, but the ancient emblem actually has quite a story behind it.

Moses’ Brass Serpent Made Into A Pole
Once there was a time when a serpent made of brass made the difference between life and death to thousands of people. In Exodus 5-10 you can read about Jehovah God who spoke to Moses, commanding that He and Aaron go to Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, to request three days to celebrate a festival in the wilderness.

Moses said that, “If the Israelites won’t listen to me, how will Pharaoh ever listen to me, for I speak with difficulty?”

God commanded him, “Go and perform a miracle by throwing down your rod before him and it will become a big snake.” But Pharaoh summoned his sorcerers who also did the same thing and Pharaoh’s heart was unresponsive even after the many magical miracles.

God then said, “How long will you refuse to submit to me? Send my people away so that they may serve me. I will strike you and your people with a devastating plague.”

This came to pass, and finally Pharaoh said to Moses, “Get out of my sight! Make sure that you do not try to see my face again, for on the day you see my face, you will die.” Moses said, “I will not try to see your face again.” Free from a life of slavery and bondage, Moses led the people of Israel to a new home in the beautiful land of Canaan.

Moses was chosen by the Lord to lead his people and promised to take care of all their needs along the way. Canaan wasn’t far away, but if the people wanted to reach it, there was one thing they would have to remember: that God had set before them a promise to bless them if they obeyed Him, or to curse them if they disobeyed, and how important it was that they obey Him to trust Him in this journey.

When the people came to Kadesh Barnea and pitched their camp in the desert of Zin, a new life of freedom and plenty was almost in their reach. Then the people of Israel did something that cost them 40 years of delay and wandering in the wilderness—they refused to go on to the promised land. They even threatened to choose their own leader and go back to Egypt.

Taking possession of Canaan was a harder job than they wanted, and they didn’t believe God’s promise to help them. So because of their rebellion of unbelief, God spoke to Moses and said, “These men who have seen my glory and miracles and yet have not listened to my voice shall not see the land which I swore unto their fathers. Only their children will I bring into the land.”

Turning their backs on God only multiplied their trouble, such as finding water and food, for the people and animals were desperately thirsty and began to think it was Moses’ fault. They said, “Why did you ever have us leave Egypt? We would rather be slaves with food and water than be in this terrible place.”

So Moses went to the Lord with the people’s complaints, and God told Moses just what to do. “Gather the people together and speak unto the rock before their eyes and it shall give forth water so the people and animals can drink.”

People gathered together at the great rock and Moses struck it with his rod which caused a stream of water to gush out of the rock. Water wasn’t the only problem, though. As they tried to move on, directly in their path ahead was the stronghold of the Edomites. Fierce warriors swooped down on all who dared to come near.

So Moses sent messengers to the King of Edom saying, “Let us pass through your land, we pray, and we promise not to go through your fields or drink water from your wells. We will go by the King’s highway.” The king answered, “If you set one foot on my land I will come out against you with the sword.” So Moses led the people away from Midian till they came to Mount Hor, but here they faced even greater danger. The army of the Canaanites came swarming down on the Israelites, and the people turned to God in their need to win a terrible battle, and again God gave Israel victory.

Yet in spite of all the evidence of God’s mercy and goodness in helping them, they still would not trust their lives to God’s care. As they continuing their journey around the kingdom of Edom, the Israelites began to murmur. They grumbled to each other that they were tired of traveling and searching for water and they even complained about the manna which God sent from heaven to eat.

They not only said mean thing about Moses, but this time they spoke against God, and the time had come for God to teach the people that rebellion is sin and the penalty for sin is death. Suddenly their punishment came upon them as deadly serpents swarmed upon the people and there seemed to be no escape. Many Israelites were dying from the fiery serpents, and the purpose of this was to teach these people the results of sin and to bring them back to trust in Him. At last the people came to Moses saying, “We have sinned greatly against you and have spoken against the Lord. Oh pray to the Lord to take away the serpents.”

So Moses prayed for the people unto the Lord what to do. God said, “Make the fiery serpent of brass and set it upon a pole. Everyone that was bitten can look upon it and shall live.” And it happened just as God said. And those who looked upon the brazen serpent lived because they believed what God had said and turned to Him in faith for forgiveness. But those who turned away died because they did not believe God and rebelled against Him.

As God provided for the Israelites a way to be free from the penalty of their sins, God has provided a way for us to be forgiven of our sins. When Jesus died on the cross of Calvary to pay the penalty for our sin, the real meaning of the serpent of brass became clear. John 3:14-15 says, “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.”



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