The Brazen Serpent and Psychological Epiphany

By Michael Vinson


If ye could be healed by merely casting about your eyes that ye might be healed, would ye not behold quickly?                                                                       —Alma 33:21


I had been thinking about the idea of epiphany in psychology when I came across the Book of Mormon verse in which Alma uses the story of Moses and the brazen serpent in an effort to motivate his listeners to repent. I am intrigued by Alma’s use of this story and image as a metaphor for an epiphany. If an epiphany is the realization of a truth about one’s self (often accompanied by a transformation in character), then perhaps Moses’s brazen serpent can help us better understand elements of this process. Sometimes an epiphany comes through new understandings that emerge in psychotherapy, and it is also often a literary device one finds in fiction, as popularized, for example, by the short stories of James Joyce.

The story is this: while the Israelites were traveling by the Red Sea, they became impatient again with Moses and with manna—“We detest this miserable food.” The Lord sends poisonous (“fiery”) serpents among the people, and many die. Suddenly, out of fear and shame for their complaining, they repent and ask Moses to get rid of the serpents. Upon inquiring of the Lord, Moses is instructed to make a serpent out of bronze and put it on a pole. The stricken Israelites are instructed to look at the brazen (bronze) serpent in order to be cured (Numbers 21:4–9).

One of the interesting things about Alma’s retelling of this story is that he adds an element not found in the biblical version: that many whose hearts were hardened would not look at the serpent because they did not believe it would heal them (Alma 33:20). In adding this information, Alma may be borrowing from Nephi, who earlier had admonished his hard-hearted brothers (1 Nephi 17:41) with this story of snake-afflicted Israelites who had been offered a simple solution, adding that “because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.”

However, it may not have been just hardened hearts and the easiness of the way that kept the Israelites from looking at the brazen serpent: in the Bible there are taboos associated with snakes and with graven images. A snake, to the Israelites, was one of the embodiments of evil (think of You-Know-Who in the Garden of Eden). In addition, Moses had already commanded the Israelites to forsake all graven images. Yet now God tells him to make a serpent of bronze and to put it on a pole so that all can see it? In short, God commands Moses to not only go against one of the big commandments, but to also make this graven image a depiction of something loathsome to the Israelites (indeed, the source of their current afflictions), and then to have the people look to that very thing for their cure! By instructing Moses to do this, God was setting the Israelites up for an intense religious shock—taking one of the most reviled symbols in their culture and making their acknowledgement of that reviled (even repressed) object the key to their healing.


Is there a modern application of the story of the brazen serpent outside the usual realms of religious typology? Can an epiphany—a psychological shock, as it were—hold a key to healing in our day? Although there may be numerous roads into these questions, the one I have experience with is in the area of severe, painful back spasms.

Many years ago, I suffered from episodes of back pain, resulting from minor incidents such as reaching or lifting, that would confine me to my bed for weeks at a time—all this despite the fact that I had never suffered a major back injury. The symptoms and pain would sometimes shift to different places in my back.

My wife urged me to take vitamin supplements and natural herb treatments, but to say I was not open to mind-body healing applications would be putting it mildly. However, continual suffering has an amazing ability to open the mind, so when she eventually suggested I read a book by John Sarno about back pain, I agreed. Sarno’s thesis can be summed up in one somewhat unbelievable claim: most back pains and spasms are the result of repressed anger (usually against a parent). The solution to the pain is unbelievably simple—recognize and acknowledge the repressed anger. What is so radical about Sarno’s solution (and he explains why he was taken by surprise, as well, since he was used to pharmaceutical or physical therapy solutions) is that you don’t need to correct the relationship or solve the source of the anger, nor do you have to fix your attitude towards the person or change any of your circumstances. Sarno claims that the only requirement is that you identify and acknowledge the repressed anger you have been carrying. Doing so brings about a psychological epiphany in which the acknowledgement is the treatment. In other words, you “look” and are cured.

I know this seems too simple to be believed, so when I have friends who suffer from the symptoms that Dr. Sarno identifies, I simply give them a copy of his book. When they ask me what the cure is, I tell them to just read the book because if I told them what it was, they wouldn’t believe me. Usually they ask, “Well, do I need to be less stressed in my life? Do I need to take some special supplements or a diet or do some special exercises?” and I just say, “It’s actually none of those things. Just read the book.” The best testimony is that nearly all of my friends have ordered additional copies of the book to give to their friends who are suffering from back problems.

The beauty of a psychological epiphany is that we don’t need to find answers to our problems, or even to solve them—we just need to recognize that they exist instead of hiding them from ourselves. Looping back to our scriptural story, looking at the brazen serpent becomes a metaphor for the healing powers of personal epiphany: when we acknowledge something painful or embarrassing that we would prefer to repress—I’m not angry at my parents!—the way is opened for us to be healed.

It is important, however, to remember that the brazen serpent is only a metaphor for the illness; it is not the cure itself. For many hundreds of years after the time of Moses, the Israelites continued to make offerings to the brazen serpent in the Temple at Jerusalem, a practice that eventually led King Hezekiah to “[break] in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made” (2 Kings 18:4)—probably because the people of Israel had taken the metaphor literally, forgetting that its referent was what was most important—a mistake religious people of all faiths are prone to make, whether we are talking about a brazen serpent, a paradisiacal garden, or a worldwide flood. Just like the ancient Israelites, sometimes we can only be healed if we are willing to look at and acknowledge our own brazen serpents—things loathsome to us that we would prefer to repress.