The Masonic Pageant
The 29 Masonic Degrees of the Scottish Rite
MASTER OF THE BRAZEN SERPENT
The Stage Drama
The time is, again, about 1250 B.C. The place is another desert encampment of the Hebrew tribes near Punon, an area of Edomite copper mines about 25 miles south of the Dead Sea. In this degree’s story, Moses faces a revolt designed to replace him as leader. He is saved when the rebels stumble into a nest of poisonous snakes; the mutineers are killed but soon many other people are bitten and are dying. Moses has his metal-smiths make a bronze model of a snake wrapped around a pole. Any snake victims who look at the bronze snake icon are cured of their bites.
This degree teaches that there are trying times (“desert stretches”) in the life of every individual person and even in the life of nations. These times can result in a breakdown of faith and discipline. The main point of the degree is to return to faith: faith in ourselves, faith in each other and faith in God.
This degree’s story is based on the Biblical events related in Numbers 21:4-9, which, as in the previous degree, take place during the Hebrews’ 40-year period of wandering in the Sinai wilderness. The Bible’s story relates an attack on the Hebrew camp by a horde of snakes, ostensibly a supernatural punishment for an attempted revolt against Moses.
In the Biblical story, Moses was said to have cured the people whom the snakes had bitten by setting up a tall pole with the bronze image of a snake coiled around it and having the snakebite victims look at it. In religious art of Medieval times the pole had morphed into a tall cross because it had become, in Christian iconography, a graphic foreshadowing of the Crucifixion. This alluded to a popular Medieval legend that people who had gazed upon Christ as he hung on the cross had been healed of their ills (as told in Lew Wallace’s novel Ben Hur, in whichtwo Jewish women, brought to the scene of the Crucifixion, are cured of Hansen’s disease). Some 19th-century artwork shows the pole as an ankh, the Egyptian hieroglyph for “life.”
In the Gospel of John we are told that
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up that all who believe
may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:14-15)
This is one of three references John makes to the “lifting up” of Christ and refers specifically to the Crucifixion. The two other references refer to the Resurrection and the Ascension.
The folk-tale of the bronze serpent (“brazen” is yet another King James mistranslation; brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, was discovered in India and would have been unknown to the primitive nomadic tribes of the Transjordan region) is quite interesting. It may have represented one of the few surviving stories portraying the native religion of the early Hebrew tribal clans – particularly those that had fled from their homelands on the borders of Egypt. It was edited but not deleted by the Yahwist Scribes. During the Babylonian Exile (586-538 B.C.), they rewrote the compendium of myths, legends and historical events that became the present-day version of the Old Testament, substituting the name of Yahweh for that of whatever other gods mentioned in the stories. This story tells, quite plainly, of the worship of the Nehushtan, an Egyptian sacred image in the form of a bronze snake on a pole.
From its description it sounds like the Nehushtan might have been the icon of an Egyptian therapeutic cult. These cults centered on the worship of one of certain popular Egyptian snake-goddesses (Renenutet, Meretseger or Wadjet, for instance) who were represented as hooded cobras. Egyptians prayed to these icons as a protection against, or cure for, snake-bite. Anyone raised in snake-infested Egypt or a neighboring region would have been familiar with their worship and would have benefited from the placebo effect furnished by a well-made, impressive idol. Primitive people associated snakes with the renewal of life and health because they shed their skin periodically and appear to come out shiny and renewed. In later centuries, the icon of a snake wrapped around a staff became the emblem of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.
Also, many of the more important Egyptian goddesses were shown in tomb wall paintings holding a “papyrus scepter” in one hand. This is a six-foot long stalk of flowering papyrus with a long serpent coiled around it. The serpent is clearly a hooded cobra (Naja haje), possibly the same species that attacked the rebellious Hebrews in Moses’ camp. The real form of the idol that Moses’ craftsmen made may well have been that of a snake-wrapped papyrus scepter.
Around 700 B.C., Hezekiah, the 14th ruler (715-686 B.C.) of the southern kingdom of Judah, was looking around for some political public action that would show his Assyrian overlords that he rejected any connection with their hated rival, the Egyptian empire. So he destroyed the Egyptian Nehushtan as “foreign” idols (2 Kings, 18:4). Apparently, up until that time, several such snake idols had been housed in the Jerusalem Temple and the common people had been burning incense and praying to the Egyptian goddesses they represented.
The 6th DEGREE in the Southern Jurisdiction :
The 6th degree in the Southern Jurisdiction is the same as the Northern Jurisdiction’s original INTIMATE SECRETARY degree ( see Chapter 6. History and Development of the Degrees) except that the eavesdropper is named Zabud. It teaches that zeal and fidelity to one’s duty are always rewarded. It says that we are to be zealous, faithful, disinterested (not acting for our own benefit) and benevolent. We are to be peacemakers.
- Frank on Introduction
- Nanci J Davids on Introduction
- Obdulia O Erno on Introduction
- Keith B Lucore on 29th Degree
- Del Z Didion on Introduction
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