Nehushtan and The Israelites in the Desert - Facing Your Fears

Themes of confronting fears for psychological healing and personal growth using the metaphorical meaning of the biblical story of the Israelites in the Desert.

Feb 25, 2024

Jordan Peterson's discussion on a podcast of the biblical story “The Israelites in the Desert” has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s acted as a powerful reminder for me of the transformative potential of courage through deep metaphorical symbolism. Here's my exploration and reflection of the ideas I found most useful, and I hope they serve you in a similar way.

Note: Even if you’re not “religious” (as I am not - I think…) this story serves as a powerful reminder of the courage and healing that come from looking directly at what frightens us.

The Biblical Story

The Israelites escape tyranny in Egypt and are wandering the desert under Moses’ leadership. Despite their newfound freedom, they complain about their hardships and lack of food and water. They begin to doubt Moses and God.

In response to their complaints and lack of faith, God sends venomous snakes among the Israelites. Many are bitten and die.

The Israelites finally recognise their sin and plead with Moses to talk with God. God instructs Moses to create a bronze serpent and lift it upon a pole. Anyone who looks at the bronze serpent after being bitten will be healed.

The Meaning Behind The Metaphors

Confrontation for Healing and Growth

The cure isn't to simply remove the snakes (i.e. hide from what you fear). God doesn't magically make the threat disappear. Instead, the Israelites must actively confront the source of their suffering (the serpent, now symbolic of their fears) to find healing (and growth). This mirrors the psychological concept of exposure therapy: incrementally confronting fears and anxieties in a safe, controlled environment to overcome them.

“Looking” is an intentional choice. Looking implies an acknowledgment of the problem. It requires courage to turn towards the source of pain and your faults (e.g. the fact that you are flawed) rather than avoiding it. This underscores the bravery needed for inner reflection and psychological healing.

The snake bit you, it hurts, but that doesn't mean you should avoid it forever, otherwise the venom takes a deeper hold within you. Looking away prevents us from reaching our full potential.

Christ as the Ultimate Bronze Serpent

In another part of the bible, Christ says he has to be "lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness”. Christ’s crucifixion (”the ultimate suffering”) doesn’t exemplify avoiding suffering but shifts the focus to transforming it into potential.

Just as the Israelites needed to look to the bronze serpent to be saved from physical death, all people are called to look to Christ on the cross to be saved from spiritual death (a loss of faith). The faith can also be interpreted in a non-religious way: a deep trust or belief in yourself to transform negative circumstances into positive outcomes and in your potential for change.

Spiritual Poison

The snake echoes themes of temptation and sin from the Garden of Eden story. In this context, it represents the inner doubts, fears, and negativity that poison our spirit and lead us astray from faith and well-being. The non-religious take on this is our limiting beliefs, destructive habits and unhelpful emotions. Today, active engagement with the metaphorical snake can be achieved via methods like mindfulness, self-compassion, progressive exposure, journalling and therapy.


To finish, let’s allow Nietzsche remind us to deal with our own serpents with grace, caution and lightness:

"He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." - Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

I hope you have the bravery and strength to find and confront your own serpents. Andreas ✌️

The snake is not easy to look at especially if it has bitten you!

The snake is not easy to look at especially if it has bitten you!

Get the latest from me

If you want to hear about updates about this place (new posts, new awesome products I find etc) add your email below:

If you'd like to get in touch, consider writing an email or reaching out on X.

Check this site out on Github.