Snakes wind along the sides of a silver-plated standard dedicated to a snake goddess; the goddess is at center. The standard was discovered in a 14th-century B.C.E. temple at Hazor, leading excavators to conclude that it was used as a ritual object.

Depictions of snakes were common in Egyptian culture and were meant to ward off the danger of actual snakes. This feature of Egyptian life carried over into Israelite culture; Numbers 21:4–9 records that God sent snakes to bite the Israelites, who had lamented that they had left Egypt and were stranded in the desert with miserable food to eat. To cure the Israelites of the bites, God ordered Moses to fashion the Nechushtan—a bronze serpent—and place it on a pole; any Israelite looking at the Nechushtan (which is simply the Hebrew word for “snake” or “serpent”) would be cured.

So esteemed was the Nechushtan that after the Israelites settled in Canaan, it was placed in the Jerusalem Temple. But centuries later the Nechushtan fell victim to King Hezekiah’s religious reforms. Hezekiah (c. 727–698 B.C.E.) destroyed various Canaanite religious objects, including bamot (high places), matzevot (sacred pillars) and the asherah (sacred post); he also smashed the Nechushtan. The accompanying article asks why Hezekiah, while destroying non-Israelite objects, would have also attacked a symbol fashioned by Moses himself.