Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

A snake for protection rises from the forehead of the golden burial mask of Psusennes I (1039–991 B.C.E.), the third king of the 21st Dynasty. The Uraeus, an Egyptian symbol of royalty worn on the headdress of pharaohs and deities, acted as a safeguard: On a diadem, it protected the pharaoh from his enemies; on an amulet, it shielded its wearer from other snakes.

Recognizing the Egyptian origins of the snake symbol, the accompanying article argues, helps us understand King Hezekiah’s motive in destroying the Nechushtan in the Jerusalem Temple. Hezekiah’s act came in the wake of Assyria’s devastating attack on Judah in the late eighth century B.C.E., an onslaught that left Hezekiah greatly weakened and which forced him to pay tribute to Assyria. The destruction of the Nechushtan, and also the abandonment of the winged symbols on royal jar handles in favor of rosettes, an Assyrian symbol, are now understandable: Hezekiah and the kings of Judah who followed him were demonstrating their loyalty to Assyria by destroying symbols that came from Egypt, Assyria’s long-time enemy.