Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.The documentary hypothesis attributes these passages to the Elohist source recounting a folk tradition concerning a northern cult image.
Archaeological excavations at sites associated with Midianite ware at the ruins of Seti II's temple to Hathor at Timna, in Edomite Seir, have unearthed copper statues of serpents. Whether these were cult images similar to the Nehushtan is unknown.
Nehushtan was possibly set up in Jerusalem by Ahaz. The biblical book of 2 Kings says that King Hezekiah destroyed the Nehustan. The destruction of the Nehustan was encouraged by the priests of the first temple who favoured a centralised monotheistic religion and did not entertain other religious places. The name "Nehushtan" may indicate that Hezekiah meant to disparage the image as a brazen thing, a mere piece of brass (2 Kings 18:4). This, however, may be a subtle play on words: heb. נחש (nachash) means "serpent" while נחשת (nachoshet) means "brass" or "bronze".
When the king came to the throne of Judah in the late 8th century BC:
The dual -an ending might signify that the idol was actually of two snakes upon the pole, leading some to see a similarity with the familiar entwined snakes on the staff that survived in Hermes' caduceus and the single snake on the Rod of Asclepius.
It has also been suggested that Hezekiah's destruction of the Nehushtan was a result of the balance of power moving towards Assyria, which permitted him to remain on the throne of Judah as a puppet ruler. Hezekiah demonstrated his loyalty to the new regime by the destruction of an important symbol with Egyptian associations.
"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life".
"And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished."
"But few understood the meaning of those things, and this because of the hardness of their hearts. But there were many who were so hardened that they would not look, therefore they perished. Now the reason they would not look is because they did not believe that it would heal them."
"Yea, did he [Moses] not bear record that the Son of God should come? And as he lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he be lifted up who should come. And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal."