ne-hush'-tan (nechushtan; compare nechosheth, "brass," and nachash, "serpent"):
1. Traditional Interpretation:
The word occurs but once, namely, in 2 Kings 18:4. In the account there given of the reforms carried out by Hezekiah, it is said that "he brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made; for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it; and he called it Nehushtan." According to the Revised Version margin the word means "a piece of brass." If this be correct, the sense of the passage is that Hezekiah not only breaks the brazen serpent in pieces but, suiting the word to the act, scornfully calls it "a (mere) piece of brass." Hezekiah thus takes his place as a true reformer, and as a champion of the purification of the religion of Israel. This is the traditional interpretation of the passage, and fairly represents the Hebrew text as it now stands.
A Proper Noun:
There are at least three considerations, however, which throw doubt upon this interpretation. In the first place, the word Nehushtan is not a common noun, and cannot mean simply "a piece of brass." The point of the Biblical statement is entirely lost by such a construction. It is emphatically a proper noun, and is the special name given to this particular brazen serpent. As such it would be sacred to all worshippers of the brazen serpent, and familiar to all who frequented the Temple. In the second place, it is probable that Nehushtan is to be derived from nachash, "serpent," rather than from nechosheth, "brass,"
(1) because the Greek VSS, representing a form of the Hebrew text earlier than Massoretic Text, suggest this in their transliteration of Nehushtan (Codex Vaticanus Nesthalei; Codex Alexandrinus Nesthan);
(2) because the Hebrew offers a natural derivation of Nehushtan from nachash, "serpent"; and
(3) because the name of the image would more probably be based on its form than on the material out of which it was made. In the third place, the reading, "and it was called," which appears in the Revised Version margin, is decidedly preferable to that in the text. It not only represents the best reading of the Hebrew, but is confirmed by the similar reading, "and they called it," which appears in the Greek version referred to above. These readings agree in their indication that Nehushtan was the name by which the serpent-image was generally known during the years it was worshipped, rather than an expression used for the first time by Hezekiah on the occasion of its destruction.
Whichever derivation be adopted, however, the word must be construed as a proper name. If it be derived from "brass," then the translation must be, not "a piece of brass," but "The (great) Brass," giving the word a special sense by which it refers unequivocally to the well-known image made of brass. If it be derived from "serpent," then the translation must be, "The (great) Serpent," the word in this case referring in a special sense to the well-known image in serpent form. But the significance of the word probably lies far back of any etymological explanation of it that can now be given. It is not a term that can be adequately explained by reference to verbal roots, but is rather an epitome of the reverence of those who, however mistakenly, looked upon the brazen serpent as a proper object of worship.
In view of the foregoing it may be concluded,
(1) that Nehushtan was the (sacred) name by which the brazen serpent was known during the years "the children of Israel did burn incense to it";
(2) that the word is derived from nachash, "serpent"; and
(3) that it was used in the sense of "The Serpent," paragraph excellence.
See IMAGES, 6, (2); SERPENT, FIERY.
Lindsay B. Longacre