In medical circles, there are two very similar symbols that represent healing. One is known as the Caduceus. The other is the staff of Asclepius.
The Caduceus symbol, which has two snakes on a pole topped with wings, is most closely associated with the Greek god Hermes (known to Romans as Mercury).
Asclepius was most probably a skilled physician who practiced in Greece around 1200 BC (and was described in Homer’s Iliad). Eventually through myth and legend he came to be worshiped as Asclepius, the (Greek) god of Healing.
It’s the staff of Asclepius that’s most commonly used as the symbol of healing on medical emergency ID bracelets. Asclepius’ staff has only one snake, and no wings at the top, and today is the emblem of the American Medical Association.
The symbol of this staff is traced back to Moses, the man chosen by God to lead the Jewish people out of Egyptian bondage, and into the Promised Land.
In the Old Testament book of Numbers, God instructs Moses to create a pole with a serpent on it which the Lord would then use as an instrument for healing.
They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
Clearly, a snake bite of the kind described here was a medical emergency. The healing pole provided a quick cure, and it was probably used quite often during the period the Jews wandered in the desert. But, after Moses’ death, the Jews began to ascribe more power to the pole than to God, the one who actually supplied the healing power. The people of Israel burned incense to the pole and worshiped it, calling it Nehushtan. We learn in the Old Testament book of 2nd Kings (chapter 18) that Hezekiah, one of the few good kings of Judah who lived around 715 BC, broke Moses’ pole and destroyed the bronze serpent. God honored Hezekiah’s move to draw the people away from idol worship, and the scripture tells us that the Lord was with Hezekiah and he prospered in everything that he did.
Jesus mentions Moses and the serpent several hundred years later, as John records in chapter 3 of his account. Jesus was telling Nicodemus that he (Jesus) must die to pay for the world’s moral crimes against God.
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man [Jesus] be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus was saying that just as the serpent was attached to a pole and lifted up, in which people could place their trust, Jesus was to be attached to a cross for everyone. The serpent on a pole was for everyone, but only those that placed their trust in God by looking up to the pole were healed. In the same way, Jesus’ crucifixion was for everyone, but only those who place their trust in him will benefit from it.
Placing trust in Jesus is like placing trust in the serpent. You can believe that an airplane can take you from point A to point B, but you only place your trust in it by getting on the plane. The people had to decide to look up at the snake in order to be healed, and people today must decide to accept Jesus’ payment on the cross on their behalf.
So, there you go. That’s the history of the emergency medical symbol.