And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived." (Num. 21: 8-9)
When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were thrown into a fiery furnace, fully prepared to die rather than accept idolatry, an angel from God was sent to question them. The angel said: "Doesn't Moses say to choose life? So why are you ready to choose death?"
The three young Hebrews, all well versed in the Torah, responded that they would die to keep the Ten Commandments, one of which said, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them." (Ex. 20: 4-5)
But the angel, having anticipated this argument, produced a fireproof copy of the Torah and showed them the passage above, in which Moses is commanded by God to make a graven image--in direct contradiction to God's own commandment!
"I respect your courage," said the angel, "but how do you, who are willing to die for the words of this book, explain a passage like this?"
The three were quick to respond.
Shadrach said: "It's not actually the form of idolatry God objects to, but the content. Moloch and Baal were evil ideas, not just evil for being images. The idol we now refuse to worship is simply a stand-in for worshiping the king. That's why the commandment is reflexive: 'thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.' Moses' serpent wasn't made unto himself, but unto God. Because God was its content, its form as a graven image didn't make a difference."
Meshach always agreed with Shadrach as to course of action, but almost never agreed with the whole of his reasoning. And so he also answered: "God does object to idolatry as a form, and sanctified our people with a commandment against it. But he knew that our fathers in Moses' day had idolatrous hearts, and so he worked with them in the manner of their own understanding. Moses made the brazen serpent for them, but he received the commandments on Horeb for us. The fundamental point here is not of form or content, but context. God works differently for the children than for their rebellious parents."
Abed-nego, however, said to the angel: "When you return to heaven and tell this story, preserve my friends' explanations, but tell the listener that neither of them is necessary. It is enough to say that the story of the brass serpent is told to show that God is able to embrace contradictions."