Then they set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to bypass the land of Edom, but the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread or water, and we detest this wretched food!” Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died.
The people then came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord so that he will take the snakes away from us.” And Moses interceded for the people.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake image and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover.” So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered.
– Numbers 21:4-9
I loathe inefficiency, especially when driving. Even if I know a route might be faster, if it starts out in the opposite direction of my destination, I just can’t do it. (Can I get a witness?) Israel found themselves going the long way around because of Edom’s opposition. The Israelites’ impatience with the detour seemed to make them more prone to irritability. If things weren’t bad enough, they had to endure this worthless food! No water! They were as good as dead! Or were they? I distinctly remember the Lord providing water from a rock. If He could manage that, I’m pretty sure He could meet their needs. And the worthless food? Did you mean the manna and quail that miraculously appeared every morning for gathering and consumption? Oh yeah, that? There are descriptors that might fit more accurately—redundant or bland— but definitely not worthless.
As much as I want to criticize the Israelites’ complaining, I can see too much of myself in them. I’m “all in” at the start of a project or adventure, but when things get uncomfortable or downright difficult, I start seeing (and naming!) all the problems.
Can you relate?
This time, the Lord’s judgment took the shape of fiery serpents. It is doubtful that the serpents were literally fiery. What’s more likely is that their bites burned like fire, and they may have been shiny and reddish in color. More important than the serpents’ appearance was their symbolism. Ancient Egyptian texts featured stories of fiery serpents protecting Pharaoh and Egypt.¹ They were emblems of Egypt. The people thought that relief and salvation would be found in Egypt. Instead, the Lord showed the inevitable destruction that comes from trusting in anything or anyone besides the Lord. The pain caused by the serpents’ fatal bites provoked the people to come to their senses. They admitted their sin and implored Moses to pray for them.
The antidote to Israel’s trouble came in a similar form to the trouble itself. The Lord told Moses to fashion a serpent out of copper and fix it onto a pole. Those who had been bitten were to look at the copper serpent and be healed.
Gordon J. Wenham notes that the remedy here is in line with others like it in the Old Testament. For example, the purification requirements for those who were made unclean by blood involved blood being spilled (through animal sacrifice). Also, the ashes of a dead heifer were mixed in water used to cleanse those who had touched a dead body (Numbers 19). This makes sense, then, that “Those inflamed and dying through the bite of living snakes were restored to life by a dead reddish-coloured snake.”²
The form of our salvation
In John 3:14-15, Jesus shed light on the incident of the copper serpent.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (ESV).
Jesus wasn’t lifted up on a pole, but He was lifted up on a cross. His life is a judgment on humanity. He lived the perfect life we could never live. He died the death we deserved. He told us that holiness and right-standing before God cannot be achieved by our own strength. He preached that our righteousness must exceed that of the most righteous religious leaders of His day. By all accounts, we are doomed. But the form of judgment is also the form of our salvation. Like Israel, we look to the form for redemption and atonement. For Israel, it was the copper serpent. For us, it is Christ. We “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, BSB).
If you need to take a praise break (a moment to just thank the Lord for His kindness and provision), do so now.
This post was adapted from Lauren Chandler’s new Bible study on the Book of Numbers, With Us in the Wilderness.
- John D Currid, A Study Commentary on Numbers (England: EP Books, 2009), 296–297.
- Gordon J. Wenham, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Numbers, Vol. 4 , ed. D. J. Wiseman, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 176, accessed via MyWSB.com.