Scripture: And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” Numbers 21:7-8 ESV
Observation: Having exhibited confidence in God when vowing to devote the cities of Arad to destruction, this next generation shows a relapse of fidelity when Moses leads the people southward toward the Red Sea. Whether this story is an anachronistic insertion or follows a timeline of Yahweh redirecting Israel away from Canaan to test them, the reaction is similar to that of the previous generation. Impatient, they grumble against Moses for bringing them to a wilderness with no water or food other than the “worthless” manna” (21:4-5). This time, they complain not only against Moses but inherently against Yahweh, the source of their miraculous bread. So the Lord acts without discussing the matter with Moses and sends meat—no quail this time but poisonous snakes whose venom burns like fire (21:6). Seeing loved ones dropping dead, the people wisely confess their sin against Yahweh and Moses and plead for Moses to intercede. Graciously, Moses acts quickly when the Lord commands him to craft a bronze serpent and place it on a pole for the people to gaze upon (above verses). And any who obeyed the directive lived (21:9).
It’s important to note the command applied only to those bitten who had the venom in their system. Gazing upon it would not keep the snakes away. So this crisis did not resolve immediately. The author provides no further detail, but likely it took a while for the Israelites to rid themselves of the snakes—reinforcing the lesson.
Also of note, the Lord’s command seemed contradictory to his second of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4 ESV). The distinction here is that God’s people were forbidden to craft idols by their initiative, for to do so would lead them astray. Yahweh gives the directive in this instance (more to say below).
Takeaway: Addressing the last point first, we must remember that we are the creatures, not the Creator. We can’t put God in a box and make assumptions about how he must act in a given situation. Peter had to learn this lesson when the Lord commanded him in a vision not to declare anyone unclean under the New Covenant of Grace. It took three swipes of this vision before Peter understood that his Lord was invoking a new paradigm of salvation where all who put their faith in Christ would become children of God (See Acts 10:9-33). But why would God command Moses to craft an idol to bring salvation? Because our marvelous biblical narrative threads a serpent theme from the Fall to the present crisis to the final battle at the Cross of Christ, where the snake, representing evil, gains the momentary advantage but is crushed at Calvary.
The issue surrounding manna also points us to Christ. The One who called himself the Bread of Life (John 6:22-59) is the new Manna in whom anyone seeking sustenance in him will not spiritually die. But to reject this divine food as “worthless” (see verse 5 of our text) is to cut off all means of forgiveness, reconciliation, and eternal life.
Lastly, the solution to Israel’s sin problem, which otherwise leads to death, is the same for us. We, too, must raise our heads to behold our Savior and put our faith in him. As Christ responds to Nicodemus’ confusion over being born again by the Spirit, he adds: “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” (John 3:14-15 ESV). But it doesn’t stop there. As the author of Hebrews contends, we must keep looking up: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12″2 NIV).
Prayer: Father God, thank you for your Son who crushed the Serpent, removing the sting of death, and who now sustains us as our heavenly Manna. So would you please help us keep looking up to behold your glorious Son so that we might not lapse into faithless grumbling when our present circumstances weigh us down? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling