4 They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. 5 The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” 6 So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died. 7 The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the LORD and you. Pray to the LORD so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.”
9 Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live. (CEB)
Serpent of Bronze
Our text today deals with one of several “murmuring stories” in the book of Numbers. The story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness is full of instances where the people of Israel murmured against Moses and against God, and after each instance of murmuring it is Moses who successfully intercedes on behalf of the people.
The reason this murmuring story is so interesting is because it’s different from most of the other examples of Israel’s murmuring. In most instances, Israel’s murmuring gets results from God. The people complain about their situation—they’re hungry or thirsty—and God provides for their needs by giving them food or water. God can be influenced by their complaints, and God responds by giving good gifts. This kind of thing may work a few times but, like any parent, God eventually grows weary of the complaining.
It’s something any parent can readily understand. When our older two children were little, I would take my day off on Thursdays and stay home with the kids so Joy could go to work. Any day a parent spends at home with their children will inevitably be a day filled with complaining.
Daddy, I’m hungry.
Ok, let me get you something to eat.
Daddy, I want a drink.
Ok, let me get you a cup of water.
No, I want juice.
How about water instead?
No, I want juice.
Ok, here’s your juice.
Daddy, I want to watch Berenstein Bears.
Ok, I’ll let you watch one episode.
Daddy, can I watch two?
No. You can watch one.
But mommy lets me watch two.
Well, I’m not mommy; you can watch one.
Daddy, I’m hungry.
But I just gave you a snack.
But can I have another snack?
And it would go on and on and on. Nevertheless, when the children complained they usually get what they wanted. That is, until my patience ran out. Eventually the dialogue of complaints broke down into one little girl or little boy getting very upset because something didn’t quite go their way. Various kinds of punishment soon followed: from spending a few minutes in the Naughty Chair to being sent to a bedroom to having a certain toy taken away – or any combination of the above.
There are a couple of places where God loses patience with his beloved children, the people of Israel, and punishes them. This is one of those instances. The complaint of the people is rather incoherent ranting. They complained that they had no food and no water, yet they also said, “…and we detest this miserable food,” meaning that they did actually have food in their possession.
Maybe they had soda crackers, but they wanted something fancier like Sociables or Tomato & Basil flavored Wheat Thins, and maybe a nice fancy cheese ball to boot. The food God had given them wasn’t good enough for them. So they hearkened back to the good ol’ days when they were slaves in Egypt. At least there they had better fare for their table. Their complaint accused the Lord of infidelity toward Israel by not taking care of them. And it accused Moses of poor, failed leadership. That’s what people do when the economy tanks. In Israel’s situation in the wilderness, there was barely any economy of which to speak.
This is the point where God has had enough. God sends הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים (ha-netashim ha-seraphim) among the people to bite them, and many Israelites died. One question about verse 6 is how to translate these Hebrew words. Some possible translations include “venomous snakes,” “poisonous serpents,” or “fiery serpents.”
The Hebrew word seraphim could be taken as an adjective or a substantive. If it is to be taken as an adjective, then it describes the serpents as being venomous, or poisonous, or fiery.
If it is to be taken as a substantive, then it tells us what type of serpents they were: Seraph Serpents.
However you take it, another question remains. What were they? Again, the word used is seraphim. The seraphim are the angelic beings surrounding God’s throne. So, were these things that were biting the people actual snakes like the kind that slither through your yard? Or were they angelic beings coming down among the people in the form of serpents to punish the people? Either way, it sounds like something straight out of a Stephen King novel!
It’s this event of divine punishment that makes the people of Israel realize that they’ve gone too far with their complaining. This time, they’ve sinned against the Lord by spurning the gift of food already given, and by spurning the gift of freedom from slavery, which the Lord enabled. They came to Moses and confessed to him that they have sinned by complaining against the Lord and against Moses. They became submissive and repentant because of what had come upon them. They asked Moses to intercede for them: to pray that the Lord would take the serpents away from them. Those who were so impatient a short while ago had suddenly recognized that they needed to come to terms with God’s sovereign rule. They also realized that protest against God’s rule is not only futile, but self-destructive.
Recognizing and responding to the change that had come over the people, the God who had allowed death to come among the people now provided a way of life. God told Moses to make a Seraph Serpent—or fiery or poisonous serpent—and set it upon a pole, “and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, put it on a pole, and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
On a side note, you’ve all seen copies of this bronze serpent on a pole. Nearly every physician’s office in the world has one posted somewhere. This is where physicians got their symbol of a snake wrapped around a pole. When you need healing, you go see your doctor.
Notice that God did not take the serpents away as the people hoped. The serpents were still among the people, and people still got bitten by them. The people still had to live with the consequences of their sin, and those consequences could very well have meant death! But God provided a way of salvation, a way of life. The very thing that brought death to so many people, the serpent, now brought life to those who looked toward it. God took a symbol of pain, suffering, and death, and transformed it into a symbol of life.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and fell from original righteousness into original sin, they had to live with the consequences of their sin. From the moment they were cast forth from Eden, they were subject to suffering, pain, and death. They, and all their children after them, have lived with these consequences. I’m sure that they repented and they begged God to change God’s mind and let them back into the Garden where every need they had was perfectly met. But what’s done is done, and there are consequences for sin.
We may think this is awfully callous on God’s part, even hardhearted. But how often do we read in Scripture that God punishes those whom God loves? If we’re honest with ourselves, we can see that consequences are, in the long run, in our own best interest, and are a shining example of God’s ever-present love for us. After all, without consequences we would never learn. Parents know that consequences are what help children learn to avoid bad behavior and do the right thing. If I want my kids to pick up their room, then I can tell them that they can’t have electronics until everything is picked up and put away properly. Believe me, they might complain, but when I start collecting their Kindles, things start getting picked up.
In the Gospel of John there’s a very short reference to this narrative in the book of Numbers. In John 3:14, Jesus says, “And just 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.” The consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin was to suffer death. And Paul says that death is the result of our own sin as well. He wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God took the cross—a symbol of grotesque suffering, torture, pain, and death—and by the lifting up of God’s only Son on that cross, transformed a symbol of death into the means of life. The consequences of sin remain with us, and we must live with those consequences. But whenever we’re bitten by the consequences of our sin, we know that we can look toward the cross of Jesus Christ and live.
God has provided a way for us to live, not only in the here and now, but in the hereafter. The promise of God to humanity is that those who believe in Jesus Christ may have eternal life. God transforms everything God touches. It’s not just that the serpents of death were transformed into something that saves. And it’s not just that the cross was transformed by Christ into something that saves. It’s also that when we believe, God transforms our lives so that we become ambassadors of salvation to the world. We become God’s own people, God’s own children. And through our proclamation of the Good News we become bringers of salvation to the world.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!