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Wandering in the wilderness, water, snakes, unexpected battles: Numbers 19–21

The story about snakes, and the cure for snakebite, is one of the mystifying parts of the Israelites’ 40 years of desert wandering.

The snake signifies sin, Satan, evil … you name it. The idea of a plague of snakes following yet more complaints from Israel (and no doubt, an exasperated God) is consistent with all that. But how could God tell Moses to construct a bronze snake, raise it up on a pole, and have people look to it for healing?  How was that neither magic nor idolatry?

Numbers 21:8-9 So Then the Lord told him, ‘Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!’ So Moses made a snake out of bronze and attached it to a pole. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!

Jesus said: look at me!

Jesus Himself gave us the answer in trying to explain the concept of a spiritual life to Nicodemus:

John 3:14-16 And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. For this is how 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.

So what does it mean?

The poisonous snakes bring the death that comes from sin. Remember, the arrival of sin into the world and the resulting death (in Genesis) was through a serpent.

The bronze snake symbolises the Israelites’ sin—their grumbling against God, their failure to trust Him, their rejection of His provision for them and His will.

Lifting the snake high, on a wooden pole, and having the Israelites looking at it for salvation from death, is a symbol of Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross, and taking on the death from our sin (and sin itself) so we can have eternal life.

Galatians 3:13 But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’

And just as the idea of looking at a bronze object for healing from snakebite looks really strange to us, that’s exactly how the cross looks, too:

1 Corinthians 1:18 The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.

THis is the last time the Israelites complained

When you think about it, they’d been living on manna for 40 years, with lamb, goat, cattle, quail and anything they’d been able to trade on the way through the wilderness. It’s not impossible, though, that trade had dried up with the outbreak of hostilities from surrounding nations, and manna had become more of the main part of their diet.

Numbers 21:4 There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!

And although God had led the Israelites to victory in each battle, it wasn’t the easy walk into a land flowing with milk and honey that they thought they’d been promised (and that their ancestors had rejected almost 40 years earlier).

In this light, the reality of a limited diet, scarce water, and attacks from countries that they thought God should have driven out without a fight could all have easily caused a loss of confidence.

But this is the last time the Israelites complained about their food and water. They’d really repented, confessed their sin, and asked Moses to intercede for them.

There’s every chance the snake threat continued for some time. Each snake bite would have made them look at the bronze snake and remember their own sin. It wasn’t a quick glance at an artwork that did the healing, it was their knowledge of their own sin and newfound repentance before God.

The bronze snake, then, was a constant reminder of their sin, and their reliance on God for salvation.

The snake eventually became an idol

Hundreds of years later, Hezekiah, King of Judah, was forced to destroy the bronze snake because it had become an idol.

 2 Kings 18:4 [Hezekiah] removed the pagan shrines, smashed the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke up the bronze serpent that Moses had made, because the people of Israel had been offering sacrifices to it. The bronze serpent was called Nehushtan.