The Bronze Serpent– Numbers 21

Reading from the New Testament gospel of John, chapter three:

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  John 3:14-15 (ESV)

Near the very end of Moses’ life, he had brought the people through the desert until the time came for them to enter the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Their journey ahead from Mount Hor into Canaan, known thereafter as Israel, was a simple one: head east into Edom, then travel up the east side of the Dead Sea, through the land of Moab, and come out near the Jordan River, across from Jericho, from where they would enter. This was a well-traveled road known as the King’s Highway and presented a very favorable route.  

There was only one catch – its use required permission from the King of Edom, and he refused to give it to them.

This added yet another frustrating delay for Moses and the people, and meant that they now had to go around Edom and Moab, as well as around a mountain range that was blocking them to the south.  This doubled the length of their required foot journey and forced them to travel through difficult desert terrain rather than the more favorable and resourceful lands of Edom and Moab.

This new disappointment proved to be too much for the children of Israel to bear.  This setback led them to revert to their old complaining ways, and they really let Moses and God have an earful.

Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.”  Numbers 21:4-5 (NKJV)

“This worthless bread” referred to the miraculous manna that God had been providing each day. Its life-giving benefits were no longer being received with gratitude, to put it mildly.

What did God, who had provided them with food and water these forty years and was about to give them their new homeland, elect to do about their rebellion? He responded by sending fiery serpents among the people in the wilderness, and many were bit by them and died. 

Faced with this new painful reality, the people came to their senses.  They confessed their sinful attitudes to the Lord and asked Moses to pray for them to do something about these snakes.  Moses prayed for them and the Lord gave him a curious directive:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.”  Numbers 21:8 (NKJV)

A bronze snake on a pole?  Today that is a familiar symbol used in the medical world, known as the “Rod of Asclepius”.  But for the people in the desert, it was more than a symbol, it was the only method of healing from the deadly snakebites.  If bitten by a poisonous snake, one could look upon the bronze serpent on a pole, and live. 

Why might God choose to bring healing to the people in this way?  Why not just remove the snakes?

We could probably ask a similar question today.  Why not just remove all the ways in which we get “snake-bit” as we face our challenges in life?

Perhaps there is a deeper symbolism going on here.  One fundamental problem for the Israelites, and for us today, is that despite all of the blessings God has provided us, we are prone to rebel against Him.  This is known as sin, and it infects the hearts of us all.

In the gospel of John, Jesus used this event in the desert as an illustration of Him going to the cross for us as the only remedy for our sins.  The Son of Man, Jesus, would be lifted up on a cross to provide healing for the sins of all those who would look up to Him in faith.  Just as the Israelites who were snake-bit with the fatal poison could look up to Moses’ bronze serpent on a pole, and live.

Immediately after citing this Old Testament analogy, Jesus went on to speak some beloved, life-giving words:

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  John 3:16-17 (ESV)

God has provided the way for all of us to survive the fatal “snakebite” of our sin. If I look up to Jesus in faith, I, too, will be healed from the venomous sin in my life today. Through both the joys and the trials of life, He has been there with us the whole time, surrounding us with His loving care. Thank You, Lord!


Who can I turn to when the disappointments or frustrations of life start to boil over?

Father God, some days it seems that we are under attack by the venom of others, other times it is the venom within my own sinful heart that is causing such disturbance in my soul and in those around me. Help me to look to the cross of Christ for complete forgiveness, and grant me Your peace and an overflowing love and mercy to forgive any who have offended me. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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