The Bronze Serpent– Numbers 21

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 to the cusp of the Promised Land.  Their journey from Mount Hor into Canaan, the future Israel, was simple: head east into Edom, then up the east side of the Dead Sea through the land of Moab, and come out near the Jordan River, across from Jericho.  Direct enough.  This well-traveled road was known as the King’s Highway and presented a very favorable shortcut.  The only catch was that its use required permission from Edom, and their King denied it. 

Yet another delay for Moses and the people.  This meant that they not only had to go around Edom and Moab, but they had to also go around a mountain range blocking them to the south.  This doubled the length of their foot journey and forced them to travel through sparse 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 

“Our soul loathes this worthless bread”.  The miraculous manna that God provided each day was no longer being received with gratitude, to put it mildly.

What did God, who had provided for them these forty years and brought them so close to their new homeland, elect to do about this?  He sent fiery serpents among the people in the wilderness, and many were bit and died. 

Faced with this new 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 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 commonly used symbol in medicine known as the “Rod of Asclepius”.  But for the people in the desert, it was a symbol 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 would God choose to bring healing to the people in this way?  Why not just remove all 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 also 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 remedy for our sins.  The Son of Man, Jesus, will be lifted up on a cross to provide a healing for all of our sins, all who look to Him in faith.  Just as the Israelites who were snake-bit with fatal poison could look up to Moses’ bronze serpent on a pole, and live.

Jesus went on to say:

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


Who or what do I look to when disappointment or frustration come my way?

God provided a way for us to survive the snakebite of sin. Have I looked up to Jesus’ in faith to be healed of the sin in my life today?

Jesus is with you, He loves you, and He is taking good care of you today.

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