For this week, the passage in focus is Numbers 21:4-9. To provide context, the people of Israel are journeying through the wilderness, trying to find their way to the land that God has promised them (the land of Canaan).This journey will ultimately take them 40 years. At the point in time that we are addressing, the people of Israel are struggling: they are discouraged and lost, and because of the troubles they are experiencing, they distance themselves from God within their hearts.
1) Ingratitude and discouragement
In the first two verses, we acquire the backdrop of what is causing the discouragement amongst the Israelites: “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).
There are two points I want to acknowledge from these two verses. One, the Israelites became discouraged while on the way to their destination; the journey itself was taxing on their spirit, and demoralized their relationship with God. Second, the Israelites demonstrate ingratitude and a lack of trust in God. The Israelites first assert that they have been brought up out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness--a perspective that fails to acknowledge and trust in the power of God to deliver. At the same time, they demonstrate ungratefulness: the Israelites claim they have no food and no water, yet--in the same sentence--say their soul loathes “this worthless bread.” Along with this, in the previous chapter, God makes fresh water come out of the rocks (Numbers 20:11). Clearly, the Israelites are provided for.
What we are witnessing in the Israelites is not a problem stemming from God’s lack of provision, but rather, a failure of the Israelites to see God’s blessings. In the first two verses, the Israelites compare their current suffering in the wilderness with the oppression given by the Egyptians, and deem it worse than the latter. Further, they neglect the food and water God has already given them while journeying through a place that provides nothing, and claim that God is leading them to death. In these ways, the Israelites are speaking out against God.
While it’s easy to look at the Israelites in this scenario and judge their inability to trust in God and appreciate His provision, we have to remember that they were humans just like us. To walk the way of faith, we have to fight the tendency to become ungrateful for what we have been given, and the distrust we show God because of our inability to see what He has done--and is doing--in our lives. The Israelites were free from the slavery under Egypt, and had food and water; on top of this, they had a destination set before them by God that they were meant to inherit. But if we are not looking to God to guide us, then we will wander aimlessly and waste away our lives, never truly embracing the best that God has set apart for us.
2) Sent fiery serpents among the people
And while God could easily turn His back on the Israelites and say, “I’m done, I’ve given you so much and still you don’t get it” and be justified in such a decision, He doesn’t do that. Instead, God does something different: “So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.” (Numbers 21:6). You could be thinking, “That doesn’t sound very good at all. Why would He do that?” Well, we see exactly why in the next verse: “Therefore 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.” (Numbers 21:7).
The serpents actually served to bring the people and their hearts back to God. Because God is the everlasting life source that we need for our souls--not “loathsome bread,” water, or even freedom in of itself--the serpents were actually a good thing, because it humbled the people so that they would seek God. The serpents also carried out God’s justice, which is clearly implied by the peoples’ plea to Moses: “We have sinned” (Numbers 21:7). This establishes the reality that God is justified in the decision He makes, despite our own understanding. Where there was sin committed by the people, there was also the consequence they had to face.
The serpents, like in the story, are still present and actively killing people to this day. We see them biting people left and right; people dying all the time and suffering from all kinds of troubles. However, whatever suffering you may be walking through, God wants to use it to bring you back to Him. For the serpent can be a good thing, or a bad thing. When we walk in ungratefulness, despair, bitterness, etc., and fail to look to God for our help, we give our lives over to the serpents. But when we look to God to save us from the sufferings we face, we allow Him to work through it.
Because, remember, the original cause of the serpents in life is the brokenness and destructiveness of sin. And because of the broken state of the world we live in, suffering is inevitable. Serpents will come, and when they do, they will bite. But let us be like the Israelites, who--in their distress and pain from the serpents--humbled themselves and returned to God, and asked that He would take them away. And it is in this prayer by the Israelites--and the response that God gives--that we see the defining characteristic of the Lord: His mercy.
3) A symbol of hope
In the last two verses of the passage, we see God’s answer to the whole situation and the end goal of what He is seeking to accomplish. First, the Lord provides His remedy to Moses, saying, “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). God asks Moses to create a strange symbol representing the very thing that is killing the people--the fiery serpents--and says that everyone who looks at it will live? To finish out the passage, Moses does as God tells him to do: “So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” (Numbers 21:9). Thus, God answers the prayers of the people in this way: that if they are willing to simply just look at the symbol, they will live.
First, the symbol itself is very important, and requires our attention. The reality of the situation is as follows: the people sinned against God; because of the sin caused by the people, death entered the congregation through the serpents; because of the suffering caused by their own sin, the people turned back to God for help; God’s help came in the form of a symbol representing the sin that caused it all in the first place (sin ⇔ fiery serpents). Why would God make the symbol a serpent? From the context of only this passage, it serves to say that God is making a connection between the serpents that were sent by Him in response to the sin of the people, and the serpent that is lifted up on the pole by Moses. It seems that God is making a symbol of hope out of the very thing that brought death to the Israelites, and represented the consequences of their ingratitude toward, and lack of trust in, God.
4) So must the Son of Man be lifted up
Throughout this whole passage, the narrative of the gospel is embedded, and completely foreshadows the raising up of the Son of Man--Jesus Christ. The principles are the same for both: we all have sinned, and we all live in a broken world where death is inevitable. But in both, despite the reality of the serpents and death, God has provided the way to survive: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:14-17).
God has provided us with this parallel for a reason: Christ is the serpent who has been lifted up in the wilderness; He has taken on all sin and the consequence thereof, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus became our sin so that we could walk away healed and so that we would live. Just as those who looked up at the bronze serpent on the pole and lived by doing so; so too will you live by lifting your eyes to the cross and seeing the Man who was crucified on it.
The cross of Christ has been raised up in the wilderness and stands tall, available for all to see; the only requirement God gives is that we lift up our eyes and look. Look, and you will live. Do you think the Israelites fully understood why they needed to look at a serpent on a pole to be healed? It is an act of faith. The ones who looked were in need of hope, and they found it in the raised up serpent; and it is the hope found in Christ that brings light to the darkness of suffering that we endure through this life. For, though the serpents brought the Israelite people low, it made them eager for the hope provided for by God. This hope is ultimately found in Jesus Christ, and it is in His name that we can be healed; restored; set free; sustained; loved unconditionally.
Through this passage, God conveys His heart to us: that despite however many times we may turn from Him, sin against Him, curse Him, neglect Him--He is there for us, and He has answered our prayers. There will be moments when we get discouraged in this life; when we fail to recognize the blessings we have been given. And when we turn away from God and walk away, we lead ourselves to death. But nonetheless, God’s love stands firm, and His hand is extended to you. Jesus not only was lifted up on the cross and sacrificed on our behalf; but He is alive and has taken upon Himself all of the serpents of our lives.
It is by the blood of Christ that we gain new life; no longer bound by the sin of this world, but sustained by the Holy Spirit that leads us in a relationship with Himself, that we may know the God that heals. Don’t refuse the call of the Lord; allow Him to build His faith within you, and to grow your relationship with Him. God just wants your love, and it’s in His loving arms that you will be able to overcome any challenge, any trial, any sin, and any serpents that this life has to offer. Hope is before you; a Light has dawned; Christ calls out, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself.” (John 12:32).