In my last blog post, we had just started Numbers chapter 21. And, in this episode, we see a continuation full of difficulties of the Israelites’ journey toward the Promised Land, Canaan.
The King of Edom had refused to allow them to pass through his territory, the most preferred route that would take the people to just north of the Dead Sea, where they would cross the Jordan River from the east to enter Canaan.
Then, the King of Arad attacked Israel, although the Israelites eventually defeated him, took some of his cities captive, looted them and gave the booty to the Lord as payment of a vow.
And, while looking at a map, it might have made sense for Israel to just go straight north, through this conquered king’s territory. However, it would have caused their final encounter with the Philistines: something the Lord wanted them to avoid at all cost.
The Bronze Serpent
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. Numbers 21:4 NKJV
This first victory indeed encouraged the Israelites, but it’s one thing to “mount up with wings like eagles” and quite something else to “walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:31).
Courage in the battle must be followed by endurance in the race. Because the Edomites wouldn’t give Israel right-of-way through their land, Moses had to lead the people east of Edom and then north through the hard terrain. It didn’t take long before the difficulty of the march made the people impatient, and they started complaining again. It’s easy for us to win the battle but lose the victory!
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 21:5 NKJV
The anger and impatience in their hearts boiled over into harsh words against the Lord and Moses. In both their attitudes and their words, they were tempting the Lord (1 Cor. 10:9), and that was a dangerous thing to do.
It was the same old complaint: Moses had brought them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, and there was nothing to eat but manna. In the difficulties of the daily march, they’d forgotten God’s promise that they would enter the Promised Land and claim it as their home (Num. 15:1).
A bountiful supply of manna had been sent from heaven each morning since shortly after the Exodus (Ex. 16:1-22), so for forty years, God had been feeding His people the nourishment they needed. Manna was “angels’ food” (Ps. 78:25), but the people had gotten so accustomed to their blessings that they detested it and called it “this good-for-nothing bread.” (See Num. 11:4-6.)
According to John 6, the manna was much more than daily food for Israel: it was a type of Jesus Christ, the Son of God the “Bread of Life” (vv. 32-40). The manna came only to Israel, but Jesus came to be the Savior of the world. All the manna could do was sustain life, but Jesus Christ gives life. When the Jews despised the manna, they were rejecting the Son of God. Once more, God had tested His people, and they had failed the test (Deut. 8:15-16).
The Word of God is the “bread of heaven” that God’s people must feed on daily if they’re going to succeed in their pilgrim journey (Matt. 4:4). The way we treat His Word at the beginning of each day reveals whether or not we are yielded to Him and want to obey Him. To enter a new day without first feeding on the heavenly manna is to invite disappointment and defeat.
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 NKJV
In the past, when Israel had sinned, the glory of the Lord would usually appear, and the judgment of the Lord would follow. But this time, there was no warning. The judgment came immediately as the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people. They had rejected God’s gift of life and health from heaven, so God sent them suffering and death from the earth, and many of the people died.
The word “fiery” is the translation of the Hebrew word saraph which means “burning” and also refers to the angelic creatures (seraphim) who minister before the holy throne of God (Isa. 6:2, 6). “Fiery” doesn’t describe the appearance of the serpents but the inflammation and pain caused by their venom. Those bitten died quickly and apparently their death wasn’t an easy one. The wages of sin is still death.
Their Confession and Plea
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 NKJV
Israel had complained and rebelled many times, and once before had admitted, “We have sinned” (14:40), but this is the first time there “We have sinned” seems to be sincere. In the past, Moses had fallen on his face before the Lord and interceded for the people, but now the people begged him to pray for them. Did this mean that the new generation had a more sensitive heart toward the Lord? We hope so.
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.” 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 21:8-9 NKJV
Moses did pray for the people, but the Lord didn’t answer in the way the people might have expected. Instead of immediately removing the serpents and healing the people bitten, God instructed Moses to make a serpent of brass and put it on a pole where all the people could see it. If those bitten looked at the snake, they instantly would be healed.
Jesus used the bronze serpent to illustrate His death on the cross (John 3:14). (“Lifted up” was a phrase used in that day to refer to crucifixion.) The comparisons between the bronze serpent in Moses’ day and the cross of Christ help us better understand the meaning of God’s grace in salvation.
All people have been infected by sin and will one day die and face judgment (Heb. 9:27), but if they look by faith to Christ, He will save them and give them eternal life. Looking to the bronze serpent kept people from physical death, but looking to Christ saves us from eternal death.
But why should Moses make a model of a serpent, the very creature that was causing the people to die? Because on the cross, Jesus became sin for us—the very thing that condemns people—and bore in His body that which brings spiritual death (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 8:3; Gal. 3:13; 1 Peter 2:22-24).
Moses didn’t hide the bronze serpent; he lifted it up on a pole and put the pole where everybody could see it! So our Lord was crucified publicly, outside the city of Jerusalem, and those who hear the Gospel can ‘look to Him” and be saved. “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13).
Moses didn’t stick the pole inside the tabernacle or even in the temple court because keeping the law saves nobody. The uplifted serpent was the only cure in the camp, just as Jesus Christ is the only Savior of sinners in the world (Acts 4:12; John 14:6).
Nobody could look at the bronze serpent for another person; each dying sinner had to look for himself or herself. The salvation Christ offers is personal and individual, and each of us must look to Christ by faith. No matter how hard they tried, no dying Jew could save himself or herself. The only salvation available was what God had graciously provided, and if you rejected it, you died.
Sin and death came into this world through a look (Gen. 3:6), and the only deliverance from sin and eternal death is by a look of faith:
“Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth” (Isa. 45:22, NKJV)
To look means to exercise faith, and the only way to be saved is by faith (Eph. 2:8-19). A dying Jew might argue, “It’s a foolish remedy,” but it still worked (1 Cor. 1:18-25). Or the dying Israelite might say, “It’s too simple,” but the remedy still worked.
Imagine the joy in the camp of Israel when the word got out that there was a cure available for everybody! The only people who couldn’t be delivered from death were those who for some reason wouldn’t look by faith or those who didn’t know that a remedy was available. How important it is for us to get the good news out that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).
Bible Exposition Commentary – Be Counted (Numbers)