I am not sure when or where my fear of snakes began, but I cannot think of a time when I didn’t greatly dislike these slithering creatures.
Even as a kid I remember trying to put my hand on a picture of a snake in our families old World Book Encyclopedia volume 17 (S). I couldn’t do it. Some of my worst nightmares as a child, and even adult, have been of snakes under my bed. I have killed a few of them over the years, but it wasn’t pretty. My weapon of choice – a long shovel. With my right arm extended and my body turned in the opposite direction (in case I needed to run); I always aim for the head.
Whether it is fear, bad body placement or just terrible aim, I never seem to hit my target. Usually it takes about 20 plus swings before the snake is dead. Only half of those actually make contact. But the deed is eventually done and the world is a better place.
Now let’s move into the most terrifying narrative in Numbers.
Israel began complaining against Moses and Yahweh (a broken record). The typical stuff – “we were better off in Egypt” – “there is no food or water” – blah, blah, blah. They even referred to God’s manna as wretched food! You know something bad is about to happen.
Numbers 21:6, Then the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died. (emphasis mine)
The Israelites were the original cast for Snakes on a Plain. Not plane – plain. It is my worst nightmare. Stephen King couldn’t write anything worse. The people of Israel might agree.
Numbers 21:7, The people then came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you. Intercede with the LORD so that He will take the snakes away from us.” And Moses interceded for the people.
I would have been the first to reach Moses and begin begging for mercy. Again, I am amazed by Moses’ patience and leadership. And once again, I am blown away by Yahweh. A holy God who has done nothing but provide one miracle after another to provide for these ungrateful people.
The LORD told Moses, verse 8, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” (ESV)
Why not send the snakes away? The author wants us to sit up and take notice. Something is different. All along the way, Yahweh has tried to develop faith within these people. It was something they all lacked – even Moses had his struggle.
Before we go further, we need to step back from the narrative to see the bigger picture. When is the last time we read about a snake and a pole? Actually, you may remember it more as a staff that turned into a snake.
Yep, that story. Yahweh tells Moses to throw down his staff and it turned into a snake. He then could grab it by the tail and it go back to a staff. This is enough to let me know I could never be Moses.
Once again we find repeating narratives in the Pentateuch.
- Snakes (Ex. 4:3) and Leprosy (Ex. 4:6)
- Leprosy (Num. 12:10) and Snakes (Num. 21:6)
Let’s look back to account of the staff and snake in Exodus 4. Many think of it as a sign from God to Pharaoh. While that is true, it was meant for Israel.
Exodus 4:5, “This will take place so they will believe that Yahweh, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” (emphasis mine)
In Exodus 4 and in Numbers 21, it was necessary for God’s people to respond in faith to the sign – to look on the sign in faith to find deliverance.
Exodus 4:30-31, Aaron repeated everything the LORD had said to Moses and performed the signs before the people. The people believed, and when they heard that the LORD had paid attention to them and that He had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped. (emphasis mine)
In their misery, Yahweh gave Moses a sign for the people to respond in faith. But the greater hyperlink is discovered a few hundred years later. Jesus looks back to Numbers 21:
John 3:14-15, Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. (emphasis mine)
The Commentary Critical Notes and Explanatory on the Whole Bible put it best back in 1871:
“The venom of the fiery serpents, shooting through the veins of the rebellious Israelites, was spreading death through the camp – lively emblem of the perishing condition of men by reason of sin. In both cases the remedy is divinely provided. In both the way of cure strikingly resembled that of the disease. Stung by serpents, by a serpent they are healed… having at a distance the same appearance. So in redemption, as by man came death, by Man also comes life – Man, too, in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3), differing nothing outward and apparent from those who, pervaded by the poison of the serpent, were ready to perish. But as the uplifted serpent had none of the venom of which the serpent-bitten people were dying, so while the whole human family was perishing of the deadly wound inflicted on it by the old serpent, “the Second Man”, who arose over humanity with healing in His wings was without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing. In both cases the remedy is conspicuously displayed; in the one case on a pole, in the other on the cross, to ‘draw all men unto Him’ (Jn. 12:32). In both cases it is by directing the eye to the uplifted Remedy that cure is effective; in the one case the bodily eye, in the other the gaze of the soul by ‘believing in Him’… Both methods are stumbling to human reason. What, to any thinking Israelite, could seem more unlikely than that a deadly poison should be dried up in his body by simply looking on a reptile of brass? Such a stumbling-block to the Jews and to the Greeks foolishness was faith in the crucified Nazarene as a way of deliverance from eternal perdition… As one simple look at the serpent, however distant and however weak, brought an instant cure, even so, real faith in the Lord Jesus, however tremulous, however distant – be it but real faith – brings certain and instant healing to the perishing soul.”
Take a moment and reflect on these narratives before going to God in prayer.
*All Scripture quoted from the Holman Christian Standard Bible unless otherwise indicated
*Blog resources: The Pentateuch as Narrative by John H. Sailhamer