Reading through the book of Numbers can be like pulling teeth most of the time, but yesterday’s reading was not. Quite to the contrary, actually. Moses dedicates several parts of this section of the Law to the telling of critical historical events, and the one we will look at may be the most important one in the entire Torah. That said, the story spans only six verses, and at first glance it seems more odd than it does enlightening or memorable. Let’s take a look:
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient 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 we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And 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. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:4-9, ESV)
I suppose you know this story well, and even know how this applies to the New Testament, yet even so I was able to learn several interesting things in my reading.
The context includes the fact that Israel had just recently decided not to march into Israel and claim it as their own; instead they had lacked trust in God and were therefore unable to enter the Promised Land. Chapter 21 then details their striving to enter the Promised Land through another way, as they fight and eventually win three major battles with foes in the area. In the midst of this warfare and turmoil is a curious little history of how God close to deal with some of their impatience and distrust of His provision. They seem to be fed-up with manna, wishing to be fed the very best. It strikes me as ironic that they had just previously been looking upon the Promised Land, with the all-powerful God as their warrior, guide, and protector. They turned down their future home and were stuck wandering a dry and deserted desert as a result, when they could have been plundering fallen cities, building their houses, and planting vineyards along the Jordan River.
God is right to be angry, thought to be honest I can see myself identifying with these stiff-necked Jews. Even though manna may have been edible and wholesome, there wasn’t much variety. Their way of asking God for something else is not the right way, showing bitterness instead of dependence, yet even so I do think I may have done something similar in such circumstances. If you don’t agree with me, try going on a ten day hiking trip and take nothing else to eat but a backpack full of wheat-bread.
Here the story takes a shocking turn, as “fiery serpents” are sent by God to discipline the people. One can debate whether this means God is doing evil here, but I believe such a view is missing the point. God wanted repentance from them, for if they followed down their path they might come across far worse consequences. The reptile here mentioned may be a viper, which seem to have come in great hoards over the sandy dunes and parched landscape of Northern Saudi Arabia. The word “fiery” is quite intriguing, and perhaps it refers to the type of viper which came upon them, although it may also refer to the potent venom which its species carried.
After a short while “many people of Israel died”, and panic comes. It is fearful enough to see just one snake in your patio, and seeing them by the hundreds, being of an extremely poisonous variety would surely wreak havoc on the Israelites. I personally detest snakes, and it is hard for me to appreciate almost anything about them, so such a vision would equate to perhaps my worst nightmare!