4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The 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 detest this miserable food.’ 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Both Troubling and Saving.
This story from Numbers raises troubling questions. Why would the Lord send poisonous serpents among the Israelites in order that they might die? This biblical revelation makes you wonder why anyone would worship a god who does something so capricious and morally suspect. This is troubling.
To give us some perspective, I suggest we interpret this “bronze snake story” as though it is another variation on the theme of Genesis 3. Recall that in this Genesis story Adam and Eve committed the first sin, original sin.
In the book of Numbers the setting is not the Garden of Eden, but the wilderness into which the Israelites have been led by Moses out of Pharaoh’s bondage. At this juncture in Israel’s history is necessary to recall that God has just proven his faithfulness: God has rescued the Hebrew people from Pharaoh, a wretched political oppressor. Shouldn’t the Israelites be praising the God of Israel? One would think so, but instead the Israelites grumble and complain about their state of affairs. Their grumbling goes so far as to suggest that the God who had rescued them from slavery did so for the express purpose of bringing them into the wilderness to die. This is troubling.
If we take a step back, it’s apparent the Israelites have composed their own variation on Genesis 3. The human propensity to disbelieve God’s word is passed from one generation to the next. The serpent presented Adam and Eve with a question suggesting doubt about God’s word: ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ Similarly, the Israelites doubt God’s purpose for their lives: “‘why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?’”
The Israelites fell just like Adam and Eve. They doubted whether God desired life for his people, not death. It is against this backdrop that I think we must interpret that the Lord’s “sending of deadly serpents”. The intrinsic consequence of sin, of disbelieving God’s word leads to death e.g. “killer snakes”. This is troubling.
The takeaway from this reading from Numbers is not that God arbitrarily sent snakes to make the Israelites die. The takeaway is that human sin as expressed in unbelief leads to death. The good news is that God desires for us to have life, and have it abundantly. This good news is that God is good. God is trustworthy, and God has our best interest at heart. The takeaway is that even when we refuse to believe God’s good purpose for our lives; God still gives us a way out of death to life. God takes the serpent, a symbol of death, and turns it into an instrument of life, healing and salvation for the Israelites. Here we can begin to imagine how a cross, a symbol of death, might be turned into a symbol of salvation. This is hardly troubling. In fact; it’s downright saving!