Summary: How Numbers reveals jesus will be lifted up to be my redeemer
NUMBERS: MY BRONZE SERPENT.
What do you think of snakes? What image do they conjure up in your mind? Some people keep them as pets. Some people eat them as a delicacy. Legend has it St. Patrick drove them out of Ireland. Maybe like me you have never really given them much thought. In the reading from Numbers this morning snakes play a central role in the life of the people of Israel in this wilderness episode.
VERSE 4 - Let me set the background to this incident for you. The people of Israel have left Egypt and because of their disobedience and lack of faith in God they have been condemned to wander for a generation in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land. God has not abandoned them – he has provided manna and quail for their daily bread and he has protected and guided them throughout this wilderness period. Aaron has just died on Mount Hor, they have just won a great victory over the Canaanites and the King of Edom has just refused them permission to pass through the land of Edom. So they must go on a long trek around Edom in order to get to the Promised Land. They are heading South and East when they really want to be going North and West. The people have grown impatient with God and with Moses and they begin to grumble and complain. They are impatient to with Moses and the direction which the Lord is leading them. The desert is no Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.
VERSE 5 – well here we go again. This seems to be a recurring complaint with the people of Israel. Life was better in Egypt. Why did you bring us out into this desert to die? They had uttered the exact same words on many occasions before and would again in the future. The people of Israel were quick to disparage their deliverance from the bondage of slavery. They had quickly forgotten the oppression under which they had toiled for many years. Funny isn’t it that when difficulties come we always want to go back to the old familiar ways. The people of Israel wanted to go back to Egypt because of the difficulties of life in the desert. They had failed to learn their lesson – it was their own sin that had brought them into this desert in the first place and they had forgotten the bitterness of bondage.
Look their complaints. There is no bread. There is no water. And there is only this miserable manna. This is their most vitriolic attack on God. They had spurned the very bread of heaven (Psalm 7823-24). In disparaging the provision of God they were denying, decrying and denigrating his grace and favour towards them. What they were actually saying was “your gifts are no gifts at all. Your grace is no grace at all. You do not care. You do not provide us with blessing but curse.” When you think about it it is a pretty dreadful thing they have just said to God. How could they be so ungrateful? Have they so quickly forgotten their deliverance? Obviously they have. But let me stop you there and ask you a personal question: Are you any different? Have we all not been quick to condemn God? Have we not grumbled against God? Why have you let this happen to me? You do not care? Let me read to you what Adrian Plass says in a prayer in his book ‘The Unlocking’ (page 35). Ever felt like that? I have and I have even said it on occasions to God? Let me let you into a secret – He knows it all and he is able to cope with it all. The difference here with the people of Israel is that they are condemning God by disparaging his provision for them. The rejection of manna is a rejection of the grace of God which provided it for their daily nourishment.
You know the habit of complaining can easily grow in the life of God’s people. It is nothing new and each time the complaint grows, the venom with which it is expressed also grows. Invariably like the people here in Numbers 21 it is directed towards the leader but note will you that it is actually directed at God. The leader just happens to be the most visible symbol of God in their midst. In their case it was Moses.
VERSE 6 – well God is rejected by his people and so they bring his judgement down upon themselves. Snakes are a naturally occurring phenomena in a desert but they arrive in the midst of the camp in unnatural numbers. The people have rejected a blessing from heaven so now they receive a curse from the desert. They were offered nourishment and life in the form of manna but they reject it and receive disease and death from snakes. They face death instead of receiving life by ‘this miserable bread.’ The Lord sends the snakes. He sends punishment for sin. They rejected his grace and his provision and so they must face his judgement and wrath. It really is as simple as that.