Summary: A look at the bronze serpent of the Exodus and how it applies to the Christian walk today.
Watching your children grow up can sometimes be confusing. In some ways they are so much like their parents. But, in other ways they couldn’t be more different.
The same was true of Israel in the book of Numbers. This book is essentially the story of two generations: the first generation who rebelled against the Lord and ended up dead in the desert, and the second generation who will stand on the brink of entry into the Promised Land at the end of the book.
In chapter 21, we begin to read the story of the second generation. How will they be similar to and different from their parents? In our scripture passage for this morning, we will see that. We will also answer some other questions about the fate of that first generation.
Listen now to the words of our Lord as recorded by Moses in the book of Numbers, chapter 21, verses 1-9.
When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction.”
And the LORD heeded the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah. 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 whosoever 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.
Sometimes Novels and poems are loaded with hidden meanings and sometimes they are not. The trouble is, when we read a novel or poem, we might not know if there is a hidden meaning to search for. Poems, when they are set to music, become songs. But songs can still have that same illusive quality of a hidden meaning that may or may not exist.
One example of a simple children’s song is a good example of that. I’m referring, of course, to Ring around the Rosie. And you’ve probably heard the interpretation of that song as a symbol of the black plague.
For example, the phrase pocket full of posies is said to be representative of something carried in the pocket to ward off the disease or to mask the stench of death. Likewise, the repetition of ashes, ashes at the beginning of the last line is said to be symbolic of the practice of burning the bodies of those who succumbed to the plague.
But the real explanation is found in the play patterns of young children in the nineteenth century. Children in this time period would play ring games in which the children would form rings and rotate while singing simple songs like Ring Around the Rosie.
Ashes, ashes probably came from something like Husha, husha which was a made-up word that triggered the children to stop the rotation and fall to the ground. In was simply a way for young children to have fun.
For the Hebrew people in the wilderness, a very similar thing happened to them. The symbol of the bronze serpent was obviously a clear reference to the saving power of God. But over the years, that bronze serpent took on cultic meanings, and it eventually had to be destroyed because it became an Idol of sorts.
There are some difficulties in understanding this passage, and that’s what I want to do this morning; show you the real meanings and significance of this narrative and how it can be applied to our lives. The story begins with something completely different for the Israelites in the wilderness, and that is a victory over the Canaanites. That victory is described for us in verses 1-3.
Let’s begin by looking at verse 1 When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive.