Summary: How the Bronze Serpent of Moses and the Cross are connected.
THE BRONZE SERPENT
TEXT: Numbers 21:4-9
If somebody mentions snake stories in the Bible, the first one that pops into most people’s minds is Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, getting tricked into disobeying God by a clever snake. Those who might remember this little story from Numbers about the poisonous snakes and the bronze snake on a pole usually put it out of their minds quickly because it seems so odd. This is a problem story for a lot of people--one of those Old Testament stories that makes God seem nasty and harsh with a solution that seems just plain weird.
But it pops up again in the Gospel of John where Jesus compares himself lifted up on the Cross to the snake lifted up in the wilderness. And if Jesus is comparing himself to a snake on a pole, maybe this bizarre story deserves a bit more attention.
So into the strange story we go. First we need to remember where we are in the bigger story that is being told. This is Israel in the wilderness, during the 40 years between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land of Canaan. These are the folks who have seen God’s finest hour to this point in history. They remembered being slaves in Egypt. They remembered all the miracles that were performed to get them out of Egypt--all the plagues that touched Egypt and not them, the first Passover where the Angel of Death took the firstborn of every home in Egypt, but passed over the Hebrew homes and left them alive.
These were the people who watched the waters of the Red Sea part and who crossed over on dry land only to see the Egyptians drown behind them. These were the people who stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai, saw the mountain smoke and shake, and received God’s law. They heard God promise to be their God and to make them God’s people...and they promised to obey God’s commandments.
These are the people who saw God’s care for them visibly every day as God led them through the wilderness by a great cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night. And these are the people who saw God provide for them whenever they complained...which was a lot. We’re hungry, they had griped...so God sent manna...a miracle food that appeared every morning for them to gather. They got thirsty and complained, so God gave them water miraculously from a rock. They got bored with the manna and complained again, and God gave them quail.
God had done all of these things, and yet there was no gratitude, only complaints. And they were whiny complaints. It was never, “God, you have already done so much for us and we are grateful. We know we can live on whatever you provide, but we find we are thirsty all the time and we would really like more water.” There was never humility in their asking...it wasn’t even asking. It was whiny complaining, “Why did we ever leave Egypt! At least there we had food and water. Why did you ever bring us out of there! Did you just want to see us starve in the wilderness?”
God has put up with that sort of complaining time and time again from Israel, and now it is starting again. This last complaint puts God over the top, and God responds with a plague of poisonous snakes. We tend to be horrified at the thought of God actually punishing people this way, but I can tell you that if it had been up to me, I would have sent the snakes long before this.
The God in Numbers 21 is a God who has had enough...a God who is not going to be a doormat...a God who has given and given and given without receiving the first bit of gratitude in return, let alone obedience...and this last complaint is one whine too many. There’s a way in which I can relate to that...and I think we all can.
But what can we learn from it? The people try God’s patience a bit too far and get poisonous snakes as a result. We can learn first of all that thinking of God as a tame bit of milk toast who will do whatever we want is a dangerous position to take. God does get angry and God doesn’t like being pushed around or being taken for granted any more than we do. It doesn’t hurt every now and again to remember Who it is that we’re dealing with.
The poisonous snakes had exactly that effect on the people. This wakes them up, and they realize this is punishment. Not everything bad that happens is punishment from God, but this time it most surely was, and they knew it. They also knew it was deserved. Nobody says, “God is so awful, look what God has done to us innocent people.” Nobody charges God with wrongdoing. When the snakes show up and people start dying, the people say, “Uh oh. We’ve done it now,” and they go to Moses to ask forgiveness. Remember Moses is the intermediary between the people and God. They go to Moses and admit that they were wrong to complain about him and about God, and they ask Moses to pray for forgiveness.