Summary: The incident with the snake on the pole in the wilderness is one of the strangest occurrences in scripture. This sermon looks at how it is part of God's on-going covenant keeping.
I hate snakes. End of story. There’s only one good type of snake in my book—a dead one! I can see a snake crawling on the ground and immediately it makes my skin crawl…it feels like the snake is crawling all over me. Yes, I know. It’s an irrational thing, and no, I don’t know where it comes from. I just know I don’t like snakes.
I know you’re probably asking yourself “What do snakes have to do with covenants?” That’s a fair question. Actually, snakes have little to do with covenant, but in this short passage in Numbers, these snakes become a foreshadowing of the fulfillment of the ultimate covenant God would make with creation. Let’s make that connection.
The book of Numbers reads a lot like an operations manual. Our English title comes from the Greek translation arithmoi, but the Hebrew title gives us a better clue to what’s actually happening in the book of Numbers. The Hebrew title is “in the desert of,” and Numbers, though it has a lot of numbers in it, tells the story of the nation of Israel’s wandering in the desert for nearly 40 years.
The episode we read this morning happened during their desert wanderings. The nation is coming near the end of its 40 year journey, and it has not been a smooth journey. The journey has been filled with multiple rebellions and corresponding consequences. Actually, the nation was a very whiny bunch from the beginning. The people were closing in on the place where they could finally call home. The Promised Land—the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham.
The Israelites were thickheaded, though (not like any of us). When it came to the discipline of God, they followed the instructions on the shampoo bottle—wash, rinse, repeat. They would disobey, suffer the consequence, repent. Disobey, suffer the consequence, repent. Disobey, suffer the consequence, repent. A vicious cycle! Chapter 21 begins with a skirmish between the Israelites and the Canaanites. Israel didn’t start the fight, but they finished it. The Canaanites attacked them and Israel sent them packing.
Now, the nation comes to the border of Edom. The Edomites were distant relatives of Israel, and the Edomite land was not part of the Promised Land, so verse 4 tells us they went around the Edomite territory, and going around is always longer than going through, so guess what happened? Yup! They began to complain. What did they complain about? Food and water—again. Twice before the nation complained about food and water. Actually, Moses lost his ticket to the Promised Land because of the people’s complaining about water. Once before, Moses struck a rock when God told him to speak to it, and it cost him his trip to the Promised Land. That’s tough stuff, but it’s yet another example of rebellion and consequence. We cannot escape the reality that sin has consequences.
That’s what we find in Numbers. The people simply couldn’t stop rebelling. They worshipped idols! They complained about water! They complained about manna! They complained about Moses! They complained about water again! They complained about Moses again, and again, and again! And, here they are complaining about the manna and water—again! At every possible turn they were ungrateful to God. They showed contempt for God. They questioned (and even opposed) what God was doing. They wanted to go back to Egypt (even after 40 years). Instead of being special, and chosen, and set apart for God, they wanted slavery.
How could they keep rebelling against the Lord like that? An equally important question is “How can we?” It’s tempting to criticize the ancient Israelites, to shake our heads in disbelief as we read about their mistakes. After all, they’re dead so let’s talk about them. But, we bear a striking resemblance to those desert wanderers. In fact, from Israel’s story, we’re reminded of a foundational Biblical truth about humanity—all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That is Christianity 101. Every person who has ever lived, and every person who will ever live, will sin. White people, black people, and all shades of people sin. Rich people, poor people, Christian people and non-Christian people sin. You sin. I sin. Our children sin. Someone said there are two certainties in life—death and taxes. Let me add a third—sin.
The Bible confirms it for us.
• 1 John 1:8—“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
• Isaiah 53:6—“All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own.” In Hebrew, “all of us” literally means “all of us!”
• Romans 3:23—“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
The Israelites were terrible sinners, but so are we. “We are thirsty, we don’t like the food, and we don’t want to go hiking all the way around Edom!” Sounds to me like the family vacation!