So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among them,
and many of them were bitten and died.
Then the people came to Moses and cried out,
“We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you.
Pray that the LORD will take away the snakes.”
So Moses prayed for the people.
Then the LORD told him,
“Make a replica of a poisonous snake
and attach it to the top of a pole.
Those who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!”
So Moses made a snake out of bronze
and attached it to the top of a pole.
Whenever those who were bitten
looked at the bronze snake, they recovered!
(Numbers 21:6-9 NLT)
I have always regarded the above scripture with a certain amount of amazement and awe. In the first place, it declares that the Lord sent poisonous snakes among His own people. Many of them died, and no-doubt the victims included young and old, women and children. The people declared their guilt, confessed their sin, and begged Moses to intercede with the Lord to remove the serpents.
These verses are troubling, and over the years I have heard many teachers and preachers labor long over them trying to explain away what seems to be the Lord’s personal and active participation in the act of bringing such a horrible calamity upon His own people. Other preachers simply ignore these verses, or gloss over them in a way that implies that the “lord” referenced in this passage is actually the devil, and the translation is suspect.
The Hebrew text is clear. ” וַיְשַׁלַּח יְהוָה בָּעָם, אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים “
“Yahweh gave the people the snakes.” Not the devil, but Yahweh. Can you see how this is an extremely controversial and troubling verse, especially to contemporary Christians who are constantly told by preachers that God only allows “good” things to happen to His people (according to man’s estimation of what is “good“)?
A disclaimer is needed here
People tend to be offended by verses like the ones above and expect that some mitigating interpretation must be offered whenever they are shared. A plain reading seems to imply that God is cruel and a murderer. He certainly is not! All His deeds, however harsh they may seem to us from our incredibly limited perspective, are wrought in loving-kindness, mercy, and love.
Notice how God is both kind and severe.
He is severe to those who disobeyed,
but kind to you as you continue to trust in his kindness…
(Romans 11:22 NLT)
In an ultimate sense, everything God does or allows to happen is focused entirely on the ultimate blessing, joy, fulfillment, healing, and redemption of His Children. However, His ways and means are not easily understood or appreciated by us, especially when we’re hurting, or when something happens that throws our world into chaos.
Job (another book of the bible many avoid) suffered horribly with losses that stagger the imagination. He was clear about two things. He knew that God had allowed these calamities in his life, and secondly, he knew that God was entirely trustworthy and had his ultimate good and blessing at heart.
His wife did not share Job’s gift of patience and trust in God.
His wife said to him,
“Are you still trying to maintain your integrity?
Curse God and die.”
But Job replied, “You talk like a godless woman.
Should we accept only good things from the hand of God
and never anything bad?”
So in all this, Job said nothing wrong.
(Job 2:9-10 NLT)
Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.
(Job 13:15a NKJV)
Yahweh didn’t remove the snakes
The people repented and asked Moses to pray that God would take away the snakes. The Lord didn’t remove them. In fact, they continued to be bitten. Imagine the terror they experienced–afraid to walk, or lay down and sleep at night–for fear that the snakes would bite them or their children.
After Moses prayed, the Lord gave them yet another snake–a very special one. He told Moses to fashion a bronze snake and put it on a pole. The people were told to look at it, and anyone who did would be healed of snakebites. Think about this! The snakes were still there, biting the people. The people had to take their eyes off their problem (the deadly snakes) and look UP at the bronze snake on the pole! Imagine the raw faith it took to look up at the serpent on the pole with deadly snakes slithering around their feet.
The Lord was using this event for a much larger purpose.
It was for OUR instruction and admonition.
And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness,
so I, the Son of Man, must be lifted up on a pole,
so that everyone who believes in me will have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him
will not perish but have eternal life.
(John 3:14-16 NLT)
What am I saying? We live in a world full of snakes. God hasn’t removed them, we’re still hassled by them, and no amount of wishing otherwise or praying will change that. Certainly we experience victories over the brokenness of this present world, as the Lord leads us, just as Moses and the Israelites did. (Walking on dry land in the midst of the Red Sea and bread falling out of the sky were pretty amazing miracles, right?) But that didn’t mean that painful situations didn’t pop up now and then, yet each of them was meant for our good.
What is amazing to me is that the Redeemer had to become a snake Himself on the pole, in the image of that old serpent, Lucifer, and became Himself a curse FOR US. Yeshua essentially became a snake FOR US, in our place. Even though we live in a fallen, evil world, and we are vexed by one form or another of “venomous snakes” all around us, we have only to “look up” to the serpent on the pole and LIVE! It takes a lot of faith to take our eyes off the snakes in our lives and look to Jesus.
Please understand, I am not speaking disrespectfully of our Messiah. In fact, this revelation of His amazing grace only makes me want to fall before Him in adoration! What love! What compassion! What mercy! To think that He came down from heaven, laid aside His divine privileges, and took the form not only of the lowest servant, but actually became one with us in our utter degradation and vile estate, is beyond comprehension. Now we enjoy eternal life, peace with God, and eternal hope that NOTHING can take away from us. We’ve looked upon the “serpent on the pole” and the power of sin is broken!
The power of this revelation is embedded in our world in many ways. Even the medical community is identified by the image of a serpent on a pole! Look at the side of almost any ambulance. It is the universal symbol of healing!
Let’s look afresh and gaze intently upon HIM who gave himself a ransom for our sin. As the world rages around us and nations fall into prophetically foretold chaos and madness, let’s look unto Him and receive healing from the snakes all around us. We are victors in the here and now, and death has no power over us!