Meditating on the Judgements of God:
5.8 Judgement of Snakes
Num 21:4-6 They travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.
Today if we eat too much we become obese. If we drink too much alcohol we get drunk and may suffer liver damage. If we have sex outside marriage contrary to God’s design then we create unfaithfulness and a whole host of other repercussions. Although most people are blind to this in their sin and under the dominion of Satan, nevertheless God has so made us that living contrary to the way He has designed us to live means that we ‘break down’. For Israel the Lord made this very plain through the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 27 and 28 and the clear implication is that when they obeyed Him and lived according to His design He would bless them and make sure everything went well for them, but if they disobeyed Him, and rejected His design for them, He would ensure things went badly.
In doing this He accentuated the whole design feature of His world. In its simplest terms, to use a very common example, if you buy a car you get a manufacturer’s handbook which tells you when to have it serviced and so on. You are not surprised (or shouldn’t be) if you fail to have it serviced and it eventually breaks down. That is true of a lot of things in life from the looking after plants to the care of anything live or mechanical or electronic. We expect things to work in a specific way and when we do not use them in the proper manner we are not surprised when they break down. Sometimes that breakdown is gradual and as it starts to function less well, that should be a wakeup call to us that something is wrong and we need to reconsider how we are using it.
Now our verses above are all the more surprising because in the three verses before, the Lord had given their enemies into their hands. Now whether it was battle fatigue or something else, we come to this amazing condemnation of Israel: “the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses.” The new generation (the older generation having gradually died off in the desert) are impatient to move into the Promised Land and rashly speak against the Lord (presumably for keeping them there for so long) and against Moses as His representative. They complain about lack of provisions and have clearly grown fed up with the manna; they are ready to go in but their attitude is not what it should be.
They have lost the sense of the Lord’s holiness and probably forty years have dulled their memories or the memories of the stories told them by their parents, of the things that happened in Egypt, on their travels to Sinai, the events at Sinai, and their failure to enter the land forty years back. All this seems to have been lost in the mists of forty years and so they now speak out rashly – but they are still God’s people and He does not abandon them. At this point, think what you would do with this people to stop their total collapse. What would you do in these circumstances – come on a serious question!
In the earlier paragraphs I spoke about blessings and curses and the way we are made to ‘work’ and the things God sometimes does and the way a machine gradually breaking down is telling us we are using it wrongly. Now there is a sense with some of God’s judgments that they come slowly or at least give warning before having ultimate devastating effect. Snakes would be natural to the desert but when they start increasing in number and actually becoming a cause for concern, that is a time to think about the situation. The arrival of snakes is one thing, the fact that they bite people is another, and the fact that many people are dying from snake bite is yet a further indicator that Israel should be looking to themselves and what they are doing. This happens: “The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” (Num 21:7) Repentance is always the first stage of turning back and true repentance always acknowledges the specific sin, and Israel do this now.
But what to do to change the situation. The people ask Moses to pray and seek the Lord- a good move! – which he does. The Lord’s strategy was one that necessitate faith: “The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.” (v.8,9) Anyone bitten by a snake had to believe that going and looking at this bronze snake on a pole would heal them. Of course they would only be healed because the Lord healed them; the snake had no power in itself. Note it was a snake on a pole, not any representation of the Lord. You might expect them to have to come to the Tabernacle and bow before the Lord but the Lord wanted them to have a faith focus that was on the cause of their plight, and when they did that He would heal them.
Many years later Jesus used this illustration: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:14) Believing in Jesus lifted up on the Cross, lifted up in resurrection, and lifted up back to heavenly rule are the fundamental beliefs for the new believer. The initial lifting on the Cross is probably the feature that nearest matches the snake on the pole. Jesus hanging on the Cross carrying our sins is what we have to come to and believe in. That is the doorway for our salvation.
But there in the desert, God’s judgment was one that came gradually but obviously and brought repentance and then the means for healing. God was not wiping out His people but using a means to bring them back as a people to himself.