I still remember the lightbulb moment I had the first time I ever read through the whole Old Testament: Wait a second… I’m just like the Israelites! I’d been frustrated by their complaining, their faithlessness, their constant rebellions in the face of God’s goodness and provision.
And then it clicked.
That was a tough realization.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end with Israel’s stubbornness. Let’s look at one such example.
In Numbers 21, we’re told that the Israelites had defeated rival Canaanites by the hand of the Lord. This was the first victory of many as Israel prepared to enter the Promised Land. It’s a cause for celebration, right? Well, it should have been! Instead, Israel chose to fixate on what wasn’t going right. The neighboring Edom had refused Israel passage through the land (Numbers 20:14-21), so now Israel had to take the long way. Here comes the grumbling…
“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’” (v.4-5). Ah, when will we learn?
Despite God’s faithfulness, the people become convinced again that their temporary struggles mean God will not fulfill his promises. Despite his miraculous, daily provision of the manna, they reject it as loathsome and worthless, even going so far to say they have no food and water. Exaggeration, much?
And yet, this is exactly what we do today. When God is seeming to take us by the scenic route, we become cynics. Suddenly God is no longer God. Suddenly his provision isn’t good enough.
Interestingly, we know that the manna– God’s bread from heaven– represents Christ, God’s ultimate provision for us brought down from heaven (go read John 6). Israel’s rejection of God’s provision was serious; it ultimately represented what would later be their rejection of Jesus himself.
Of course, this kind of rebellion needed to be punished. Verse 6 tells us that God sent fiery serpents among the people as a curse. Israel’s rejection of God was a serious matter and this hard-heartedness needed to be nipped in the bud before it grew into something worse. The serpents would get their attention.
Here’s where things get interesting. The people admit their sin and ask for forgiveness (v.7), and then Moses was given instruction from the Lord: “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (v.8).
I thought snakes were supposed to be bad in the Bible? Haven’t we all read about what happened to Adam and Eve? Why would God use the same means as the curse as the means of salvation?
I’m glad you asked!
This bronze serpent set on a pole is one of our clearest pictures of Jesus we see in the Old Testament. I love it.
Moses was to craft a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Those under the judgment of God, condemned to die, could look to this serpent and be healed. How simple is that? The guilty didn’t– couldn’t– do anything but fix his gaze toward his salvation. We all are condemned to die, held under the judgment of God, by our sin. And yet, we are provided Jesus as our means of salvation. As we fix our eyes upon him, the founder of our faith, attesting to his finished work on our behalf, we live.
In his conversation with the Jewish leader Nicodemus, Jesus references this bronze serpent, saying, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Jesus would soon be lifted up, both onto the cross to die and from the tomb to live.
He provides the model of resurrection life for us, and he does so by using the scandal of the cross. I asked earlier why God would use a serpent– the same thing cursing the people– as a means of the peoples’ salvation. Jesus gives us the answer: he, by putting himself under the curse of sin, defeated it. By the very means of the curse came our answer for deliverance.
How great is that?
Still, we are left with an important warning about this bronze serpent. Hundreds of years later, when Israel was established in the Promised Land, this serpent appeared again. Listen to this: “[King Hezekiah] did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done. He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan)” (2 Kings 18:3-4).
Right alongside all the idols and false areas of worship was the bronze serpent. Instead of being a testimony to God’s salvation, it became itself an object of worship. What a shame it is when we trade the Creator for the created, when we worship becomes misplaced. May we remember, now and forever, that Jesus is the greater bronze serpent; he is the one worthy of our worship. Let us never celebrate what we get from God while leaving God himself behind. God himself is our prize, our treasure.