Numbers Bible Study (In the Wilderness)

Numbers 20-21, The Bronze Serpent


In our last lesson we saw a turning moment in the book of Numbers. The death of Miriam opens the chapter as an ominous reminder about the falling of this generation in the wilderness for their rebellion. Then Moses and Aaron take glory to themselves when they strike the rock before the congregation of Israel to bring them water, rather than speaking to the rock and giving God the glory. The condemnation is that neither Moses or Aaron will enter the promised land because of their rebellion. Numbers 20 continues to describe more problems for Israel as they come to the end of the wilderness journey.

The Journey of Israel (20:14-21:3)

The section begins by describing the journey of Israel as they approach the promised land. In Numbers 20:14-21 we see that Israelites desire to pass through the land of Edom to go to the land of Canaan. Moses sends messengers to Edom requesting passage through the land, promising not to take any food or water along the way. However, Edom refuses to let the Israelites pass through (20:18) and if they do come through, they will be attacked by the sword. The request is made to Edom again and the response is the same. To show how serious they were about the rejection of Israel’s request, Edom sends out a large army and comes out to Israel with force (20:20). Thus, they turned Israel away so that they would have to take a longer journey around Edom. This reaction reminds us of Genesis 25:23 when Jacob and Esau were in the womb of Rebekah and the prophecy was given that these were two nations struggling against each other. One will be stronger than another and the older will serve the younger. It does not appear this way yet as the older looks to be the stronger. But this is an ominous warning where we see Edom rejecting its brother Israel. Going forward in the scriptures there will be the record of continual conflict between Israel and Edom which becomes a symbol of the struggle between God’s people (Israel) and the world (Edom). God is going to deal with the rebellion to God’s people in the future. Then we come to a monumental moment. It is time for Aaron to die on Mount Hor because he rebelled against God’s command at Meribah (20:24). Aaron is no longer able to serve the people as their high priest. The priestly garments that Aaron wore are taken from him and put on Eleazar his son. Next a Canaanite king fought against Israel but the Lord gave Israel the victory over them.

The Bronze Serpent (21:4-9)

But then we are told about another rebellion. As the people are going around the nation of Edom, “The people became impatient on the way” (21:4). Impatience is a devastating sin that is the gateway to committing many other sins. Think about how impatience leads to so many other sins like malice, anger, selfishness, slander, and more. Think about how often impatience has led you personally into greater problems and greater sins. One of the early lessons of the book of Exodus was that the people of Israel needed to trust God’s direction (Exodus 13:17-18). Now this second generation needs to learn this truth.

But the problem gets bad. “And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of the Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.’” (21:5). The complaint is similar to what we read in Numbers 11:1-6 when the people say they can no longer stand this manna. So they make their complaint against God and Moses. They have been brought into the wilderness to die, they do not have food or water, and we loathe this worthless, good for nothing, miserable food God has given us. This might be the worst part of the complaint. They hate their God-given circumstances and blessings. Now we can be amazed by these Israelites to complain against God’s provisions yet again. But let me ask a question. We studied complaining back in Numbers 11. That sermon was eight weeks ago. And we learned the lesson from that text and have stopped all our complaining about our circumstances and problems for the last eight weeks, right? No, we have fallen into the same trap as these Israelites. We default back into complaining just like these people. We need to hear this clear warning against impatience and discontentment. God now shows again what he thinks about our complaining and discontentment against our blessings, circumstances, and provisions.

God responds by sending fiery serpents that bit the people so that many of the people die (21:6). The fire is likely referring to the bite, that is, the pain and inflammation that came from being bit by poisonous snakes. We should not think that these snakes were on fire. Rather, God did not just send snakes but send poisonous snakes that brought fiery pain in their bites. The LXX reads “deadly snakes.” Now look at the response of the people in verse 7. They confess that they have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against Moses. The people ask Moses to pray to the Lord that the Lord will take away the poisonous snakes. So Moses prayed for the people. Notice that Moses continues to act as the intercessor for the sinful people. Pray to take away the serpents.

But notice that God’s answer is not to take away the poisonous snakes. Rather, the Lord tells Moses to make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole. This is probably a metal snake made of copper so that the reddish look like fire would be called a “fiery serpent” on a pole. Then God says that everyone who is bitten when they see the serpent on the pole shall live. Notice that the snakes are not removed but the antidote is provided. What an interesting solution God provides! We would expect God to take away the snakes. But this is not the salvation God offers. Faith is going to be needed for salvation. They are going to need to believe that looking at a metal pole is going to heal their wound. The people had to believe that God’s word for salvation would be effectual. They had to believe this would work. Nothing else was going to work but looking at the metal pole for healing. Salvation from the snake bite comes by faith so that no one can boast in their healing.

We have noted the massive size of the camp of Israel. I think we could have a false idea that the bronze serpent would have been easy to see from anywhere in the camp, as if wherever in the camp they were bit, they would just have to turn their heads. But the camp is very, very large, with well over 1 million people in this congregation. If you were bit, you would have to go walk to the bronze serpent and look at it for healing. The people knew where the pole was and faith in God’s words would have them walk to the pole for rescue. The thing that stood between life and death was the crucial symbol.

The Message

On the surface it can seem as if this is simply yet another record of the complaining of the Israelites. But the New Testament reveals that there are a number of shadows and pictures of redemption that were revealed in this event.

First, what we see in the wilderness is amazing. God does not take away the serpents which would seem to be the most obvious solution. But there is a picture of redemption that God is teaching. The people were going to be bitten. The people were going to have the venom going through their body. The people were going to die in their present condition. God does not change that. What God does is offer a solution. What God does is present the antidote. You had to look at the bronze serpent on the pole and then you would live. The people needed to believe that God would heal them if by faith they turned to the serpent on the pole. The people were required to take the Lord at his word through faith. What is particularly interesting is that God takes the image of death and makes it the image of life! The fiery serpent was going to be their death yet this image when looked upon by faith would be now their life. I would like for you to turn to John 3 and look at how Jesus speaks to this event in Israel’s history.

No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:13–18 ESV)

Jesus uses this scene as a parallel regarding what he has come to do. Put the parallel may not be exactly what we would expect. Notice the parallel is that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up. Jesus is going to be lifted up so that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. Jesus must be lifted up so that he can be the object of faith in which the people believe in God. God uses a reversal again. A symbol of death will now become the symbol of life. The cross was a symbol of death. The cross was an agonizing punishment laid against the worst of criminals. The cross, the image of death, would now become the image of life. If people would turn their eyes to Jesus and the cross, they will have life. The fiery serpents that brought death is made into an image to bring life. The cross which brought death is not made into an image to bring life as Jesus will give himself to the cross for life to all who believe in him.

Second, what sets up this event in Numbers 21? Why are the people complaining? The people are rejecting the bread that comes down from heaven. They want nothing to do with this manna. Jesus refers to this moment when he is teaching people in John 6.

30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

            35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:30–40 ESV)

Notice that Jesus is having a discussion with crowds and it revolves around the manna that came down from heaven in the wilderness. Jesus makes the point that God gives the true bread from heaven that leads to life. The crowd responds that they want it. Jesus then explains what the true bread from heaven is, and it is himself (6:35). Now listen to verse 40. “Everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life.” This is a reference to the serpent on the pole, just like in John 3:13-16. Now listen to the response of the crowd.

So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” (John 6:41 ESV)

Notice the parallel. These people grumble about the bread that came down from heaven because Jesus says that he is that bread. Just as the people in the wilderness grumbled about the bread that came down from heaven, they are doing the same with Jesus, grumbling that he is the bread that has come down from heaven. They did not like the bread God provided in the wilderness. They do not like the bread of life God provided them now for their salvation. Is this not hard to believe? Is it not unbelievable that people would complain against the bread of life, the bread from heaven that gives us life? It is unimaginable. Yet we complain against God anyway.

The cross, the lifting up of Jesus from the earth, is the healing of our sin wounds. Yet we can get upset about what Jesus asks us to do. We can complain about what we must sacrifice. We can resist the changes Jesus calls us to make so that we can be well. We can just as easily stubbornly refuse to receive the bread of life. We can just as easily refuse to look to the pole by faith for healing. Like the people in Jesus’ day, we can listen to what our Lord says and say that it is too hard or does not make sense or is not something we are willing to do.

I simply want to end the lesson by asking each of us to consider within ourselves what are resisting that the Lord has told us to be and do. What has God asked of us that we complain about or are upset about? From God’s marriage laws to loving others, there are so many things that are to be transformed in our lives. We must always be careful that we do not have resistant hearts to hearing God’s word and being willing to change everything about who we are and everything about our lives to be saved. Jesus has been lifted up. Will we look to him in faith or continue to live for ourselves?

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