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Numbers 21:4-9

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They were going around Edom because, as we read in chapter 20, Edom had refused Israel passage through its territory.

This, thankfully, is the last recorded incident of Israel complaining about her diet. What she here calls “miserable food,” that is, the manna she had been eating for 40 years, is elsewhere in the Bible called “the bread of heaven.” [Ps. 78:24-25; 105:40] It was the monotony of the food that caused the complaint. Manna morning, noon, and night, every day, every week, every month. But this is the new generation, not the old. These are the people who will soon take possession of the Promised Land. For that reason it is the more disappointing that having practiced her faith so encouragingly in the incident recorded in the previous paragraph she should so quickly resort to her parents’ old habits of doubt and grumbling; but then, how true to life. What a wonderful thing it would be for us if spiritual ground, once taken, were never again lost. But it is not usually so, is it? In this case, the doubting and grumbling seems to have been the result of the fact that after all these years and now so close to the Promised Land they were again turning away and moving further from it. “Will we ever get there?” may have been the thought in everyone’s mind. That is the sense of “the people grew impatient on the way.” That may be somewhat understandable. But, remember, to say “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?” is virtually the same thing as saying, “I would rather not have been redeemed; I would rather not have been saved.” That is a terrible thing to think or to say! If only we could reverse God’s great plan of redemption and return to our former slavery!

As with all complainers, they make things sound worse than they actually are and play fast and loose with the truth. They begin by saying that there is no bread. Then they contradict themselves by saying that they are tired of the bread they have to eat. In any case, in saying such a thing they completely denigrated the Lord’s miraculous provision for them.

The NIV’s “venomous snakes” is literally “fiery snakes” as in the ESV. The “fiery” probably derives from the color of the serpent or the pain of the bite or the inflammation of the skin caused by it. [Wenham, 157]

The presence of poisonous snakes in the Sinai desert has been noted by ancient writers and by modern ones. Esarhaddon, the Assyrian king, noted in his chronicle of his campaign against Egypt that his army had to face the danger of fatal snakebites. Here is T.E. Lawrence, the famous Lawrence of Arabia, in his Revolt in the Desert [1927, 131-132]:

“The plague of snakes which had been with us since our first entry into Sirhan, to-day rose to memorable height, and became a terror…. This year the valley seemed creeping with horned vipers and puff-adders, cobras and black snakes. By night movement was dangerous; and at last we found it necessary to walk with sticks, beating the bushes each side… they got so on our nerves that the boldest of us feared to touch the ground.”

Thankfully, the people were much quicker to realize their mistake than their parents ever were. They realized that they had sinned – a very good start – and asked Moses to pray for them.

The Lord commanded Moses to make a snake and Moses made it of bronze or copper. The word can mean either copper or one of its alloys. Copper is perhaps more likely for several reasons. First, as we read in 33:41-42, they skirted the land of Edom by going through Zalmonah and Punon. The latter is known in ancient times to have been a center for the mining and smelting of copper, so was a likely place for the manufacture of a copper snake. [Milgrom, 173]

What is more, a remarkable confirmation of this history has been provided by archaeological excavations at Timna, very near where Israel must have been when this incident occurred. Timna is about fifteen miles north of Eilat, which is on the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba at the bottom of the Arabah, the valley or rift that connects the bottom of the Dead Sea with the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel, rounding the land of Edom as she was, would have been traveling down the Arabah toward the Gulf of Aqaba to get below Edom so that she could go round her on the south and then the east.

In the holy place of a 13th century B.C. temple – originally Egyptian, later Midianite – excavated at Timna was found a copper snake 5 inches long. Other copper snakes have been found at a variety of sites in the Near East but none so close to the site of an incident in biblical history involving a copper snake.

This incident has a special place in the heart of biblically minded Christians because of the use to which it is put in the famous third chapter of the Gospel of John. In the verses leading up to John 3:16, and with Jesus himself speaking to Nicodemus, we read:

“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. 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.”

In John that thought of Jesus being “lifted up” is carried right through the Gospel and refers to the cross as the means of his execution. He was lifted up by being hung up on a cross. Understood this way, the copper snake of Numbers 21 is a type or enacted prophecy of Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As the Israelites who had been bitten by serpents had to look at the copper snake at the top of the pole to be delivered from the otherwise fatal effect of the bite, so men must look to Jesus Christ to be saved from sin and death. The point is one that great preachers have rung the changes on through the ages. So Martin Luther: “Faith is nothing else but a sure and steadfast looking to Christ.” That typology seems so obvious to us, coming to it as we do from the Gospel of John, that we don’t pause to consider how strange it is, how unexpected, and how difficult to explain.

Stop for a moment and consider the instructions that Moses was given. He was to make a metal snake, stick on the end of a pole and lift it up so that people might look at it. Nothing like this was done at any other time in Israel’s history in the wilderness or thereafter. In other cases when she was being punished for her sin the punishment was simply removed, the plague stopped (Numbers 16:48) or the punishment was completed and brought to an end (Exodus 32:28). Indeed, the nearest antecedent of the manufacture of a copper snake was the making of the golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai, a horrible error for which Israel was severely punished. In that case the image was burned, ground to powder, mixed with water and the people were made to drink it! Was it not Yahweh himself who commanded his people not to make graven images and all the more not to make them as objects of worship? His people were tempted by the ubiquitous idolatry of the ancient Near East (ANE) as it was. Why give them any encouragement in that direction?

No one can doubt the temptation that the copper snake represented because we know from Scripture itself that Israel succumbed to that temptation with this very object that was the means of her deliverance in the desert. In 2 Kings 18:4, in the midst of the account of Hezekiah’s accomplishments, we read this:

“He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.) [Nehushtan sounds like the Hebrew word both for copper and snake.]

Frankly, one would have thought anyone could have predicted that Israel would have succumbed to the temptation to treat the copper snake as an idol. Why in the world then was Moses given the instructions the Lord gave him? Didn’t the copper image of the snake get in the way of the power of prayer? Wouldn’t it have been better, safer, because more obviously the Lord’s response to Moses’ prayer if the snakes had simply slithered away never to bother the Israelites again? It is one thing for Moses to strike or speak to a rock, it is another thing to make a graven image and have the Israelites look to it for deliverance.

One of the problems with preaching through a book of the Bible paragraph by paragraph is that the preacher must take the next paragraph in turn whether or not he is entirely sure what to make of it. And I confess that I am not entirely sure what to make of this text. Scholars of the Bible-believing sort are not agreed as to what to do with it. One fine scholar takes the view that the copper serpent was chosen for its association with Egypt because the people had said that they wished they were back in Egypt. He argues this way.

“To understand what is going on here, it is important to recognize that neither the judgment nor the remedy was a random phenomenon. It is not as if the lord saw his people sinning and then said to himself, ‘Now what shall I afflict them with today? I think I’ll send snakes! I haven’t tried that punishment before.’ Nor was the form of judgment simply due to the fact that snakes were a convenient commodity with which to afflict people in that part of the desert. Rather, it was a sign full of meaning for the Israelites, who had only a few years earlier emerged from Egypt and were therefore well-versed in Egyptian symbolism. There serpents were a potent representation of the power of Egypt, to which they were apparently so eager to return. Snakes were well-known symbols of power and sovereignty in ancient Egypt, as the familiar image of a cobra on Pharaoh’s crown reminds us. Having once been freed from Pharaoh, did they really want to be subject to the power of the serpent all over again? [Duguid, 262]

He goes on to suggest that for Israel, further, the serpent was an image of Satan, the ultimate enemy of mankind and that the choice was once again being starkly put to them: bondage to Satan or freedom in covenant with Yahweh. But why the image on the pole and why looking at it as the way of deliverance? He suggests that the pole or staff was a symbol of power and that putting the image of the snake upon the pole it was demonstrated that Israel’s mortal enemies – both Egypt and Satan – had been overcome by the power of the Lord.

I will be candid with you. That doesn’t make much sense to me. The Israelites had often said they wanted to go back to Egypt and had never before been required to look at a copper snake to ward off the Lord’s judgment for their ingratitude and unbelief. But if the snake stood for Egypt, why only here is a copper snake introduced? What is more, the staff of a conqueror did not have the image of his enemy affixed to its top. It seems odd that the snake-bitten Israelites would be required to look at the copper serpent for healing if, in fact, the serpent were their enemy, even a defeated enemy. What is more, in the ANE snakes were symbolic of a variety of things including protection and healing. Snakes were regularly worshipped. In Egypt, in fact, images of snakes were worn as a talisman to ward off snake bites. [Wenham, 157] It is far more likely that the Israelites would associate the snake with healing not with a defeated enemy because that is what the rest of the ancient world did! It is not obvious to me that the natural connection any Israelite would draw from the copper serpent was Egyptian, still less Satanic power now conquered by the Lord. The fact is the snakes had bitten them and they were dying. The snake’s power was very real. What is more, the obvious fact is that the Israelites were to look at the snake to obtain healing. The purpose of the pole seems simply to be to enable more Israelites to see the snake! It is the snake, not the pole to which one is to look. Looking at the snake was, instrumentally, the agent of the healing. By what connection of thought would one look at the snake to be healed if the snake were representative of evil power and of one’s vanquished enemy? Why would I look at Satan, vanquished or not, if I wanted help from the Lord? More than that, such an interpretation makes much less obvious the Lord’s use of this incident in John 3, for surely he was not lifted up as a conquered enemy, still less as a Satan-figure! The Bible doesn’t teach me to look at my sin to find forgiveness. We do not tell a sick person to look at his disease to find healing.

Another reliable scholar of Numbers suggests that the snake functions here according to the pattern of other purificatory rites and sacrifices of the Law of Moses. He refers to the principle of inversion. A dead animal is unclean and touching it makes a person unclean. But killing an animal is also the means of making atonement: animals are killed so that sinful men might live. Blood which pollutes when it is spilled or splashed on someone can also purify and sanctify the worshipper when employed properly. In the ritual of the red heifer, the ritual we considered back in chapter 19, the ashes that made everyone else unclean purified the one who drank them with water. The idea would be then that “looking with hope for salvation and healing upon a form of that which has rendered one [susceptible to death] was a wonderfully paradoxical act of faith in a God who controlled all power over life or death.” [Cole, 350]

I have great confidence in this man’s scholarship [Gordon Wenham], but frankly this argument left me scratching my head. It seemed to me over-subtle by half and so complicated that I couldn’t help but wonder if any Israelite would have figured out why they were supposed to look at the copper serpent. Why, after all, a copper snake? There are no snakes in Israel’s sacrificial ritual. Snakes are unclean animals and unfit for sacrifice. Graven images were uniformly forbidden as a form of worship or intercession or prayer to God. And, there is nothing in the text to suggest anything about the snake’s death. Moses didn’t kill a snake; he manufactured the image of one from copper. Israel was never commanded to look at the lamb or goat or bull that was being sacrificed as a means of appropriating the atonement affected by its death. This looking at the copper serpent could very easily be thought to be some form of typical ANE magical ritual – many unbelieving commentators on this passage have suggested just that – but Israel’s worship is one vast protest against the magical theories of ANE idolatry. By magic I mean the effort to manipulate the gods or the fates by means of some technique apart from and without regard to ethics, that is, without regard to the state of the worshipper’s heart or life.

Another fine commentator proposes that the image of the snake was, as it were, a picture of a snake stiffened in death. No one fears a dead snake. It had been rendered harmless by the mercy and power of God. [Keil, 140] But would anyone have thought that the point of the image was to display a dead snake. That certainly wasn’t the point of all the other metal images of serpents in the ANE. I’m sure, in fact, the snake was made to look alive, not limp and with head hanging as in death!

After reading a number of commentaries on this text I was left with the feeling that the scholars really don’t know what to do with this. They typically pass over the problems rather glibly and move on, a sure sign that they don’t know how to answer the obvious questions: why a graven image in the idolatrous culture of the ANE? why look at that of all things? why a snake; why not look toward the sanctuary or at the fiery cloud? One would naturally think that the needy should look to the Lord not to the cause of their distress. In what other way do we do what the Israelites did here?

You are naturally expecting me now to give you the right answer to those questions and the right explanation of this incident. But I haven’t such an explanation to give you. I thought when I began these evening sermons on Numbers that the law of the jealous husband in Numbers 5:11ff. was going to provide the most difficult challenge of interpretation. But I think we now understand that passage quite well and can apply it to our own circumstances very easily. I would now say that this passage, the lifting up of the copper serpent, is the most baffling we have come to in the book. And I’m not sure that anyone has a fully satisfactory explanation for what we read here. Obviously the Lord told Moses to do what he did, and what the Lord does is good and right. Obviously the stratagem worked: the people who looked at the copper snake were healed. But why the Lord ordered and then blessed this approach is another question and one for which I do not have a satisfactory answer.

Perhaps Matthew Henry, a pre-critical commentator, who had access to none of the developments in biblical and archeological studies over the past two centuries, comes closest when he says that a noteworthy characteristic of this way Yahweh chose to deliver Israel is that “it was a very unlikely method of cure…” [I, 665] It is not what we would have expected in any way, shape, or form. But, then, that is true of everything that God has done to accomplish our salvation. No wonder that our hope of deliverance from sin and death should rest on the crucifixion of an amateur Jewish rabbi, the very notion that became such a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. For them that is worse than looking at a snake to heal snakebite! Perhaps too we have here a case of the Lord poking ANE idolatry in the eye with a stick. You think your idols really live, really have power, really can help you. Baloney! But if anyone can make an idol powerful, it is I! Perhaps it was a lesson to Israel to realize that the only images that have any power at all are the ones that Yahweh tells her to make. I’m not sure of any of this; I only offer it as additional guesses that have been made by good men.

But two things are clear in this short passage. Both are dramatically front and center.

The first is the answer to the question: why do people not look? If all one has to do to live forever is look, why don’t people do it? The reason is very simple: they don’t feel the snakebite; they have gone numb; they are insensible. The snake has bitten but they haven’t felt it, like the unfelt bite of flea or a tick that transmits a deadly disease, or better like the invasion of a wound by a microscopic bacterium.

Sometime ago the Grosses gave me a book to read that remains one of the most fascinating histories I have ever read. It is Thomas Hager’s The Demon Under the Microscope, an account of the quest for the world’s first anti-bacterial drug. Until its discovery, largely by accident in Germany in 1932, people had died by the millions from bacterial infections that no one could cure. Soldiers who survived battlefield wounds would eventually die of an infection. Children died in enormous numbers from strep and other infections, women in child birth as well. By the time of the First World War it was known that bacteria were the cause of these killer infections but still there was no antidote and soldiers who would live to fight again after being wounded in the Second World War died by the millions in the First.

Hager deftly tells the story of how the chemists at Bayer stumbled upon sulfa as a cure for bacterial infection and then continues with the fascinating account of the frenzy that followed upon the world’s discovery that a cure had been found for so many of the fatal illnesses that still darkened human life in those days. Everyone immediately began looking to sulfa to cure a variety of infections. Infected children who would have died just weeks or months before now recovered almost immediately to perfect health. It changed the world, it changed medicine, it changed doctors, and it changed everyone’s expectations for a long and healthy life almost overnight.

What made sulfa so powerful a force in human life upon its discovery was the brute fact that that so many people were dying of diseases that sulfa could cure. They knew and felt the danger of the disease and so they rejoiced in and clamored after the antidote. Here is the entire problem with people’s looking to Jesus Christ: they haven’t felt the bite of the serpent. It hasn’t stung or inflamed their skin or caused a loved one to die. It is need that causes a person to look away from himself to someone else for help. And it is a sense of sin and guilt, a conviction of sin, a fear of God’s judgment, and a desire for forgiveness that causes a person to look to Jesus Christ. Absent that spiritual pain and fear no one ever looks to the one who was lifted up.

What comfort can a Savior bring
To those who never felt their woe?

As has been wisely said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains…” [Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 81] If you are praying for someone, if you are making a special effort to pray for someone this Lenten season, pray that he or she might feel the serpent’s bite, that they may realize that it is their own sin that is killing them, and then he or she will care that only Jesus Christ can take that sin away.

The second unmistakable point of the narrative – and like all biblical narratives it is intended to teach us theology and ethics, what to believe and how to live – is that what Israel had to do was to look in faith and obedience. She couldn’t cure the snakebite by herself. She was helpless once bitten. She had to look away from herself to the provision the Lord had made for her. That much is clear in the context. The image of the snake was Yahweh’s provision for his people and he commanded them to look at it. And everyone who did was spared. It is a perfect picture of Christian faith: looking to someone else to save you.

Some of you will have read the account of the conversion of Charles Spurgeon, the greatest preacher of the 19th century English speaking world. There has never been a preacher in the English-speaking Christian world like Charles Spurgeon. Dr. Graham, in our time, is as well known as Spurgeon was, but Spurgeon was a much more consequential preacher, a deeper thinker, a more masterful handler of the Word of God. People all over the world read Spurgeon’s sermons, distributed as they were by the millions through the mail. With all respect to Billy Graham and his very important ministry, there was more substance in a single Spurgeon sermon than in a year’s worth of Dr. Graham’s sermons.

Spurgeon was sixteen years of age when, one snowy Sunday morning, he set out for church. He was under conviction of his sin. He knew there was something seriously wrong with his life, but didn’t yet know how to fix it. Now sixteen sounds quite young. But remember: Spurgeon was a remarkably precocious teenager, a natural genius. He would prove a real scholar even though he never received a scholar’s education. He was to become a deep thinker and a great orator, a master of both written and spoken English. At 20 he was already the finest preacher in the world. So Spurgeon’s 16 years of age would be any other bright person’s 32! It was snowing, so hard in fact that he gave up making it to his church and stopped in instead at a little Primitive Methodist Chapel. There were a dozen or fifteen people gathered. The minister had not made it, Spurgeon supposes because of the snow.

“At last, a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. Now, it is well that preachers should be [educated], but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was –

‘Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.’

He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus: ‘My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well a man needn’t go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me.’ “Ay! Said he, in broad Essex, “many on ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the Father. No, look to Him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’”

Then the good man followed up his text in this way: ‘Look unto Me; I am sweatin’ great drops of blood. Look unto me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to heaven. Look unto me; I am sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me!

When he had gone to about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes or so, he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I daresay, with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, ‘Young man, you look very miserable.’ Well, I did, but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, ‘and you always will be miserable – miserable in life, and miserable in death – if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.’ Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist could you, ‘Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.’ I saw at once the way of salvation…. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, ‘Look!’ what a charming word it seem to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. …and that moment I saw the sun…” [Autobiography, I, 87-88]

There it is again: “looking” for salvation. Such is faith in Jesus Christ. Looking away from yourself to him! People think it a very strange thing to do. But when they have been bitten and are dying it is the only thing to do!