The Bronze Serpent

Enrich Fromm [1900-1980], in his highly acclaimed work Psychoanalysis and Religion, which is rather fascinating reading by the way, astutely observed, “Religion is any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.” When reflecting upon these thoughts one is tempted to consider the devolution of devotion of the ancient Israelites with respect to the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness.

It was never God’s intention that this work of human hands would become an “object of devotion,” and yet that is exactly how it came to be perceived. We are informed in 2 Kings 18:4 that in the course of time “the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan.” That which had been given to them as an emblem of God’s saving grace, had been turned into an idol. They had named it and were burning incense to it. What went wrong?! What caused a people to totally lose sight of the providential care of God, choosing rather to honor some slithery serpent than their Sovereign Savior?!

This unique historical narrative, recorded for us in Numbers 21:4-9, “is one of the most curious in Scripture, and it was a great puzzle to the Jewish commentators, who felt that it was in apparent violation of the second command of the Decalogue. Even the Jewish divines consulted by Trypho (as recorded by Justin Martyr) were unable to explain it” [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, p. 120]. God had clearly commanded through this same Moses, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image in the likeness of anything that is found in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” [Exodus 20:4]. The danger, of course, was that the Israelites would “bow down to them and serve them” [vs. 5]. Such a concern was fully justified, for, after all, while Moses was upon the mount receiving these very commandments, the people had persuaded Aaron, the brother of Moses, to fashion for them a golden calf to worship [Exodus 32:1-6]. In time, as was previously noted, they would do the same with this metallic serpent fashioned by Moses. God knew the fickleness of their hearts, and from the beginning He had commanded that no such images be formed for them to worship. So why, on this particular occasion near the end of their wilderness wanderings, did God command that such an image be created and lifted up for all to look upon?! This has bothered biblical scholars for centuries.

Background to the Narrative

The people of Israel had been delivered from their Egyptian bondage by a gracious and merciful God, who raised up for them a deliverer in the person of Moses. He led them forth into the wilderness where, at the foot of Mount Sinai, they entered into a covenant with their God [Exodus 19]. Sadly, they did not take this covenant as seriously as their Lord, and in time their faith in Him waned. The tragic result was that they were forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years, with the vast majority of the people perishing in this wasteland, never entering the land of promise. Even Moses himself would not be allowed to enter the land of Canaan. Those many years of wandering, however, were now almost at an end. Forty years had passed, and God had brought His people to the very border of the land of promise. Victories against the inhabitants were being experienced by these weary travelers as they moved ever closer to their new homeland [Num. 21:1-3].

But, a major problem presented itself. The nation of Edom (this people was descended from Esau, the brother of Jacob; thus, they were the cousin nation of Israel, whose people were descended from Jacob) refused to allow the Israelites to pass through their territory in order to reach the promised land. Moses had sent word to the king of Edom, graciously promising not to damage their land as they passed through; even promising not to drink a drop of their water on the way. However, the king said, “You shall not pass through us, lest I come out with the sword against you” [Num. 20:18]. Thus, the Israelites “set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom” [Num. 21:4]. This would be a long and difficult journey, through some of the harshest territory in the world. It was also the worst possible time of the year to undertake such a long circumnavigation. By comparing Num. 33:38 with 20:29, we know that this journey began around the sixth month of the fortieth year from their departure from Egypt, which would place the bulk of it within the late summer and fall of 1407 B.C. [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 407]. “This season would be one of the hottest and most trying for marching” [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 272]. “The Arabah is a stony, sandy, almost totally barren plain shut in by mountain walls on either side, and subject to fierce sand-storms” [ibid]. “For forty years the Israelites had been accustomed to wilderness life, but the district through which they were now passing is, by the description of travelers, desolate and repellent in an extraordinary degree” [ibid, p. 276].

Little wonder, then, that “the people became impatient because of the journey” [Num. 21:4]. They were more than ready to enter the land of promise. They were weary, they longed for that land of sweet rest; they were tired of wandering, and simply sought to settle down in their new home. It appeared they were on the very eve of accomplishing this … and, now, here they were back-tracking into the wilderness; heading in the opposite direction; forced to go around a territory they had hoped to pass through in order to achieve their long awaited resettlement. In a word, they were frustrated. This soon turned to anger, and they began to vent. “And the people spoke against God and 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 miserable food'” [Num. 21:5]. “Each step they made south and east, rather than north and west, seemed to be an unbearable back-tracking. They rejoined the road to the Sea of Reeds to make a broad circuit around Edom. Finally, it got to them again. They had been so very near the land and had even tasted the sweet wine of victory. But now they were wandering again, and in their wanderings they seemed to be as far away from ‘real’ food as ever” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 875].

This food that they loathed was the manna God had so graciously and providentially provided for them during the past forty years. God “commanded the clouds above, and opened the doors of heaven; and He rained down manna upon them to eat, and gave them food from heaven. Man did eat the bread of angels” [Psalm 78:23-25]. They had been blessed with bread from heaven, and yet had nothing good to say about it. They loathed it. “They not only spoke of the monotony of manna, but they described it as being ‘miserable bread.’ In their styling the ‘bread of heaven’ as something vile and despicable, the people were actually contemning the Lord its giver. The venom of the people’s anger led them to blaspheme the Lord, to reject His servant Moses, and to contemn the bread of heaven. This is the most vitriolic of their several attacks on the manna. A rejection of the heavenly manna is tantamount to one spurning the very grace of God” [ibid, p. 876]. Yes, the people were weary and frustrated, and they gave vent to their emotions. “But understandable or not, they were engaging in outrageous rebellion again, coupled to an almost visceral hatred of God’s gift to them in the ‘bread of angels.’ There is a pattern to complaining; it is habit forming. The tendency among people is to go beyond where one left off the last time, to become ever more egregious, ever more outspoken. Rarely does a complaining person become milder in his complaints. Finally, complaining becomes self-destructive” [ibid].

“So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died” [Num. 21:6]. As a consequence, “The people of God receive something from the desert rather than from heaven. They receive a sting instead of a blessing. They find themselves dying instead of being preserved alive by ‘that miserable bread'” they loathed so much [ibid]. As to the actual identity of these “fiery serpents,” there has been considerable speculation. Some feel the phrase refers to their appearance (there were certain bronze or copper colored serpents in the region that shined in the sunlight in such a manner that some who have traveled there say they almost appear to be ablaze), whereas others feel the phrase referred to the burning pain experienced when injected with their venom, the pain being so intense that one felt like he was on fire. “The ‘fire’ was in their venom, of course; hence the NIV’s ‘venomous snakes.’ The poison in these snakebites must have been particularly virulent, leading to horrible, agonizing deaths” [ibid]. “God sent among them fiery serpents, i.e., snakes with a burning venom” [Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 407]. This is the most accepted of the two views, but some still insist on the other: “It is commonly assumed that the ‘fiery’ serpents were so called because of the burning pain and inflammation caused by the bite, but this is hardly possible. Rather it must be because of their brilliance and the burnished lustre of their appearance” [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 272]. There are several good, valid arguments on both sides of the issue, yet we shall refrain from the temptation of chasing these “wascally wabbits” through the desert at this time. Such exegetical detours, though interesting and enlightening, can easily divert our focus from the primary principles and precepts to be perceived from the passage. However one chooses to define the term “fiery,” the great effect of these serpents upon the people is clear — they suffered and they died, and this was the fate of a great many of the people of Israel at this time [Num. 21:6]. “Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction” [1 Cor. 10:9-11].

The Sovereign’s Shocking Solution

“So the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.’ And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live.’ And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived” [Num. 21:7-9]. The sin of the people had separated them from their God [Isaiah 59:2]. They were in need of one to intercede for them; to go before God on their behalf and plead for mercy. Therefore, “Moses interceded for the people.” The Lord, being rich in mercy and compassion, responded to the penitent plea of His people, although He did so in a rather unexpected fashion. The people asked that the serpents be removed. That apparently did not happen. They continued to be a source of discomfort for the Israelites. However, the Lord provided a means whereby those bitten could survive the injection of venom into their bodies. A replica of the fiery serpents would be constructed and elevated on a pole where all could see it. Whenever anyone was bitten, if he “looked to the bronze serpent” he would live.

There is some debate as to how long this “look” was to be in order to be efficacious. “Discussions rage on the meaning of the verb ‘to look.’ One party says merely a glance was needed; the other says the text demands a constant, groping stare. In this arcane debate these teachers quite miss the point” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 878]. The length or intensity of the “look” was not the issue, it was the faith that motivated the look. Those who believed acted upon that belief. God said “look at it” … therefore, they looked at it. Why? Because they believed He had the power to save them, regardless of how improbable the method might appear to human reason. Look to a bronze serpent lifted up on a pole to be saved from death? Ridiculous! Look to a man lifted up on a pole to be saved from eternal death? Absurd! And yet, to those who had/have faith, it was/is the very means of salvation. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life” [John 3:14-15]. Although a few believe this “lifting up” of the Son of God to be a reference to the ascension, most biblical scholars understand it to be a reference to the crucifixion. This was also apparently the understanding of the apostle John, who later observed, “He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die” [John 12:32-33].

The gaze of the Israelites upon the bronze serpent, and the gaze of mankind upon the Savior, are alike in that they constitute looking with the eyes of faith. “Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth!” [Isaiah 45:22]. The danger for the Israelites, and the danger for us as well, is that they would see some miraculous power in the bronze serpent itself, rather than perceiving that the true power to save them from death resided with God. “The Israelites were not to ascribe the efficacy of the cure to the mere outward symbol — the brazen serpent — apart from the divine power” [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, p. 138]. This was brought out clearly in The Book of Wisdom (aka: The Wisdom of Solomon), which was written about a century before the coming of Christ by a devoted member of the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt. “For when the dire venom of beasts came upon them and they were dying from the bite of crooked serpents, Your anger endured not unto the end. But as a warning, for a short time they were terrorized, though they had a sign of salvation, to remind them of the precept of Your law. For he who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw, but by You, the Savior of all” [Wisdom 16:5-7]. “Not even the fangs of poisonous reptiles overcame Your sons, for Your mercy brought the antidote to heal them” [vs. 10]. “For indeed, neither herb nor application cured them, but rather Your all-healing Word, O Lord!” [vs. 12].

There’s a tendency among far too many disciples today, I fear, to make the same mistake the Israelites made in the years following their wilderness experience. With the passage of time, they forgot the Source of their salvation, and increasingly placed the emphasis upon the emblems rather than the One behind them. During the reforms of King Hezekiah, he “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan” [2 Kings 18:4]. In like fashion, we have made idols of many of our own symbols, emblems and rituals. Crosses are worn as trinkets by those who don’t have a clue as to what actually occurred there … or don’t care! The Israelites gave undue significance to a material object. I wonder if we are any better when we give greater spiritual significance to such things as baptisteries, crosses, and the emblems of the Lord’s table than to the realities behind them! For example, when we rush people to the river, rather than to the Redeemer, is not our focus just as skewed as that of the ancient Israelites? When we become more concerned with the content of the cup, than preaching to the lost the significance of His shed blood, which the cup content represents, are we any better than those ancient devotees of Nehushtan (a word meaning: “the little bronze thing”)? “Neither herbs, nor cordials, nor caustics, nor charms could expel the poison from one’s blood. And neither reformation, nor tears, nor services, nor ceremonies, nor rituals can avert the consequences of sin” [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 275].

It is interesting the emblem the Lord chose for the Israelites in the wilderness. He chose something that, for them, would prove to be loathsome to look upon. Most people find very few creatures more repelling and repulsive than a snake. And yet, that which was a curse to them was to be the symbol of their cure. Jesus became a curse for us, that we might live. In Jesus, the curse truly became the cure. “By the initiative of our God, the curse becomes the very basis for our salvation. This is a paradox that spans the testaments” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 878]. In like manner to the serpent-bitten people who were suffering and dying in the wilderness, “every person that beholdeth Christ crucified with the eye of faith is healed of the deadly wound inflicted upon him by that old serpent” Satan [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 274]. The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatian brethren, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'” [Gal. 3:13]. There is nothing attractive about the cross … at least not from a purely human perspective. It is loathsome. The world looks at a suffering Savior and thinks, “How foolish!” Yes, “the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” [1 Cor. 1:18].

The people of Israel had a choice to make. They could die from the bite of the serpents, or they could look to the bronze serpent and live. Those who regarded such a solution as bizarre, and who refused to look upon it, perished. Today, we too have a choice. We who have been bitten by the serpent of old, Satan, can die in the wilderness of this world, or we can fix our gaze, in simple trusting faith, upon Jesus. Like the Israelites, God has not removed the serpents from the wilderness. That deadly venom is all about us. But He has provided a remedy; it is visible for all to see. It is JESUS. Those who look to Him will complete their journey through the barren wasteland, and will enter the sweet land of promise. Prior to entering Canaan, Moses reviewed their journey for the people of God. “He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water” [Deut. 8:15]. Yes, brethren, we’re going to make it, for we have a God who cheers us on, meeting our every need, and providing us with His own beloved Son, lifted up from the earth, as the remedy for the venom that courses through our veins. Let us look to Him and LIVE. Don’t die in the wilderness … the land of promise is just ahead!