Numbers 21:4-9 The Lord Sent Venomous Snakes

Numbers 21:4-9         The Lord Sent Venomous Snakes                             WC McCarter
In chapter six of The Story, the Exodus story somewhat concludes. We have now concluded our reading of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Moses had originally told Pharaoh that the Lord wanted to take His people out into the desert so that they could worship Him. Of course, Pharaoh would not give in until God forced his hand with ten mighty plagues. God brought them up out of Egypt like on eagles wings, and they did worship, but rarely. For the most part the people simply wandered in the wilderness in disobedience to the Lord. They were grumblers, complainers, and despisers of the goodness of God. Chapter six sums all of that up.
The chapter started with the people complaining about their hardships once again. The chapter ended with the death of the whole generation and Moses, their leader. In between, the Lord filled them with quail, but the people were struck with a plague. Moses’ siblings complained against him because God only spoke through him. Miriam was struck with leprosy. Spies were also sent from each of the tribes to scout the Promised Land. All but two came back with a faithless report. The Lord forgave the people, but would not allow anyone over twenty years old to enter the Promised Land.
In this chapter, we also read that Moses sinned against the Lord. He struck a rock two times for water to come forth, but he had been commanded to merely speak to it. The Lord considered that to be a lack of faith. On their way to the Promised Land, which was very close by, the Israelites seek to pass through the land of Edom. Their request is rejected and they are forced to back-track. In the end, Moses gives some remarkable speeches pointing the new generation back to the Exodus and the Law. He commissions Joshua as the next leader who would lead them into the land. Finally, Moses dies and there is an end of an era.
Our main passage today was part of an up-and-down ride that the Israelites were on. They were so close to the land that they could smell the fruit and taste the honey of it, but they were forced to back-track because the nation of Edom would not allow them to pass through their land. The Israelite people were not happy about this turn of events (here’s a defeat). On their way back down the road, they were confronted by an army from Arad, and some of the Israelites were taken captive. The Lord empowered the Israelites to utterly destroy Arad’s cities (here’s a victory). Now the people have known defeat and victory. Why should they continue to back-track? They were strong enough to defeat their enemies, right? Surely, they were brimming with self-confidence and quickly forgot that the Lord had given them victory.
As they continue to back-track, the people begin to grumble against God and Moses once again. They do not like God’s plan and Moses’ leadership. In the first paragraph of our main reading today we get a passage that epitomizes the people’s hard-heartedness in the desert. They complain that there was no sense to lead them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness; there is no bread; there is no water; and the food the Lord had provided, they hated. This time, the Lord will respond in righteous judgment.
Scripture Reading (p. 80) – This is the Word of God
The Complaints (vv. 4-5)
“But the people grew impatient on the way. . . .” And I thought that was just an American thing. These are old complaints, but from a new generation. The next generation is stating the same grievances as their fathers before them. The complaint that there is no food or water is nothing new, but they add something their parents did not. They label the manna from the Lord, “Miserable food,” which is to say, “Worthless bread.” I will call that blasphemy. They were displaying derision toward the goodness and blessings of God. They were actually revealing the true attitudes of their hearts. They despised God.
The Lord Jesus states that the manna from heaven was actually a sign of who He would be as the true bread from heaven. Christ said, “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:49-51). Rejecting the manna from heaven was to reject the grace of God. To reject Christ as Savior is to reject the grace of God.
The Judgment (vv. 6-7)
The Lord acts in judgment on this occasion. There is no period of mercy. Venomous snakes are unleashed on the people. The KJV translated this phrase as, “Fiery serpents,” but remember that the fire was in the venom. It was the poison of the venom that was so agonizing. Many of the Israelites died painful and horrific deaths from these bites. Of course, this would have been a naturally occurring event – that a venomous snake would bite a human – but what is so astounding is the way in which it happens (the great number and the timing). As one commentator has noted, the people rejected something from heaven, so they received something from the desert (R. B. Allen, 876).
The wrath of God convinces the people to repent, but not before many have already died. The statements of the people are a fitting example of genuine repentance. Their words reflect true remorse; they explicitly state what their sin was against God; and they ask for forgiveness. This will allow God to relent and provide a way of salvation.
Although Moses is not perfect, he is a loyal and loving leader. The people had protested and persecuted him again, but he still intercedes for them before God. “So Moses prayed for the people.” What a wonderful statement that could be said about a shepherd of God’s people! God responds to Moses’ prayer, but in an unexpected way.
The Salvation (vv. 8-9)
When the people voiced a lack of faith before (at the beginning of the chapter), God made fire to break out in the camp, but when Moses prayed, the fire died down. This time when Moses prays, the snakes do not leave. They do not immediately slither away when the Lord relents. Instead they continue to bite; they continue to cause people pain; they continue to make the people sick; and they continue to kill many in the camp. The judgment will continue to be harsh, but the people can pass through it by the means that God will provide.
What Moses was asked to do was unsettling. Moses is to make a snake and put it on a pole that can be raised up among the people. This snake on a pole will be their salvation when they are attacked by the snakes. What is odd is that, although the people are still being assaulted by the snakes, Moses is to take his time to craft the snake. Secondly, Moses had mediated the law of God to the people which forbade the making of graven images, but now God commands him to make one. Thirdly, snakes are hated all over the world. People have a great fear and disgust of them, yet the image of a snake would be their deliverance. All of this adds up to a strange scene. The Lord makes an image of death into an image of salvation.
Conclusion- Finding Your Story in God’s Story
1) One commentator warns, “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” (R. B. Allen, 876). What we learn from this portion of Israel’s history is the judgment that complaining deserves. Not only does God frown upon protests aimed directly at Himself, but He also condemns constant complaining against His appointed leaders and His blessings. Let me encourage those of you who are negative Nelly’s to stop complaining before you will have to endure divine discipline. Maybe you think, “I never complain in those ways.” This is a test that you must give/grade yourself.
2) Nothing magical happened in the healing of the people as they looked at the bronze snake. God did all of the work. He healed them of His own will and power. Faith would be the key that would unlock the door of grace. The question was would they obey the Lord’s word and take advantage of the means of grace that God provided? In this narrative, there was only one way of divine healing. The same is true today. Faith is the master key that opens the doors of grace. Of course, when it comes to eternal salvation, we know that there is only one way for the Lord Jesus said that He is the way, the truth, and the life. No one goes to the Father except by Him.
3) We cannot end our discussion of this passage without turning to the cross. The Lord Jesus spoke of His own crucifixion in John 3:14-15 by saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” How is it that Christ can compare Himself to the snake in the wilderness? It may sound foolish to think that an image of a disgusting, despicable, violent, death-producing snake could provide healing for diseased people, but that is what God offered. The world looks at what God the Father offered in the crucifixion of His Son and they think it sounds foolish. How could such an ugly scene like crucifixion provide healing for our sinful conditions? The cross is evil, disgusting, shameful, and violent. On the cross, Christ, who knew no sin, became sin for us. The bronze snake was in the form of a real snake, “but was without poison, and altogether harmless. So God sent His Son in the form of sinful flesh, and yet without sin” (Keil-Delitzsch, 141).
Just as the Israelites in the desert were to look at the image that had nearly killed them, we are to also look at Him who took our sin upon Himself. The metal snake in the desert was merely to provide physical healing from the venom of the snakes. The cross of Christ on Calvary provides eternal salvation from the sting of sin and death. We are not merely to look upon the cross with a simple gaze, many scoffers did that! We are to trust that what God has done in the person of Christ is more than enough to save us from the wrath to come.