The serpent story.

In this story, the Israelites are in the desert. They are complaining, again. Let’s look at this story in full to start off with.

Numbers 21:4-9
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. 5 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.” 6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Now, let’s break it up into sections to look at it more closely. Here’s verses 4-5.
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. 5 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.”

This is a fairly common complaint. No food, not water. They often complain that things were better for them when they were slaves in Egypt. This is fairly common for people on general. We will leave a bad situation and then return to it. It is “The devil you know” idea. How often do abused women return to their abusers? How often do drug addicts relapse after recovery? Way too often. This is human nature.

Notice that they complain that there is “no food” and then in the same sentence they complain that they “loathe this worthless food”. So what is it? Is there none of it, or is it “worthless”? You can’t complain about the taste of food if there isn’t any there to eat. This is very important to notice. It proves that there was food – just not what they wanted.

Things don’t get better after they complain – they get worse. Here’s verse 6.

6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.

This hardly seems fair. In other examples, the Lord gets Moses to either strike or speak to a rock and water gushes forth, or the Lord sends manna or quail. Here, the Lord doesn’t send food or water. The situation gets a lot worse with snakes.

I’m sure they had food and water, but not enough to keep them happy. I don’t recall anywhere in the Exodus from Egypt that the people starved to death or dropped dead from lack of water. Generally what killed them was what happened after they complained. That is a good thing for us to ponder on. We should appreciate what we have.

The Israelites finally understand that they shouldn’t have complained. What they had wasn’t awesome, but it wasn’t awful either. Here’s verse 7.

7 And the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

I find it interesting that they just asked for the snakes to leave – they didn’t ask again for food or water. Perhaps they realized that what they had was enough.

The story concludes in verses 8-9.
8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Notice that the Lord didn’t remove the snakes. Instead, the Lord sent a way to get healed from them instead. The Lord has the power to make the snakes disappear, but didn’t. Why? And why make it so that people had to do something special to get healed?

I’m reminded of some of the stories with Jesus. The lepers had to go to the priest to get the ritual blessing before they were totally healed. The cripple had to wash in the pool at Siloam. The palsied man had to straighten out his arm. People sometimes had to do things to get the healing they wanted. It wasn’t done to them. They had to participate. Often they are told that their faith has healed them. It wasn’t something passive. They were active agents in their own healing.

The snake on a staff symbol is used today by doctors. It is known as the caduceus, but from what I’ve read on Wikipedia, it really should be the Rod of Asclepius. This is interesting, because many doctors as well as scientists are not religious at all. They believe that healing comes from them, not from the Lord.

It is also interesting that it was a snake that was the source of the sickness, but also the source of the healing. I’m reminded of the snake in the Garden of Eden. It was seen as the beginning of all sin, as it led the people astray from the commands of the Lord.

All Bible verses are RSV.

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