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Fiery Serpents Among the People (Numbers 21)

The rest of the trip toward the Promised Land would be hard and difficult. First, the king of the Canaanite city of Arad picks a fight, and carries some Israelites away captive. God empowers the Israelites to "utterly destroy" the Aradites in a place that became known as Hormah, meaning "Utter Destruction." Interestingly, this first military victory against the Canaanites takes place in the same spot that, decades before, the Israelites had been defeated when they vainly tried to enter Canaan after God told them they would have to wait 40 years (compare 14:45).

Yet the victorious spirit does not carry them all the way. Going around Edom proves so difficult that the children of Israel become discouraged—which once again turns to bitter complaining. When their ingratitude leads them to declare that they detest the God-given manna sustaining them, calling it "worthless," God sends them deadly fiery serpents. In terror and agony, the people quickly repent, asking for Moses' prayers on their behalf. God's instruction then is remarkable—He tells Moses to make a bronze image of a serpent and set it up on a pole and to instruct the people to look upon it to be healed. Biblically, the serpent is a symbol for Satan (compare Genesis 3; Revelation 12:9). Yet the New Testament tells us that this raised bronze serpent is a type of Jesus Christ, who was lifted up in crucifixion—and that looking to His sacrifice gives us life (John 3:14-15).

So how could a seemingly Satanic symbol represent Christ? The devil, remember, was the original sinner—and the instigator of sin among our first human parents, Adam and Eve. That being so, we may view the serpent as a symbol of sin, or the sinful nature mankind has acquired from Satan (compare Ephesians 2:2; Romans 8:7). In sacrificing Himself for us, Christ bore our sin and its penalties (Isaiah 53:4-6). Indeed, the Bible says that He became "sin for us" (2 Corinthians 5:21). And as sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2), Christ could not be in the Father's perfect presence at the moment He bore our sins and endured its ultimate penalty of death (compare Matthew 27:46). Thus, in bearing our sin, Christ could properly be depicted with the image of a raised serpent. When we look upon Christ's death by crucifixion for our sins and His resurrection from that death into new life, we can have the penalty for sin removed from us and also be granted new life (Romans 5:9-10).

In later years, the Israelites will view the bronze serpent as a holy relic of veneration and begin worshiping it. For this reason, it will wisely be destroyed by righteous King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4).

Verse 14 of Numbers 21 mentions the "Book of the Wars of the Lord." The Nelson Study Bible says this "refers to an early collection of songs and writings known today only from this citation. The fact that Numbers draws upon other early Hebrew writings shows that the ancient Hebrew peoples had other literature in addition to Scripture." This book is not in existence today.

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