216 – Numbers 21 – serpent on a pole

Last time we talked about Numbers 21:4-5. You may remember in previous verses that because the Edomites would not let them pass through their territory, the Israelites were forced to take the long way around. Numbers 21:4-5 inform us that the Israelites became impatient, and complained. We are going to consider Numbers 21:6-9, which describes how Yahweh responded to their complaining. But before we do, I want to point out a contrast that occurs in the early part of this truly historical chapter.


In the first part of chapter twenty-one, the Israelites communicate to Yahweh that they will destroy the cities of the Canaanites if He will make them victorious in battle. The conditions of the vow and the fact that Yahweh agreed to it may seem strange to you, but let’s put a pin in that part for now. The point is Israel communicated to Yahweh the right way and He responded in their favor. How did they communicate with Yahweh God the right way, you may ask? The answer is they “asked” God if He would enter into a covenant with them. Would He help them? Since terms of the covenant (or contract) was favorable to Him Yahweh entered the binding legal document and did as Israel asked of Him. There was a need, they prayed, God answered.


The contrast is seen in Numbers 21:5-9. The Israelites did not pray but rather, “spoke against God and against Moses..”, in other words, they complained and accused Yahweh and Moses of sinful behavior against the Nation and suffered great loss. Prayer to Yahweh is always good. Complaining against Him and accusing Him is never good. 


Let’s be clear, the Israelites were not punished because they said, “There is no food and no water, and our hearts detest this miserable food [mana]”. Brackets mine. They were punished because they accused Moses and God, “Why have you brought us from Egypt to die in the desert?(Numbers 21:5)


Numbers 21:6

6       And Yahweh sent among the people poisonous snakes; they bit the people, and many people from Israel died. 


I hope not but maybe you’re thinking something like, “Isn’t the punishment a little extreme? I mean poisonous snakes just because the people told God they were mad at Him?” I think too often we do not understand the destructiveness of sin. We dismiss it by thinking, “Everybody does it, just make sure you tell God you’re sorry, you know, repent when you’re done.


Or how about this question, “seriously?? God cursed Adam, Eve, and the whole human race because they ate an apple He told them was off limits?” Sin needs to be taken seriously.


The bigger problem here is not just that they sinned, but they accused Yahweh of sin! Sin is a human action. Yahweh cannot sin because He is God. To accuse God of sin is nothing short of attempting to strip Him of His “God-ness and make Him human, fallible, and not someone to whom we are accountable.


The apostle Paul had something to say about this in 1 Corinthians 10:1-9. I hope you’ll spend a few minutes reading all of 1 Corinthians 10, but look at verse 9.


1 Corinthians 10:9

      9       nor put Christ to the test, as some of them tested him, and were destroyed by snakes, 


Remember John 5:46?

John 5:46

      46       For if you had believed Moses, you would believe me, for that one wrote about me. 


Jesus Himself is telling us that Israel tested Him in Numbers 21!


Thankfully, after the people sinned they did the right thing. They came to Moses and confessed their sin in Numbers 21:7.


Notice carefully the next two verses.


Numbers 21:8-9

           8       And Yahweh said to Moses, “Make for yourself a snake and place it on a pole. When anyone is bitten and looks at it, that person will live.” 

           9       So Moses made a snake of bronze, and he placed it on the pole; whenever a snake bit someone, and that person looked at the snake of bronze, he lived


Yahweh God provided the solution for sin, not the people. He had Moses create a snake of bronze. What did the people have to do? Clean themselves up? Live clean lives? Walk up a thousand steps on their knees? Nope, none of that! If they were bitten simply look at the serpent on the pole.


Look at what else Jesus said.


John 3:12-15

          12       If I tell you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 

           13       And no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man. 

           14       And just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, thus it is necessary that the Son of Man be lifted up, 

           15       so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”


Jesus Himself makes it crystal clear! We’ve all been bitten by the poisonous snake of sin! God Himself took Jesus who knew no sin, made him to be sin on our behalf, and hanged Him on a tree. How must we respond? Jesus says the same way the Israelites responded in Numbers 21. LOOK AT JESUS ON THE CROSS. Simply “believe in Him”! Faith alone, in Christ alone!

You are not born a Christian. You’re not a Christian because your parents are Christians. No one can make you a Christian. Just like the Israelites each individually had to look at the brass pole to be saved each of us individually must look at Jesus on the cross, we must place our own faith in Him for salvation.

God is so good. Israel did not deserve rescue and neither do we, yet God provided Jesus on a cross as portrayed in Numbers 21 for our salvation. Wow, He’s good!


All Scripture quotations from Harris, W. Hall, III et al., eds. The Lexham English Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012. Print.


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