7 April 2014

Numbers 21:4-9

“whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” (v. 9)


Yesterday we read the account of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45) - the seventh and final sign described in John's Gospel which was meant to provide clear evidence of the glory of God revealed though Jesus Christ. The use of miraculous signs is also repeatedly used in the Old Testament to reveal God's power and intent, although they rarely seem to lead to the Israelites obeying God for very long. Even God is reported complaining that "they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them" (Numbers 14:11).

In this particularly unusual episode God sends a plague of poisonous serpents in response to the repeated complaints and ingratitude of the Israelites, only shortly afterwards to provide Moses with a way of healing those bitten, through the use of a bronze serpent on a stick. God is seen as both frighteningly powerful but also willing to listen when people seek forgiveness (verse 7). It might have been easier simply to remove the serpents, but there is clearly a requirement for the people to continue to demonstrate their faith through the need to look at the bronze serpent after having been bitten in order to be healed (verse 9).

 There is always a risk that we place more importance on objects or traditions and forget what their original intent was. In 2 Kings 18:4 King Hezekiah is described destroying the bronze serpent that Moses made as it had become a focus for idol worship. A snake on a staff also features in Greek mythology with the Rod of Asclepius said to have healing powers and it became central in the Asclepian cult around 300 BC.

However the story in Numbers clearly continued to resonate as John's Gospel uses the symbolism of lifting the serpent up to describe what will shortly happen to Jesus so that "whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15).

To Ponder

  • Pray for those known to you who are in need of healing, and for those who seek to help them.
  • Are there objects or traditions which now get in the way of our relationship with God? Consider how this could be changed.

Bible notes author

Dr Richard Vautrey

Richard Vautrey is a local preacher and church steward in Leeds, and a former vice-president of the Methodist Conference. He works as a GP, is an elected member of both the BMA council and Royal College of GPs council as well as being the deputy chair of the BMA's GP committee.