16 March 2015

Numbers 21:5-9

“So Moses prayed for the people.” (v. 7)

Psalm: Psalm 123


The book of Numbers acquired its name because a large proportion of the text is concerned with counting and lists. It also relates many dramatic episodes in the story of the Exodus, though: the 40-year journey of the Israelites in the wilderness. This is one of those incidents and follows a similar pattern to some other stories in the book: the people complain about an aspect of their nomadic life in the desert; they long for the settled life of Egypt, even though they were slaves there; and God responds, usually after Moses intercedes. In this case, the people were allegedly complaining about the lack of food and drink but they had been provided with both by God (Numbers 11:31; 20:11): it was actually the kind of food they are complaining about (read verse 5 carefully).

God sent "fiery" snakes as punishment for the Israelites' complaints. (The Hebrew word is hard to translate: fiery may refer to their painful bites and can be translated 'poisonous'.) In the 20th century, Lawrence of Arabia would make similar complaints about the vipers and cobras that still haunt this part of modern-day Jordan. To heal them, God ordered Moses to construct a bronze (or copper) model of a snake. Interestingly, in the 1950s archaeologists working at an ancient temple near the location of today's events discovered a small copper snake model that could be roughly contemporary with these events. It reflects well-known ancient Egyptian beliefs in the power of serpent images to repel and heal snake bites. We know from later passages in the Bible that some people believed that the snake model was indeed magic and tried to worship it (2 Kings 18:4Wisdom of Solomon 16:5-7). However, today's passage makes it clear that it was faith in God, not the serpent, that saved the people. Only those who truly believed in God turned to look at the snake and were healed. Jesus would later use the serpent in the wilderness as a metaphor for what would happen to him in the crucifixion (John 3:14-15).

To Ponder

  • The bronze serpent was given to the people as a token of God's saving power but later they chose to worship the snake itself instead of God. What other signs and symbols of God's love and power have we ended up worshipping instead of the one who actually created them?
  • The people asked Moses to pray for them (verse 7) instead of directly approaching God themselves. When people ask us to pray for them, what are we actually doing?
  • How should we understand the concept of God sending snakes to punish the Israelites (verse 6) when poisonous snakes can still be found in that part of world?

Bible notes author

The Revd Geoffrey Farrar

Geoffrey Farrar is currently a Methodist presbyter in the West Hertfordshire and Borders Circuit of the Methodist Church, where he has pastoral charge of three churches in the Watford area. He trained at Wesley House in Cambridge and has recently completed an MA in Ancient History with the University of Trinity Saint David.