12 May 2016

Numbers 21:4-9

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

Psalm: Psalm 90


If you thought the book of Numbers was just lists, then here is another story to surprise you! Again it has some features with which we are becoming very familiar - mainly that the wandering Israelites are not happy. Aaron has died now so Moses is the sole recipient of these 'same old, same old' grumbles - that they would have been better off staying in Egypt where they had food and water (and, as they seem to have temporarily forgotten, where they were slaves and ill-treated) - the guiding light is burning only dimly in the peoples' mind. They are now bored with the manna for which they were so grateful (Exodus 16). Apparently without consulting Moses this time, God acts dramatically by sending poisonous serpents to bite the people, killing "many" (v. 6). This may seem rather extreme but it does the job, bringing the wanderers to their senses straight away, as in verse 7 they confess their sin and ask Moses to pray that the serpents be taken away.

This Moses graciously does, and receives from God instructions for a remedy seemingly as strange as the problem. The snakes do not disappear neither do they stop biting, but Moses is to make a bronze serpent, set it on a pole and lift it up - everyone who is bitten must look at the bronze snake and will live. The cure is effective (the resulting symbol may be linked to the Rod of Asclepius still used today to represent medical healing). This object (later known as the Nehushtan) rears its head once more in the Old Testament narrative - some 500 or so years later, in 2 Kings 18:4, we discover that it has survived and has become an object of worship and sacrifice, so is destroyed by King Hezekiah.

The story was also known to Jesus who refers to it in John 3:11-15 when he says, "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." These words, of course, lead on into one of the most famous verses of the entire bible (John 3:16). Jesus' use of the story here may lead us to reflect that, just as in the wilderness the cure for the snake bite was to look at a representation of the very snakes that were causing the problem, so for humanity in a fallen world the cure is to look to Jesus, "born in human likeness" (Philippians 2:7) as he is lifted up from the earth, not on a pole, but on a cross.

To Ponder

  • Does the idea of God sending poisonous snakes to bite people trouble you? Perhaps they are the incarnations of what is already happening; how do you respond to the interpretation which suggests that our grumbles and complaints are like these snakes, causing pain and destroying community?
  • Despite the repentance (and assumed forgiveness) of the people, the snakes continue to bite. What, if anything, do you think this says about the nature of sin?
  • Later, the bronze serpent had to be destroyed because it was being worshipped. What parallels can you think of today? To what extent do we sometimes worship the means of our becoming whole rather than the healer?

Bible notes author

Jill Baker

Jill Baker lives in Glasgow and is glad to be part of the small but distinctive Methodist Church in Scotland. She is a local preacher and local preachers’ tutor in the Strathclyde Circuit, where her husband Andrew is superintendent minister. For Jill, the past 20 years have included all sorts of roles within Methodism – further afield (as a mission partner in the South Caribbean) and closer to home (with WFMUCW, MWiB, leading pilgrimages and as part of various committees and groups) and is currently the Vice-President of the Conference 2017/2018. When not engaged in these ways, Jill enjoys walking in the beautiful mountains of Scotland, gardening and writing; she blogs at and "Thanks, Peter God", her book about the life of her son, Peter, who died in 2012, was published in 2016.