Thursday 12 May 2016

Bible Book:

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

Numbers 21:4-9 Thursday 12 May 2016

Psalm: Psalm 90


If you thought the book of Numbers was just lists, then here isanother story to surprise you! Again it has some features withwhich we are becoming very familiar - mainly that the wanderingIsraelites are not happy. Aaron has died now so Moses is the solerecipient of these 'same old, same old' grumbles - that they wouldhave been better off staying in Egypt where they had food and water(and, as they seem to have temporarily forgotten, where they wereslaves and ill-treated) - the guiding light is burning only dimlyin the peoples' mind. They are now bored with the manna for whichthey were so grateful (Exodus16). Apparently without consulting Moses this time, God actsdramatically by sending poisonous serpents to bite the people,killing "many" (v. 6). This may seem rather extreme but it does thejob, bringing the wanderers to their senses straight away, as inverse 7 they confess their sin and ask Moses to pray that theserpents be taken away.

This Moses graciously does, and receives from God instructionsfor a remedy seemingly as strange as the problem. The snakes do notdisappear neither do they stop biting, but Moses is to make abronze serpent, set it on a pole and lift it up - everyone who isbitten must look at the bronze snake and will live. The cure iseffective (the resulting symbol may be linked to the Rod ofAsclepius still used today to represent medical healing). Thisobject (later known as the Nehushtan) rears its head once more inthe Old Testament narrative - some 500 or so years later, in 2Kings 18:4, we discover that it has survived and has become anobject of worship and sacrifice, so is destroyed by KingHezekiah.

The story was also known to Jesus who refers to it in John3:11-15 when he says, "And just as Moses lifted up the serpentin the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, thatwhoever believes in him may have eternal life." These words, ofcourse, lead on into one of the most famous verses of the entirebible (John 3:16). Jesus' use of the story here maylead us to reflect that, just as in the wilderness the cure for thesnake bite was to look at a representation of the very snakes thatwere causing the problem, so for humanity in a fallen world thecure is to look to Jesus, "born in human likeness" (Philippians 2:7) as he is lifted up from theearth, not on a pole, but on a cross.

To Ponder

  • Does the idea of God sending poisonous snakes to bite peopletrouble you? Perhaps they are the incarnations of what is alreadyhappening; how do you respond to the interpretation which suggeststhat our grumbles and complaints are like these snakes, causingpain and destroying community?
  • Despite the repentance (and assumed forgiveness) of the people,the snakes continue to bite. What, if anything, do you think thissays about the nature of sin?
  • Later, the bronze serpent had to be destroyed because it wasbeing worshipped. What parallels can you think of today? To whatextent do we sometimes worship the means of our becoming wholerather than the healer?

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