Bible Focus: Numbers 21:4-9
Then they set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to bypass the land of Edom, but the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread or water, and we detest this wretched food!” Then the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died.Numbers 21:4-6 CSB
“Look at what I’m doing. Isn’t that cool? Watch me! I’ll show you again!”
That sounds like something a child might say to a teacher or parent. My kids have always enjoyed me watching them show off their latest skill. When they were younger, that involved things like drawing a picture, throwing a football, or playing a musical instrument. In recent years, their new skills have included driving a car, working a job, and serving in various ways at our church. I’m proud of my kids. I enjoy watching them grow and mature.
“Look at what I’m doing. This is important. Watch me. I’ll show you again.”
That sounds more like something that a teacher or parent might say to a child. We all know that kids tend to live in the moment, and they don’t have great attention spans. However, if we demonstrate something to them (as opposed to merely talking about it), it’s more likely that the point will stick. Even if they don’t fully understand the point, maybe they will remember the demonstration and connect the dots later.
God demonstrated important truths in the stories of the Old Testament. He demonstrated them with human beings in general and with the Israelites in particular. God kept inviting people into relationship with him. God kept urging them to worship him only and to abandon all idols. God kept showing them his wrath against their sin. But God also kept providing ways for his people to repent of their sin, trust in God, and be restored. We’re supposed to learn from these demonstrations, and connect the dots about what God is like, what we’re like, what God has done, and how we should respond.
The Israelites, formerly Egyptian slaves, were freed by God through Moses and sent to take the land of Canaan that God promised to their ancestors Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. On the way to Canaan, God provided for them and taught them how to obey and worship him. But when the people arrived at the border of Canaan, they became afraid of the Canaanite warriors and refused to trust God to give them victory. So God told them to turn back and live in the wilderness for 40 years.
However, even during their wilderness wanderings, God still led them, fed them, and protected them. No one could overcome the Israelites by force. Their greatest danger lay not from the enemy nations around them, but from God himself. They were in great danger of God’s wrath breaking out against them whenever they rebelled.
In this incident with the snakes, the Israelites complained against God and Moses, especially about the food which God himself had given them. When God responded by sending poisonous snakes, the people admitted their wrongdoing and asked for mercy. But instead of taking the snakes away or giving them all healing from their snakebites, God gave them a specific way to respond to his mercy.
The people then came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you. Intercede with the LORD so that he will take the snakes away from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake image and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover.” So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered.Numbers 21:7-9 CSB
Jesus himself used this incident to point to his own sacrificial death on the cross:
No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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.John 3:13-15 ESV
The apostle Paul noted this incident, along with other rebellions of the Israelites, and urged Christians to learn from them:
Now these things took place as examples for us, so that we will not desire evil things as they did. Don’t become idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and got up to party. Let us not commit sexual immorality as some of them did, and in a single day twenty-three thousand people died. Let us not test Christ as some of them did and were destroyed by snakes. And don’t grumble as some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer. These things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So, whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall. No temptation has come upon you except what is common to humanity. But God is faithful; he will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to bear it.1 Corinthians 10:6-13 CSB
The incident with the snakes demonstrates our sinfulness, God’s wrath, God’s mercy, and our response. Jesus took God’s wrath for our sin at the cross. So when we look to Jesus and trust him, his death on the cross is applied to our sin and we are totally forgiven. Jesus’s resurrection is also applied to our mortality, and we are given eternal life!
And if we’ve already looked to Jesus and received his salvation, then the incident with the snakes is just one of many examples in the Bible that can help us detect when sin is creeping into (or exploding out of) our life. When God shows us something that reveals our sin, we need to pay attention instead of trying to deny it or cover it up. God knows more than anyone the destructive nature of sin, and so he wants us to recognize it and give us the power to turn away from it.
Featured image by Giannis Panagiotatos on Unsplash.