Have you ever wondered why Jesus compared His death to the bronze serpent that Moses lifted on a pole?
The serpents infesting the desert were chosen to bring judgment to Israel for murmuring and complaining (Deuteronomy 8:15; 1 Corinthians 10:9). The Israelites had spoken discontented and debasing words about what God had done. As their speech was toxic and poisonous like a serpent’s venom, serpents were allowed to punish them. Their internal bitterness toward God and Moses, as expressed by their griping, was embodied by the serpents who bit them. Despite the apparent vindictiveness on the surface of this story, however, God’s compassion shines through the narrative (John 3:13–17).
Realizing their sin, the Israelites repent and ask for forgiveness. In response, the Lord instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent and raise it on a pole, so those harmed by the serpent venom can look and be cured (Numbers 21:9). In the book of Numbers, God uses various visual reminders at moments of crisis to help His people express trust in Him. Jewish Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom points out that the Israelites were near the copper mines of Timnah at the time, so the bronze image God instructs Moses to make is fitting for the location.
But why use an image of a serpent to repel the biting serpents? Was God doing some sort of jiujitsu magic to turn the tables in combat with the desert serpents? If you recall, God first gave the miracle of turning a rod into a serpent to Moses as a sign of deliverance over oppression—to convince a disbelieving Israel of God’s power (Exodus 4:1–4). The image of the serpent and rod was something the Israelites could understand.
Don’t miss the significance of the Israelites’ bitter complaining prompting God to permit a plague of venomous serpents. The deadliest of all venom is the sin of evil speaking, which carries serious consequences. Like the Israelites in the desert, we are all affected by this venom, which poisons our hearts. Speaking of humanity’s plight, Scripture asserts:
They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s, and under their lips is the venom of asps. SelahPsalms 140:3, ESV
Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.Romans 3:13–14, ESV
The story in Numbers 21 carries our minds back to the serpent in the Garden of Eden who first complained about God (Genesis 3:1). The speaking serpent, “that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan who is the deceiver of the whole world,” misrepresented God (Revelation 12:9, ESV). The serpent questioned the character of God and His goodness and was judged for speaking words of slander. He was the very first to express bitter complaints about God’s ways. Paul seems to tell us that we have all succumbed to the venom under the serpent’s lips (Romans 3:13,14). Once the poison of sin has done its work, only God can deliver and redeem us.
John’s gospel uses the bronze serpent as a figure of faith (John 3:14–15). The simple act of looking at it results in life. We depend on God’s faithfulness to undo the sting of sin and death and make us alive again. In one sense, we are all bitten and dying, but God asks us only to look to Him to be healed. It is the cross and the goodness of God that becomes the source of life. He is the only one who can take away our sin and return our lives.
It took God’s self-revelation in Jesus to overcome the venom of Satan’s bitter complaints about God. Nothing but Jesus’ willingness to suffer the very death that threatens our existence can rectify our problem. The same sting of sin and death underlies Jesus’ death on the cross, as God judged the sins of the whole world. “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV). Only by looking to the crucified Son of God can we be healed from the serpent’s venom that afflicts us.
Craig Ashton Jr.