Snakes, Crosses, and Other Strange Stories

Numbers 21:4-9 New International Version (NIV)

4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

I don’t like whining. I don’t like to see athletes whining on the field or on the court. I don’t like to hear people whining about the weather or that kids today wear their pants so low. They do wear their pants too low, but your whining about it isn’t going to change anything. And I sure don’t like to hear my children whining about how hard we make them work. Ugh, you’re the meanest dad ever! I just asked you to pick up your socks.

I decided to try a new parenting tactic this week. The next time that my children start to whine about something, I’m going to use the biblical approach and ask them, “What did God do to the Israelites when they whined?”

The answer: He sent snakes. Poisonous snakes.

Let’s just be honest and name it up front, this passage is weird—a good theological word right there. There are some things going on here that I can’t even begin to understand. I can make a few of these things a little more palatable, but they are still weird. For instance, last week we looked at the 10 Commandments, which includes an extended commandment on not creating any images of things above, on, or below the earth. And then God goes and tells Moses to make a bronze snake. This is even weirder when you consider that the form the tempter took in the Garden of Eden was the form of a snake.

What I want to do this morning is look at the weird things in this passage, and no, I’m not going to be able to answer all of your questions about these things, and I know that because I couldn’t answer all of my questions on these weird things. What we are going to do is name them for what they are, give a bit of an explanation, and leave some room for mystery. Then I want to ask how we can actually use this passage in a helpful way, you know, other than threatening whiny children with poisonous snakes, which I can tell you now isn’t very effective. Let’s approach this in the order presented by the text.

In our story, the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness as a punishment for their disobedience to God. They would wander for forty years, and as is common in a male-dominated society, they never stop for directions. Some scholars estimate a full generation has passed since they have left Egypt, so many of them have no memory of those days. And those of the newer generation would have known nothing but wandering. After a while, they get a bit nostalgic, and say things like, Oh remember the days back in Egypt. We had it so good back then.

We tend to remember the past being a little better than it really was, don’t we. Yeah, you were slaves in Egypt, but I digress. Directly from our text in verse 5, “They spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’”

This is quoted from the NIV, which is being nicer to the Israelites than I want to be. Some other versions are not as kind, because the quote is literally, “There is no food (lechum)! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food (lechum)!”

Just sayin’, these Israelites are sounding like children more and more all the time. We don’t have any food, and we don’t like this food. Weird thing #1 is that the Israelites long for their days of captivity and their main grievance seems to be a lack of variety in their diet.

Weird thing #2 is found in verse 6: “Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.”

That’s a totally normal response, right? No, I would say that the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. I get that God could be offended by the grumbling Israelites, but doesn’t this seem like an overreaction? Furthermore, there is an entire genre of literature in the Old Testament that is little more than whining. We call these the laments, many of which are found in the Psalms. Yes, there are other times when God punishes the people for whining, but this seems extreme.

One way to soften the weirdness of this, while not solving all of the weirdness, is to notice that neither God nor the narrator of this story ever say that God sent the snakes because the people were whining. It does say God sent the snakes, and it also says that the Israelites understood that the snakes were the result of their complaining, but never does the God say that God sent the snakes because the people were complaining.

And in a way, I think Jesus attempts to correct the idea that these snakes were a form of divine punishment. Though he doesn’t seem to be addressing this instance directly, we find this wonderful reminder in Matthew 7:9-11: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

The people, in their whiny way, were asking for a fish. God isn’t going to give them snakes instead. Why God sent the snakes or even made poisonous snakes in the first place, I cannot say. But then again, why did God make mosquitos? I don’t know, it’s just weird.

Third weird thing I want to address before we look at some take-home points from this text is the snake itself. Verse 8 says, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’”

I mentioned last week when we looked at the Ten Commandments that I think some people have historically taken the commandment against making images further than they needed to. The fact that the commandment says not to make any images and not to worship the images that you make suggest that this isn’t a complete prohibition against making things that look like animals or people. The prohibition is against worshiping anything that isn’t God. And many will say that the prohibition is against trying to make an image of God, who is beyond our understanding and comprehension.

So when God commands Moses to make a snake and put it on a pole, God isn’t breaking his own commandment or making Moses break the commandment. They are to look at the snake, not worship it.

Surely God would know that the people could end up worshipping the snake, and they did just that. In 2 Kings 18 we find the story of King Hezekiah coming into power and being disgusted with the idolatry of the people. In verse 4 we read, “He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)”

If God knew that the people would one day be tempted to worship the Nehushtan, why command Moses to make it? We can ask that about a lot of things. I’m sure that some were tempted to worship the Arc of the Covenant, rather than the author of the covenant. I could even go so far as accusing some Christians today of looking to the cross for salvation, rather than the one who died there, or worshipping the Bible, instead of the one revealed by the Bible. We risk worshipping creation rather than worshipping the Creator.

When we get right down to it, we human beings have an extraordinary ability to worship things that are not God, including the worship of things that God has made or that God has done. And the only way around that would be for God to never do anything or make anything. I think I would rather have it the way we do and try to be aware of the danger of idol worship.

So what are we going to do with this weird story? I’m going to suggest something that may seem odd, but there is a good precedence for it. I think that it is totally appropriate to allegorize this story. This isn’t to suggest that it didn’t happen, but to say that there are some underlying principles in this story that are applicable in other situations. And I can say that it is okay to do this because…that’s how Jesus approached this text.

In John 3:14-15, just before that famous text we all know so well, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

So if Jesus could use this story to teach a lesson, I don’t think we are overstepping our rights in doing so as well.

Even after addressing all of the weird things in this text, one thing still amazes me. And this isn’t weird to me; in fact it is very familiar to me. When the people are being bitten by the poisonous snakes, they go to Moses and they ask him to pray to God to take away the snakes. We don’t have the words of Moses’s actual prayer in our text, but we do have God’s response. And God didn’t take away the snakes. He didn’t close the mouths of the snakes so they wouldn’t bite. God didn’t make the snakes any less poisonous.

What God did was provide an antidote for when people were bitten. God knew that people would continue to be bitten, and God also made looking at the snake a requirement for being healed.

I think the entire point of the story is to remind us that our actions have consequences. Now don’t hear me wrong, I’m a huge fan of grace. I want to be the kind of person who offers grace when others have wronged me, and I want to be the kind of Christian who realizes that I am utterly dependent upon the grace of God. But grace doesn’t mean our choices won’t sometimes come back to bite us again.

If you don’t go into work for a few weeks because you just don’t feel like it, what’s going to happen? You will probably be fired. If you treat your spouse terribly, calling them names, verbally or physically abusing them, they will probably divorce you. If you buy a bunch of things on your credit card and never pay the credit card company, they are going to cancel your card and come repossess your stereo and PlayStation. And when they do, you can, “Yeah, but I’m a Christian, saved by the grace of God!” And if they are a good Christian, maybe they will pray with you as they repossess your things.

God never promised that there won’t be snakes in this world, and sometimes those snakes are a direct result of the choices we make.

Yet the thing that I find the most interesting about this story is that God commanded them to make a snake, place it on a pole, and then look at it. Surely by this time everyone knew someone who had been bitten by a snake and died. Can you imagine being in a campsite, knowing that the place was crawling with poisonous snakes? How could you possibly sleep on the ground at night? I don’t sleep well when we go camping anyway! Every time someone moves, you’d think it was a snake, it was your turn to be bitten. Going for a walk, going to the bathroom, or even just letting your guard down for a second could be the last thing that you did. And now God was telling Moses to place a snake on a pole, so that the snake was not on the ground, but eye level.

In order to be healed, the Israelites had to face their fear. They had to stare down the very thing that they feared the most. Eye-to-eye, nose-to-nose.

If we continue allegorizing this story, I think we can all relate to the idea of wandering through the wilderness. We hunger, we thirst, we want something more. Sure, we have what we need, but we want more. And there is nothing wrong with wanting more, but sometimes the desire for more makes us take for granted the things we have.

So we begin to fear. What if this is all I’m ever going to do? What if this is all the more there is to life, all the money I’m going to make, all the friends I’m going to have?

This fear is just as real in our lives and callings as Christians. Even when we believe that God is calling us to do something, we often allow our fears to overcome us, and we do nothing.

Last week I received a request from the Valley Mission. Their head cook and walked off the job without notice, leaving them to feed 100 people, three times a day, without adequate help. The request was for churches to step in and provide food, especially for lunch. Lunch is really hard to staff because many people are working or chasing after children. And when I was asked about providing lunch, I was scared. I was scared that we wouldn’t have the participation, the time, or the resources. I was afraid that if I said yes, I would be making food for 100 all by myself.

But I faced that fear, because I have for some time sensed that the Valley Mission is a ministry that we care being called to help with here in our own neighborhood. I looked my serpent in the eye, and I said “We can do it.”

And we did. We provided enough food for several meals, and not just anything, but lasagna, salad, bread, and cookies. As one person said, “We’ve got lasagna coming out our ears!”

My friends, this is a weird passage, but there are some great lessons found here as well. Be careful, because our choices do have consequences. But be brave, because God is calling us to stare down our fears and be healed.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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