SIGNIFICANCE of the uplifted ‘BRONZE SERPENT’ in the WILDERNESS: Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. (Num. 21:7-9)
The incident mentioned in the above passage occurred on a highway called The Way of the Red Sea during a time of great discouragement for the Israelites (v. 4). Miriam and Aaron had died (20:1, 22–29), and Moses had disobeyed God by striking a rock twice out of sheer frustration due to which he was denied entry into The Promised Land (20:2–13). Just a little while ago, the Israelites had mounted a fierce assault against a tribe of Canaanites and had won a decisive war against them only with God’s help (vv. 1–3).
Earlier, the people of Edom had denied the Israelites access to the King’s Highway, the direct route to Canaan (20:14–21). In skirting Edom, the Israelites had to travel through a desolate wilderness. The region probably offered little water and no food to supplement the bread-like manna that God was providing them regularly (v. 5), and the summer heat would have been oppressive and unbearable. In the midst of these hardships, morale broke down, and once again, the people began complaining against God and Moses about the lack of food to eat.
To these unrelenting complaints, God responded by sending “fiery serpents” among them (v. 6), which may have been poisonous vipers whose bites caused intense fever, thirst, swelling, and eventually death. In this dire situation, the Israelites acknowledged their sin and cried out to God for mercy and deliverance (v. 7). As an answer to these prayers, God told Moses to fashion a fiery serpent on a pole, which would provide a means of healing for the Israelites (v. 8). Soon, a bronze serpent was cast, which would have given off a fiery appearance in the sunlight, making a highly visible standard for the people to see. Now, anyone bitten by these fiery serpents only had to look up at the uplifted bronze serpent in order to live! (v. 9)
There is a great significance of this uplifted bronze serpent in the wilderness. The New Testament uses this incident as an illustration of Christ’s vicarious death on the cross and of the necessity of personal faith for salvation. During His conversation with Nicodemus, our Lord Jesus Christ (referring to His upcoming crucifixion) mentioned that He would have to be “lifted up” just as the bronze serpent was in order to bring eternal life to those who believe in Him: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:14-15).
There are three things to consider as we compare the bronze serpent on the pole providing healing for the dying Israelites and Christ on the cross providing eternal salvation to the dying humanity:
- The bronze serpent itself was not the source of healing, but was merely a symbol pointing toward Jehovah-Rapha (the-Lord-who-heals) as mentioned in Exodus 15:26.
- To be healed, one needed to only look toward the serpent (v. 9); perhaps the only thing a person was able to do when incapacitated by the bite of the serpent. There was no possibility for this person to get to the tabernacle and offer a sacrifice or even consult a priest.
- God alone is our only source of healing and help. Ultimately we must look to Him in faith through Jesus Christ to meet all our needs, whether it is physical, emotional, financial or, spiritual.
"For He (God) made Him (Jesus) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21). “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’)” (Gal. 3:13)