Numbers 21 is not one of those chapters most people commit to memory, but as with all passages in the Bible there are things we can learn from it. Ask most people what the story of the “bronze snake” is about and their response will likely either be “I don’t know”, or “it is simply part of the history”. But, when we consider that page space was extremely valuable for ancient peoples we must ask, “Why include this story”?
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. Numbers 21:4-9
This passage is very typical for what I expect from Numbers- Israel moves from one place to another, the people are upset and complain, Moses intercedes, God intervenes, the people learn a lesson, repeat. On this occasion the people, as usual, are complaining about how unfair life is for them- “We want life on our terms”. But this time Israel complains against not just Moses but God; Israel is complaining against Divine authority. “God is taking us into this harsh and barren land, we don’t like it and God needs to do better by us.” On the other occasions when the people complained, Moses would intercede and God would act to resolve the difficulty (i.e. Exodus 16). But here the pattern changes, because here when Israel complains, “The Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people.” I think the word “sent” in this phrase is an unfortunate translation choice, and the word “allowed” would come closer to what is meant.
If I was retelling the story I would say it like this:
"Israel left Mt. Hor and hugged the Red Sea to avoid getting too close to Edom. The people started griping because they didn't want to follow God and said, 'Moses, we're done with you and this God.' God [sadly] says, 'Well if that's the way you feel'. God leaves and without Divine protection Israel is plagued by snakes. Moses on behalf of the people asks God to come back and God does and provides healing to the people. [and this is the last time Israel complains in the wilderness]
Numbers 21 is a fantastic story about God loving the people so much, that despite their rejection, God forgives the people and brings healing to the plague which is wreaking havoc. Here is a God willing to look past the the failures and rejection of the people and bring healing and restored relations. The difficulty for many [Beyond the fact that a surface level reading of a vengeful God savagely unleashing a plague on helpless people] is the fact that we want to experience miraculous healing like this in our own time. How many of us have stood with the grieving who longed for God to heal a person dying before their time. We live in the midst of a global pandemic and few communities have not been struck by a premature death caused by this plague. We are, like ancient Israel, crying out to God for help. Where is Moses lifting up our cries for help?
This question bothered me, so I did what I always do when a question bothers me, I read a book. I turned to Jacob Milgrom’s excellent Numbers commentary in the JPS series. What I discovered was that for many peoples of the ancient world (and I doubt the Israelites would have been an exception) snakes were a symbol of healing. Even today medical insignia often feature a snake. Beyond that, these cultures believed in what we today call sympathetic magic; the notion that one could cancel out illness through a charm of a similar sort. So a copper or bronze snake stuck on a pole would be a charm against venomous snakes. [There is far more to this argument and anyone interested should definitely read Milgrom’s commentary particularly page 459.]
In a sense, when Moses is commanded to make a bronze snake and place it on a pole God is telling him to use the best medical technology of the late second millennium B.C.E.. Of course, this sounds crazy to us because we live in the 2021 where we have different cosmology, values, and technology. To us sticking a snake on a pole looks like a miracle in line with God bring/taking away the plagues in Exodus. But the people of Israel would have seen things differently, to them God would have worked through their medical means. One of the issues I sometimes have with people in the church is we want the miraculous when God wants to work through “us”. God wants us involved in restoring the world, including healing the world from disease. Yes, God sometimes might work through a strange and miraculous means, but Bible seems to indicate God wants to give added efficacy to our efforts.
I can imagine that some in Israel were lashing out at God and Moses for taking so long while people suffered and died. I can imagine some questioned God’s character as well as God’s desire or power to help. I can imagine that some in Israel rejected God because it seemed like Moses took measures into his own hands and cured the plague. I can imagine that some become spiritually numb trying to understand what was going on in their world. I can imagine all of this because these are the reactions I am regularly confronted with as I deal with modern responses to COVID. So many people want God to magically remove COVID from our lives, but this is the same mindset of the Israelites who reject God and cause their plague. It is the sin of taking control. Rather, we must learn that God wants to work with and through us; We are in partnership with God and God can use our production and technology to further healing and restoration. For those who have never read it, this is the major theme of George Mueller’s Autobiography. Mueller’s life was one of trusting God to help and provide for him as he took the next step in changing the world, and God was faithful. As we take on the challenges of life we have two options: grumble and complain like Israel, or work with God like Mueller.
During this pandemic our trust might be to pray that God would work through doctors to end the disease. To specifically pray that God bless the vaccine and make it safe and effective. The vaccine only serves as an example for our lives, our approach to life must be that God is behind us helping us as we seek to create a world fit for God. If God was willing to be humbled enough to work through the sympathetic magic of the ancient cultures, we can expect that God will likewise consent to work through our technology today. Our challenge is to reorient our minds to trust God to work with us and to help us improve this world.