The bronze snake
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Numbers 21:1-21:9 (NIV, NIRV, TNIV, KJV)
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The Bronze Snake
God sometimes chooses to show His Glory through some very strange people, you only have to look around at ourselves to figure that one out. When you consider the type of nations that God could have chosen to be His people, you wonder why He chose the nation of Israel initially. He could have chosen the powerful Egyptian or Phoenician nations. Instead he chose a man called Abraham, in a tent, and informed him that His descendents were going to become a great nation. (Genesis 18)
As Christians we can learn an awful lot from the relationship between God and this nation. There are an awful lot of parallels between their lives as a nation and our lives as a Christian. They were a people who found themselves enslaved by cruel masters when they were in the land of Egypt. In chapter 6 of the book of Romans we find that before becoming Christians we were slaves to sin.
They were a people freed from slavery through Gods mercy and found themselves heading towards a promised land. As Christians we have been freed from the bondage of sin through Christ’s death, and are now heading towards our own promised land, heaven.
It is the bit in the middle that most interests me. After leaving Egypt and before entering the land that was promised to them they had to endure forty years in the wilderness. Their walk with God in these forty years bears a lot of resemblance to our own relationship with God on this earth. As we wait for our own promise of heaven, life can be like a wilderness experience. You may have a promise upon life in another area, and in waiting for that to come to pass, you can feel like you are in a wilderness experience. The church can have a promise from God. In waiting for that to come to pass it can feel like a wilderness experience.
There are a lot of lessons that we can learn from this time period, but I just want to look at one incident. It is an incident involving something that was to have relevance a further two times in the Bible. It is one of the more peculiar items we read about in the Bible, a bronze snake. From this item I believe that we can learn about the dangers of discontentment, about the dangers of idolatry, and about overcoming our earthly problems through Jesus.
The Dangers of Discontentment.
1 The king of Arad, the Canaanite, who dwelt in the South, heard that Israel was coming on the road to Atharim. Then he fought against Israel and took some of them prisoners.
2 So Israel made a vow to the LORD, and said, “If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.”
3 And the LORD listened to the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites, and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. So the name of that place was called Hormah. (Utter Destruction)
4 Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way.
5 And 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 our soul loathes this worthless bread.”
6 So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.
7 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.
8 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.”
9 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.
Although the first three verses of this chapter aren’t really about the bronze serpent, I purposely included them as I wanted to show you that this incident followed on from a great victory that the Lord gave to the Israelites. It doesn’t take long for the thrill of a victory to disappear and for discouragement to set in.
You may have experienced the same in your own life. A great meeting and move of God on a Sunday, followed by a monotonous day at work on the Monday.
Why then are the Israelites discouraged? They are coming to the end of forty long years of wilderness experience. They are not far from entering the land promised to them through Abraham, the place we now know as Israel, the place that is described as a land flowing with milk and honey, the place of plenty.
They were discouraged because they were eager to enter into their promise, but had come across another detour. In verse four we read that they had to go by the way of the Red Sea, around the land of Edom. It probably felt like they were never going to get there. What made it worse was the fact that they would have expected to have been able to have gone straight through Edom rather than having to go all the way around it.
It is the chapter before that gives us the reason for their detour. The people of the nation of Edom were the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother. The Jews were therefore related to the Edomites. In chapter 20 we find that the Jews had requested permission from the king of the nation to pass through the land. They had promised not to eat any of the crops of Edom or leave any mess. Not only had the King of Edom refused them permission to pass through, but he had even sent an army out to make sure that they didn’t even think of trying.
This must have been hurtful to the Jewish people. They had faced much opposition, but now it was even their own family causing them problems. You can start to understand why they felt discouraged. Add to that the fact that the land they were passing through was very dry. It was very hilly on either side. The rock was hard and the sun was hot. Worst of all, they were heading away from the promised land.
As Christians we can often find ourselves in the same situation. You may be expecting a time of refreshing upon your life or your church. You may be waiting for a particular promise or to be released into a certain ministry. You may be waiting on a promise for your family to come to know Christ. The wilderness waiting time can be difficult, but unbearably so when we come across a detour. When we think we are closing in, but all of a sudden something comes our way that seems to push it again over the horizon. We feel we are heading in the wrong direction.
The detour can be any number of things, and like in the case of the Israelites it can be even more painful when the cause is someone or something close to us. Something that we weren’t expecting.
Your detour could be many things, an unwanted change in your job, a financial difficulty or even the death of a loved one. It is something that you know means you are going to spend longer in that waiting period.
There are a lot of lessons to be learnt from the Israelites failing to react to this situation in the right way. Their reaction demonstrates that they have lost hope, are ungrateful for what God has done and fail to grasp what God is doing for them.
They ask why God brought them out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness. In their discouragement they have instantly forgot the miracles that God performed on their behalf in order to free them from brutal oppression. There are times as Christians when we can forget the price God paid for us to set us free.
Then they exclaim that there is no food or water and despise what God is providing for them. In saying this they fail to see what God is proving for them. It isn’t true that there isn’t any food or water, God has been providing for them miraculously on a daily basis. He has been providing manna from heaven. They may not have the type of food they want, or in the quantities they are after, but they still have everything that they need.
In the same way, God hasn’t promised that he will provide everything that we want, but instead everything that we need.
31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’
32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.
It is in these times of need that we need to learn to be content. We need to keep our eyes focused on the goal, knowing that God will not let us perish and holding on to the fact that He always keeps his promises. Paul learnt these principals.
11I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
12I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
13I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
God does not allow us to go through the barren times alone. He is always with us and he actually uses them for our own benefit. He uses them so that when these troubling times come along, our hope will grow.
3 And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance;
4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope.
The first thing that God has given me to say to you is to be content, God will fulfil His promise even if it doesn’t appear to be coming along as quick as you would like.
God punishes the Israelites for their disobedience by sending in deadly snakes. After the repentance of the Israelites, God’s solution is a rather peculiar one, He tells Moses to build a bronze snake. We will discuss the significance of this in a little while.
The Dangers of Idolitary.
The next time the bronze snake is mentioned is several hundred years later. Israel had split into two and had got two separate kings. The Jews who lived in the Southern Kingdom were generally the more faithful ones, however they did have long periods were they would turn away from God.
Following one of these long periods of disobedience, Israel was then ruled by a very Godly king. He tried to bring the whole nation back into submission to God. His name was Hezekiah.
2 Kings 18:4
He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan. ( It means a ‘thing of brass’)
God had told Moses to build a bronze snake. He told them that anybody who had been bit should look towards the bronze serpent. It was obedience to this command that caused the sufferer to be healed. Yet a few hundred years later the people had resorted to worshipping the means that God had used, rather than God Himself. I believe that the same can happen in churches today.
The bronze snake was actually a healing ministry. Instead of worshipping the God that gave the ministry, they started to worship the ministry instead.
God has given each of us different ministries. He has given us all different talents. He has given us these ministries and gifting as talents to bless others and even to save others. The Israelites had to be obedient to Gods command in order to receive healing. In the same way we have to be obedient to God’s command in using our talents in order to achieve what he wants us to achieve. However, sometimes we can even put our ministries for God, before God Himself.
The point that our service for God can sometimes come in front of our relationship with God is proved in a story concerning two of the godliest women in the Bible.
38 Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house.
39 And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word.
40 But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”
41 And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things.
42 But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Sometimes our ministries, even God given ones can become so important in our lives that they actually get between us and God. I believe God is calling His people to re-evaluate what they do, and to concentrate who they do it for.
Overcoming through Jesus.
I want to now go back to the original story and look a little closer at, how God punished the people for their disobedience, and the method He used to save them.
The people sinned in their discontentment by rebelling against Moses and against God. It is probably quite fitting then that God should use serpents to punish the people. It was a serpent that was present when Adam and Eve committed the first sin by rebelling against God. The serpent had grown to represent that sin.
As somebody once said when it came to the first sin; Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the Serpent, and the Serpent hadn’t got a leg to stand on. It is no wonder then that God uses snakes to punish this rebellion.
It is pleasing to see that the first thing the Israelites do is repent. They don’t try and deal with the problem their own way by using extra thick leggings or ringing their tents with fire.
Moses then intercedes on their behalf. Here we see a little of the character of Moses. The people had been rebelling against him and not just God.
The method that God uses to deal with the problem is quite extraordinary. He tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and to lift it up. Anybody who is bitten, but looks at it, will live. Why would God choose to use something that represents sin to save the people from it? The answer we discover is that it is a prophecy to the very method that God would use to deal with all sin and its consequences.
9 Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?
11 Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.
12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
13 No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
Just as the Serpent, that Moses lifted up, represented the sin of the people, Jesus, hanging on the cross, represented our sin. It is only by looking to Him that we live.
Notice that God did not take away the snakes. The snakes didn’t disappear until they crossed into the Promised Land. While we wait for our promises to come to pass, and while we are on earth waiting for our ultimate promise, the consequences of our sin will remain with us. We will still have to face trails. However just as the Israelites continued to find healing from the snakes each time they got bit, we also are able to find a cure each time we get bit.
Numbers describes the snakes as being fiery serpents. It infers that the poison probably burned as it took effect in the body. Each time they got bit they would have felt the pain, but it would have reminded them of their need to obey God’s command and look at the bronze serpent. If the snakes or the pain had been taken away then the Israelites may have turned away from God. In the same way God will sometimes allow us to pass through painful experiences in order that our faithfulness might grow.
1 Peter 1:6-7
6In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
7These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.
I want to conclude by saying that we will go through wilderness experiences in our lives. They are times when we can either get discontented or allow God to build up character perseverance and hope in us.
There are also times when we need to stand back from what we are doing and consider who we are doing it for. We can actually worship that what God has given us instead of the God that has given it to us.
Finally I believe that we need to focus upon the hope that we have in God. Trials will come, but they will result in glory rather than our detriment.
I want to encourage you not to lose hope as the Israelites did. He is faithful and will always fulfil His promises.