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One Good Snake: Numbers 21

I’m not a big fan of snakes. While I am not Indiana Jones-bothered by snakes, they are not on my list of favorite things. Snakes are not even on my list of not-favorite things. They are on my “gee, let’s hope we get through the day without meeting one of these” things list. I have tended to agree with the classic proverb that the only good snake is a dead snake.

However, I come to Numbers 21 and have to correct myself. There is one good snake in the Bible. It is, of course, not a biting snake but a healing snake. How so?

Once again, the people of Israel were complaining. There wasn’t food enough. There wasn’t water. The trip was taking too long. All in all, it was just not a good day. Even though they had destroyed Arad and were actually finally going to the Promised Land, the standard complaint arose: “Why are we out here to die instead of in slavery?”

This recurs in the Exodus narrative so much that you almost want to assume that there is some embellishment. Surely no one could complain that much, could they? Yet one or two minutes considering our own experience would remind us that we complain rather repeatedly about the same old things. Why would the Israelites have been any different?

Consider the last time you went to the fridge and looked in it, determining there was no food there. Now, I have been in the spot where there was, actually, no food there. It’s an entirely different feeling, and a very desperate one. In most cases, though, we say there’s no food when it’s really that there’s no food we want to eat.

The response? God sends snakes among the people. These snakes bit the people, and eventually the venom was fatal. Numbers 21:6 suggests that many people died, but we don’t have a clear number. The people, as is their custom and ours, cry out for God to take away the punishment for their sins.

We see a different response this time, though. Work down through Numbers 21:7-9 and it appears that the serpents are not taken away during the time the people remain at this location. Instead, God provides the remedy for the venom: the snake-on-a-stick. If people looked up at the snake, they lived. Those who were bitten but did not look up? They died.

Seems like a fairly simple suggestion. Yet I cannot help but wonder if anyone chose not to look? Died due to stubbornness more than anything else?

That is certainly the first lesson here: do not be stubborn about lifesaving options. You can live without that spleen!

There is something deeper, though, and spiritual here. There are spiritual problems and God has provided the cure for them. The first is the reality that the wages of sin are death, and we are going to get that unless we come to Jesus for forgiveness. That much is made clear by Jesus Himself in John 3 when He talks to Nicodemus.

Further, though, I think there is some applicability to more of our walk with Christ. God has often provided solutions to the things that sting us, rob us of life, or destroy our joy and peace. Instead, though, we whine and complain and bring those things around. The solution is still the same: look to the Cross, look to that which God has provided.

But we want something else. We want healers or medicines or something flashy. We want something more than turning our eyes to Jesus, fixing our eyes upon Him. This is, however, all we have.

And it is all we need.

Nerd Notes:

Note 1: The serpent is destroyed under the reign of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4) and it came to have the name Nehushtan. For an action novel that has archaeologists digging for it anyway, check out Serpent of Moses by Don Hoesel. Just remember Hibbard’s Rule #3 for Theology: Do Not Base Your Theology in Fiction.

Note 2: Do some research into the symbols of medicine. Some groups use the Caduceus, some use the Rod of Asclepius. It’s interesting. Apparently, the Rod of Asclepius was a symbol for medicine, while the Caduceus was a symbol for merchant. The Army Medical Corps took the Caduceus as a symbol to show “non-combatant” status, just in case Switzerland ever got into a war and the Red Cross wasn’t a good idea. There are divergent opinions about how these symbols have been used. What I find interesting?

The antiquity of the Greek Myths that underlie both Caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius are not older than Numbers. In fact, the evidence puts their origin younger than 1400 BC, where I would approximate the Numbers narrative. Is this a possible origin? Israel ends up at the crossroads of the Eastern Mediterranean, and would have a potential impact on Greece and Egypt post-Ramses II, as well as Rome.

Note 3: Is there something to be taken, theologically, from the death of many before the introduction of the serpent when we consider the question of what happens to those cultures who have yet to have contact with the Gospel? Or those that never did? Jesus Himself draws a parallel between Himself and the Bronze Serpent. Should we push it into that corner, that there is something to be known about people living apart from the Gospel and dying from the serpent of sin?

I’m not certain, but that’s what this section is for. Questions to ponder.

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