And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
— John 3:14-15, NRSV
There’s a short but disturbing story in the book of Numbers. The Israelites, still journeying in the desert, had just come off a stunning military victory. With their people taken captive by the Canaanites, the Israelites prayed — and God delivered the Canaanites into their hands.
The jubilation must have been short-lived. Returning to their long and dreary march, the people became impatient. They began complaining to Moses, and by implication, against God: “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” (Num 21:5, NRSV).
Not, “Thanks, God, for rescuing us out of slavery in Egypt! We’re so glad we’re not there anymore!” Not, “Thanks, God, for saving us from the Canaanites.” Not even, “Thanks, God, for giving us manna. Okay, to be honest, we’re getting a little tired of it, but at least we’re not starving to death.”
Not gratitude, worship, or respect, just incredible cheek.
And God responded with death by snakebite (vs. 6).
I’m not sure which part of the story is more disturbing.
The people, of course, immediately confessed their sin to Moses and asked him to intervene. At God’s instruction, Moses made a serpent out of bronze and set it up on a pole where everyone could see it. From that point on, anyone who was bitten and looked to the bronze serpent lived (vss. 7-9).
Wait. So, the serpents were still there. And people were still getting bitten. But now they didn’t have to die, not if they looked up.
I guess if I were God, I would have just taken away the snakes.
Good thing for everyone that I’m not God.
It may seem like an overreaction on God’s part, something on the order of a crazy parent getting tired of the kids’ whining and tossing poisonous snakes into the backseat to teach them a lesson. But for all our talk about love and grace, we still have to contend with the stubbornness of human sin and the height of God’s holiness.
The Israelites, in other words, weren’t just having a bad day. God had rescued them again and again — most memorably in the exodus from Egypt, but also repeatedly thereafter. They were in the wilderness because of their rebellion and disobedience in the first place, and this episode was merely the latest instance of throwing God’s salvation in his face.
But snakes? Why snakes? Much is made of the serpent as a symbol of sin and evil, as in Genesis 3, such that the parallel drawn by Jesus in John 3 puts sin itself on the cross. Some even seem to suggest that God sent snakes just so Jesus could later make the analogy.
I think it’s more straightforward, however, to say that a decisive act of discipline was needed and snakes were a wilderness-appropriate means. The bronze serpent is then a symbol of the snakes on the ground, not of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. (I suppose God could have instructed Moses to make, say, a bronze wombat, but how would that make sense?)
None of this, of course, prevents Jesus from making whatever he wishes out of the metaphor.
God could have taken away the snakes, but he didn’t. He provided a way of escape that required a simple act of obedience: look up and live. Nor does God simply rid the world of sin. Through the cross, he provides a way to be saved out of death and into life. But a simple act of obedience is still required.
I’ve tried to imagine someone in the Israelite camp, dying of snake venom. He hears Moses’ words: God has answered our prayer! Look up! Live! Who would refuse such an invitation?
It makes me wonder why some refuse the invitation still.