Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 15, 2015
Numbers 21:4-9 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
You really cannot appreciate this passage from Numbers 21 without paying attention to the surrounding context. In the first three verses of this chapter, we get a tiny narrative snippet about a time the Israelites got knocked around by some Canaanite king named Arad. A few Israelites got nabbed, a few got injured, possibly a few got killed. So the people do what people of faith should do: they cry out to their God, who hears them and delivers the enemy into their hands. God came through big-time for them, so much so in fact that the Israelites nick-named the place where the battle had taken place “Destructo-Ville.” Because it was there that—bang and boom—the Israelites kicked the can of the Canaanites. (Terrible pun, but read on . . . )
But then . . . as every good parent knows, the child who had been so charming and loving and grateful the previous day is by no means immune from the throwing of a temper tantrum the very next day. Flush from their stunning and God-given victory at Destructo-Ville, the people suddenly notice a rumbling in their stomachs. They notice that the sun can get pretty hot out there in the wilderness. Between being hungry and being hot, the people think back to good old Egypt, to farmer’s markets loaded with leeks and cucumbers and cool melons. Before you know it, Egypt transmogrifies in their imaginations into a kind of Shangri La, a shimmering oasis of goodness. True, the whole bricks-without-straw period was a little tough but hey, at the end of a long day of building pyramids, you could go home, grab a glass of fine Claret, and take your ease over cheese and crackers.
And so they speak against God. They speak against Moses. For a covenant people such as Israel was (or was supposed to be), speaking against God is a little like speaking against oxygen. Speaking against God’s anointed and chosen servant is a little like speaking against the branch you’re sitting on by sawing it off. It’s a lesson they should have learned long ago but didn’t. This is not the first time in Numbers this happened. (I sometimes think that the most important “number” of the Book of Numbers is the number of times the people spit in God’s face, suffered as a consequence, and then groveled before Moses to get them out of their self-induced pickle.)
Sure enough, venomous (or fiery) snakes soon slither among the people, nipping and biting whoever was not quick enough to avoid the snakes’ lightning-fast strikes. People started to die. Others got really, really sick. In an instant the same Moses who had been the communal punching bag a few hours earlier starts to look once again like their savior and so they beg and plead for him to step into the breach between them and God and do something to get rid of these fiery ropes of death.
Who knows just what these serpents were. The fact that they are called “fiery” literally in Hebrew could indicate that these were not ordinary snakes. They sound like maybe a divine kind of sign or something. But whatever they were, the main thing to know about these serpents is that they were lethal. If the God who sent them doesn’t do something to get rid of them, the people would soon start to die in big numbers.
As is the predictable pattern in Numbers, God does respond to Moses’ plea on behalf of the people. Curiously, however, he does not respond by just evaporating the fiery snakes he had sent in the first place. That would have been the logical thing to do. God sends snakes, God removes snakes. That’s what the people asked Moses to pray, too, and presumably he did so—he prayed that God would “take the snakes away for the people.”
But God doesn’t. Instead he does the counter-intuitive thing of instructing Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it up on a pole, and then has the people look upon that bronze snake as the weird cure for the bite of the real snakes.
Maybe because this way of dealing with the people’s blindness and sin is, in some curious way, more fitting, more instructive, than a simple removing of sin’s scourge. Perhaps this is a reminder that all across the Bible—for reasons that are properly vexing—it seems that God is able to do any number of things far more easily, far more swiftly, than dealing with the presence of sin and evil. Compared to what God ultimately had to do to save us from our sins, the whole act of Creation looks to have been a snap. Creating appears to have gone more smoothly for God than salvaging that same creation once it became marred by evil. Where sin is concerned, God is not simply going to snap his fingers and, voila, it’s just gone.
So also in Numbers 21: the people had to look at an icon of the very thing that was afflicting them—which was simultaneously a vivid reminder of the sin that brought about that scourge—before some kind of healing was going to happen. As Neal Plantinga pointed out years ago in a sermon on this chapter, this is an example of the principle of “like cures like.” Even as in a vaccine you are injected with a small amount of the disease to be warded off—thus building up immunity to that same disease—so in the long run of the Gospel we need to look at the Son of God on a cross as a way to deal with the scourge of death that our sinfulness has brought upon us all. Death cures death.
The Season of Lent is a long reminder to us all that our sins are no trite matter. They cannot be scrubbed away quickly or lightly. Also, Numbers 21 may be an example of our common struggle with sin. Even as the Israelites could so quickly pivot from a God-assisted victory to a God-denigrating period of grumbling, so the whole of our lives for now remain a series of mortification and vivification, of dying and rising with our Savior Jesus Christ. The whole thing is an agonizing process, and who knows exactly why God doesn’t just snap his fingers to make each one of us perfect at the moment of our baptisms. But in truth it doesn’t work that way despite the truth that we are so singularly and instantly saved by grace alone.
In Lent and at all times, these are surely worthy matters to ponder, to pray over, and to struggle with.
As you may know, Numbers 21 is not the last time in the Bible that we see this bronze serpent on a pole. In addition to the John 3 reference when Jesus referred to this with Nicodemus, the actual pole and bronze image itself reappears in II Kings 18 when Hezekiah becomes the king of Judah. Hezekiah is the one who finally cleaned house in Israel after years of wanton spiritual apostasy. Hezekiah is the one who smashed the altars to Baal and dismantled the fertility poles dedicated to Asherah. Hezekiah smashed these things to end the ritual prostitution and idolatry that had become commonplace among the Israelites. But II Kings 18:4 tells us that along with those pagan altars, Hezekiah destroyed one other item, too: the bronze serpent on a pole that Moses had made. And why did he destroy that?
Because it had become an idol to which the people were offering sacrifices!
The bronze serpent that had been used as a symbol of God’s saving power had turned into a talisman, a lucky charm, a false god. Now isn’t that startling? Because if that is what happened to the forerunner to the cross of Christ, you have to wonder if the same fate could befall the cross. The cross must never become for us a mere symbol of the past, a relic that is thought to possess power within itself. In the Middle Ages there was a lot of traffic in the relics trade in which items that allegedly had belonged to saints were bought, sold, and collected. One of the more common such relics were pieces of wood supposedly from Jesus’ cross. These slivers were revered because they were thought to confer saving power on the person who owned them.
That may come pretty close to the kind of idolatrous worship that eventually centered on Moses’ bronze serpent. And, of course, that misses the point of it all quite singularly as well.
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