Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 11, 2018
Numbers 21:4-9 Commentary
Snakes have had, at best, a mixed reputation throughout history. Some people have associated them with healing. A snake, after all, represented Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. The modern symbol of the medical profession is also a snake wrapped around a branch.
What’s more, in some passages in Scripture, snakes also have somewhat positive connotations. In Isaiah 6 the angels who hover over God’s throne seem to look like snakes. The Scriptures also call God’s people to be wiser than snakes.
However, snakes more generally have negative connotations both for many people and in the Bible. It’s not just that some snakes’ bites can be fatal. It’s also that it’s a snake that tempts Eve. What’s more, when John the Baptizer essentially refers to the Pharisees as a bunch of snakes, he’s scolding them.
Numbers’ readers who journey with Israel from Egypt expect her to rebel against God and disobey his commands. In chapter 21, however, things seem to begin to change. After all, it describes Israel’s first military victory over a Canaanite king, as well as her defeat of two other hostile kings, Sihon and Og.
However, like a thistle pressed between two roses, yet another story of rebellion stands between those of military victory. Taken together, then, Numbers 21 reminds God’s people of both the older Israelite generation’s faithless failure and its younger generation’s hope for the future.
While Numbers 21 is a story of revolt, it’s also a story of God’s amazing, life-giving grace. Arad’s king attacks and captures some Israelites. Israel, however, doesn’t fight back without God’s blessing, as she does in Numbers 14. Nor does she, as Moses did in Numbers 20, just beg for a Canaanite king’s mercy.
Instead besieged Israel consults with the Lord. She promises to dedicate all the towns she captures to the Lord by completely destroying them. God accepts her promise and hands the Canaanites over to Israel who completely razes all their towns.
It’s a shining, if unusual, example of Israel conforming to how God wants her to conquer Canaan. When an aggressor confronts her, God longs for her to promise to give any plunder to God. God will then accept their promise and hand their enemy over to the Israelites.
So Numbers 21’s first few verses give us hope that the older generation finally is beginning to trust God. Yet her subsequent journey through the threatening wilderness challenges and, ultimately, strips away that newfound trust.
By now, of course, Israel’s response to these challenges doesn’t surprise us. They become impatient with their trip. The Israelites complain to Moses about a lack of bread and water. They also grumble at him about what they call this “miserable” manna. This time, however, Israel, doesn’t just speak against Moses. She also ominously complains directly against and about God.
Numbers 21:4-9’s complaint story is what Dennis Olson (Numbers: John Knox Press) calls a “tired old snapshot of what Israel’s disobedience has been all along.” It shows how bellyaching Israel has again forgotten God’s gracious liberation of her from Egyptian slavery.
She has forgotten God’s call to be God’s chosen, holy nation and a kingdom of priests. The Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday also shows that Israel forgot how God persistently and graciously gave her life in the wilderness that’s so full of death.
Such amnesia, however, always has consequences. In this case God responds to the Israelites’ mutiny by sending venomous snakes to attack them. The Hebrew word for “venomous” literally means “fiery.” Yet while it probably referring to the burning sensation snakebite causes on human skin, it’s also an appropriate metaphor for God’s fiery anger over yet another instance of Israelite rebellion.
The deaths of many Israelites from their snakebites leads Israel to link those bites to their complaints against God’s great grace. So they plead with Moses to beg God to remove the venomous snakes.
However, perhaps as a result of what happened after Israel confessed her sin in Number 14’s spy story, God doesn’t just immediately get rid of the snakes. God provides a remedy for the threat instead of simply removing the threat.
When Moses prays to God on behalf of Israel, God tells him to erect an image of a snake on a pole. The Lord graciously promises that whenever stricken Israelites look at that snake, they will not die. So Moses makes a bronze, otherwise translated as “fiery,” snake and erects it on a pole. As a result, those who look at it survive the serpents’ bites.
Yet that bronze serpent doesn’t somehow represent God. God has always forbade all images and representations of God. After all, nothing in heaven or on earth or in the waters under the earth, says the second commandment, can represent God.
We see this command’s wisdom in the mysterious reappearance of the bronze serpent. In II Kings 18 Judah’s king Hezekiah is finally cleaning house in Israel after years of her spiritual rebellion. He smashes Israel’s altars to Baal and her fertility poles dedicated to Asherah. However, Hezekiah also destroys Moses’ bronze serpent because Israel had turned it into an idol to which she offered sacrifices.
Some of Israel’s contemporaries believed they could get rid of vermin by making images of them. Moses’ bronze serpent, however, has no such magical power. So the Israelites aren’t automatically healed of their snakebites just because they look at a bronze snake that Moses erected on a pole.
The bronze serpent has the power to heal only because God graciously gives it that power. The God who has severely punished Israel also graciously provides the means for healing her.
Earlier Israel’s high priest Aaron stood between the dead and the living to stop a plague with which God punished Israel. Now the bronze serpent stands between the dead who aren’t willing to look at God’s instrument of healing and the living who are healed because they are willing.
In a sense, however, as Olson also notes, this whole story stands between the living and the dead. After all, on its one side stands the old wilderness generation whose remnants will soon die out in Numbers 25. On its other side stands the beginning of a new hopeful generation whose numbers Israel will count in her second census in Numbers 26.
That bronze snake, however, has no power to grant any generation eternal life. Those whom the snakes bite but whom God heals eventually still die. So Someone Else had to dangle from another kind of pole in order for people to live forever.
When Jesus discusses his earthly mission with Nicodemus in John 3, he refers to this story of the bronze snake. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert,” he tells the Jewish teacher in John 3:14, “so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”
Jesus follows that simile with that memorable description of God’s redeeming love. “For God so loved the world,” he tells Nicodemus in John 3:16, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
So the cross in John’s gospel, like Numbers’ bronze serpent on the pole, doesn’t just symbolize God’s righteous fury with God’s children’s sins. It also points to the Lord’s gracious life-giving power.
Yet there’s a difference between the life-giving bronze serpent and Jesus Christ. Numbers 21 doesn’t say that that the Israelites had to believe God would heal them when they looked at the bronze serpent. God simply tells Moses that anyone whom the snakes bite can merely look at the bronze serpent and live.
Jesus, by contrast, doesn’t claim that just looking at his cross or him will save anyone. Instead he insists that those who believe in the power of the crucified Christ to save us from our sins will be saved. Those who proclaim Numbers 21:4-9 will want to explore the content of such life-giving faith.
Of course, there were probably skeptics who doubted that God could heal those who merely looked at the bronze snake. Once, however, as my colleague Scott Hoezee notes, they were bitten, you can imagine they stared pretty hard at it.
When people lifted Jesus Christ up onto the cross, his disciples doubted it could do anything positive for them or anyone else. Blessed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, however, we can imagine that when they felt the sting of their own sin, they clung pretty tenaciously to that cross’ power.
Stung by the power of our own sin, those who proclaim and hear Numbers 21 don’t look to a bronze serpent. You and I, instead, cling to Jesus’ cross. Two thousand years ago, after all, God sent not a serpent, but his only Son, Jesus Christ. God sent not a snake made of bronze, but Jesus Christ, made of flesh and blood.
As my colleague Neal Plantinga, who also lent me some ideas for this Sermon Commentary has noted, that bronze serpent felt no pain as it dangled from a pole. Jesus Christ, however, felt all the physical pain of crucifixion, as well as the agony of absorbing God’s fury with our sins.
Those whom the snakes bit simply physically died. Those who rebel deserve eternal death. Those whom God healed of their snakebites eventually died. Those whom God heals of our sins live forever, because of what Plantinga calls “Jesus Christ, the Snake,” did.
As recently as July of 2017, the Huffington Post noted that Doctors Without Borders were warning that sub-Saharan Africa was facing a critical shortage of Fav-Afrique, the most effective anti-venom for snakebites. That shortage endangered the 1.5 million people who are bitten by snakes in the area every year.
Part of the reason for the shortage of that anti-venom was its prohibitive costs. A course of treatment can be more costly (@ $500) than many residents of Sub-Saharan Africa’s make in a year.
While shortages of anti-venom medicine seems to periodically crop up, there will never be any shortage of God’s anti-venom for the toxicity of our sins. While it was unspeakably costly to God – the life of God’s only Son — God was graciously willing to pay that price. God, in fact, made enough of that “anti-venom” to inoculate the whole world God so deeply loves.
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