Golden Text: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8).
I. INTRODUCTION. The generation of Israelites who wandered through the wilderness after God set them free from Egyptian bondage, often found themselves complaining against God and His chosen servant Moses. Throughout their journey, the Lord had to deal with their grumbling and rebellion. This week’s lesson focuses on one of those instances of complaining and how God responded to it.
II. THE LESSON BACKGROUND. It had been about 37 years since Israel’s first spy mission into the Promised Land (see Numbers chapters 13 and 14), and 40 years since the exodus from Egypt. The Bible is virtually silent about those 37 years of aimless wandering. The generation of those who escaped from Egypt had almost died off (see Numbers 14:22-24, 26-34), and the new generation would soon be ready to enter the land of Canaan. Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb were among the few over 21 who remained from those who had left Egypt. Once again, they camped at Kadesh (see Numbers 20:1), the site of the first spy mission that had ended in disaster (see Numbers 13:26-33; 14:10). While there at Kadesh, Miriam died (see Numbers 20:1). There was not enough water and the people complained bitterly. God commanded Moses to speak to the rock and it would give the people water. But because Moses was so angry at the people’s complaining, he struck the rock twice with his rod and water came out abundantly (see Numbers 20:2-11). But Moses and Aaron took credit for it when he said “…must we fetch you water out of this rock?” In response to Moses’ actions God told him and Aaron that since they did not sanctify Him in the eyes of the people, neither he nor Aaron would bring the children of Israel into the land that He had given them (see Numbers 20:10-13). When they were ready to leave Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom asking permission to pass through their land on the king’s highway, the main road, and a well-traveled trade route. Moses promised that the people would stay on this road bypassing Edom’s fields, vineyards, and wells (see Numbers 20:14-17). However, Edom refused because they did not trust Israel’s word. They were afraid that this great multitude of people would either attack them or devour their crops. So the Israelites turned and took a longer route around Edom and came to Mount Hor (see Numbers 20:18-22). It’s interesting that the king of Edom refused Israel passage since the two nations, Israel and Edom came out of two brothers, Jacob and Esau. Therefore, the Edomites were brothers to the Israelites yet enemies. At Mount Hor, God told Moses that Aaron would die soon and to take him along with his son Eleazar up on mount Hor and remove Aaron’s priestly garments and put them on Eleazar because Aaron would die there that day. Moses did as God commanded him, and after he stripped the priestly clothes off Aaron, he died and Moses and Eleazar descended back down the mountain (see Numbers 20:23-28). When the people saw that Aaron was dead they mourned for him for thirty days (see Numbers 20:29). Our lesson begins with chapter 21.
III. GOD PROVIDES VICTORY OVER THE CANAANITES (Numbers 21:1-3)
A. King Arad attacks the Israelites (Numbers 21:1). Our first verse says “And when king Arad the Canaanite, which dwelt in the south, heard tell that Israel came by the way of the spies; then he fought against Israel, and took some of them prisoners.” As the Israelites continued their journey, we are told that “king Arad the Canaanite, which dwelt in the south, heard tell that Israel came by the way of the spies.” The name “Canaanite” identifies the original occupants of the land of Canaan who settled there as early as 2000 B.C. They were idol worshipers, and Baal was their primary male god and Ashtoreth their primary female god. “Arad” the king, lived in the southern part of Canaan and he “heard” that the Israelites were headed his way via “the way of the spies.” There is some debate among Bible scholars as to whether the phrase “the way of the spies” refers to the route taken by the “spies” who Moses sent out to search Canaan (see Numbers 13:1-25), or to a place called Atharim. Since the location of this place is unknown, most scholars agree that “the way of the spies” simply refers to the route that the Israelite “spies” took into Canaan. The fact that “Arad” heard that the Israelites were coming indicates that the reputation of Israel and their God was well known. No doubt, everywhere they journeyed and had victories was reported, especially the victory over Egypt during their exodus. Fearing this great number of people, “Arad”… “fought against Israel, and took some of them prisoners.” In order to keep the Israelites from advancing against his people, “Arad” decided to strike them first, and in the process he gained a small victory and also “took some” of these Hebrews as “prisoners.”
B. The Israelites retaliate (Numbers 21:2-3).
1. (vs. 2). This verse says “And Israel vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” Knowing the history of Israel in the wilderness and their tendency to complain when things went wrong, the small defeat they suffered probably tempted them to murmur like their fathers had done, and to despair that they might not get possession of Canaan. As a result, “Israel vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” Since Arad’s victory was not a total victory over God’s people, they petitioned “the LORD” and promised that if He would help them conquer king Arad and his people, then they would give those cities to Him by totally destroying them. The Hebrew term for “destroy” refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to “the LORD,” often by totally destroying them (see also verse 3). In essence, the people promised to totally “destroy” these “cities” as if devoting them to God, and they would not take the spoil of the cities for their own use.
2. (vs. 3). This verse says “And the Lord hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities: and he called the name of the place Hormah.” In response to Israel’s vows and their cries for help against the Canaanites, “the LORD hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites.” God did exactly as the people had requested. Then the Israelites kept their promise “and they utterly destroyed them and their cities.” All the Canaanite cities under king Arad were completely and “utterly destroyed.” This was the Israelites’ first victory against “the Canaanites” in Israel’s efforts to conquer the land. In honor of His victory, God “called the name of the place Hormah.” The name Hormah” is the Hebrew word for “devotion.” It carries the same idea as the Hebrew word kahram which means “to be completely devoted to the Lord for utter destruction.” The place was called “Hormah” for at least three reasons. First as a memorial of the destruction that took place there. Second, to put fear in “the Canaanites,” and third, probably as a warning to later generations not to attempt the rebuilding of these cities since they were destroyed in devotion to God and as sacrifices to divine justice. It’s interesting that at this same place “Hormah,” Israel had suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of “the Canaanites” and the Amalekites many years before (see Numbers 14:41-45). However, this victory by Israel marks a shift in focus from the generation of Israelites who left Egypt and were condemned to die in the wilderness (see Numbers 14:29-35), to the generation that was born in the wilderness. Note: In order for Israel to inhabit the land of Canaan, God would drive out the wicked and idolatrous peoples who lived there (see Exodus 23:20-33; Joshua 3:10). Israel, as a holy nation could not live among such evil and idolatrous people. To do so would invite sin into their lives. The only way to prevent Israel from being infected by evil religions was to drive out those who practiced them. Although God’s command to drive out all the nations in Canaan may seem cruel, the Israelites were under God’s order to execute judgment on those wicked people (see Exodus 23:20-33). Those nations had to be judged for their sin as God had judged Israel by forcing them to wander 40 years before they were allowed to enter the Promised Land. Over 700 years earlier, God had told Abraham that when the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the gross evil of the native people in Canaan would be ready for judgment (see Genesis 15:13-16; Deuteronomy 18:9-11). But God wasn’t playing favorites with the Israelites because eventually they too would be severely punished for becoming as evil as the people they were ordered to drive out (see Ezekiel 5:5-9). God is not partial; all people are eligible for God’s gracious forgiveness as well as for His firm judgment or justice. Unfortunately, Israel failed to drive everyone out as God had told them to do (see Joshua 17:12-13; Judges 1:28-33), and it wasn’t long before Israel, the nation that God chose to be His holy people (see Exodus 19:3-6), began following the evil practices of the Canaanites (see Judges 2:10-13; 3:5-7).
IV. GOD SENDS FIERY SERPENTS ON HIS PEOPLE (Numbers 21:4-6)
A. Here we go again: Israel complains (Numbers 21:4-5).
1. (vs. 4). This verse says “And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.” After Israel’s victory over king Arad and the Canaanites, they left Hormah and returned to “Mount Hor” (see Numbers 20:25-29) and “journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom.” This means that the Israelites traveled “from Mount Hor” and continued southward along the road to “the Red Sea” in order to go around “the land of Edom.” Moses took this route around “Edom” because when they stopped at Kadesh and prepared to journey again, Moses sent messengers to the king of “Edom” asking permission to pass through their land on the king’s highway, the main road. However, Edom refused because they were afraid that this great multitude of people would either attack them or devour their crops. So the Israelites turned and took a longer route around “Edom” and came to “Mount Hor” (see Numbers 20:14-22). Because the people took this longer route, we are told that “the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.” The phrase “discouraged because of the way” indicates that “the people” were disheartened by the challenges or hardships they would face by taking this route. Maybe the way was rough and uneven; but for sure the people were “discouraged” because they had to go around “Edom” and Moses didn’t allow them to force their way through the Edomites’ country. It’s true that those who have a discontented spirit will always find something or other that will make them feel uneasy.
2. (vs. 5). This verse says, “And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.” Being discouraged by having to take a longer route to Canaan, the people did what seems to have become normal for them (see Exodus 15:24; 16:2; 17:3; Numbers 14:2) for “the people spake against God, and against Moses.” In other words, they murmured or grumbled “against God, and against Moses” about their situation. It seems that these people never learned how serious it was to grumble against God and His appointed leaders. In every murmuring instance, God responded with chastisement. The Apostle Paul warned the church at Corinth, and us about the danger of murmuring (see I Corinthians 10:1-11). Their complaint was “Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.” Although they had just now obtained a glorious victory over the Canaanites, and were going on to conquer more of the land, they still spoke very discontentedly about what God had done for them, and distrustfully about what He would do. The Israelites were vexed that they were brought “out of Egypt to die in the wilderness,” and had “no bread” or “any water.” And this takes the cake: they also complained that “our soul loatheth this light bread.” The truth is, they had “bread” enough to spare because they were eating angel’s food (see Psalms 78:23-25), manna itself, and yet they complained that “there is no bread.” Although God gave them manna throughout their wilderness wanderings (see Exodus 16:4; Joshua 5:10-12), they “loatheth” or despised it and called it “light bread,” fit only for children, not for men and soldiers. Note: This was the Lord’s bread from heaven (see Exodus 16:4; John 6:29-31), and God’s people despised it? What will please those that manna will not please? Those who are prone to quarrel and grumble will always find fault where there is no fault to be found. Unfortunately, today there are those who have long enjoyed God’s grace, but are apt to feed even on the “bread of life,” God’s Word, the heavenly manna and call it “light bread.” But we must not let the contempt which some have for the Word of God cause us to value it any less: it is the bread of life, substantial bread, and will nourish those who by faith feed upon it to eternal life.
B. God’s act of discipline (Numbers 21:6). This verse says “And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.” Here we see the righteous judgment that God brought upon His people for their murmuring. “The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people” that “bit” so many of them that “much people of Israel died.” Think about this: the wilderness through which they had passed was infested all along with “fiery serpents” (see Deuteronomy 8:15). But God had wonderfully preserved His people from being hurt by them until now when they murmured. Now He would use these “fiery serpents” to chastise His people which up to now had stayed away from their camps. Now they invaded the Israelite camp. The lesson here is that those who are not thankful for the Lord’s mercies will feel His judgments. These “serpents” are called “fiery” maybe from their color, or from their rage, or from the effects of their bites, inflaming the body, putting it immediately into a high fever, scorching it with an insatiable thirst. God’s people had unjustly complained that they had no water (see verse 5), so God chastises them with what no water could quench. They had distrustfully concluded that they would “die in the wilderness” (see verse 5) and God heard them and brought their unbelieving fears upon them; many of them did die. The Israelites in their pride had lifted themselves up against God and Moses, and now God humbled and mortified them by making these despicable snakes a plague to them. The LORD, who had brought quails to feed them (see Exodus 16:12-13) let them know that He could bring “serpents” to bite them. Let it be known that the whole creation is at God’s disposable to go to war with those who take up arms against Him (see Revelation 9:1-10).
V. GOD PROVIDES A WAY FOR HEALING (Numbers 21:7-9)
A. The people’s confession of sin (Numbers 21:7). This verse says “Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.” With people being bitten by serpents and dying all around, God had given the Israelites something they could really complain about. Here we have their repentance and supplication to God under this judgment. We are told that “the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee.” The people confessed their fault: “We have sinned.” They are specific in their confession: “for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee.” We can’t help but wonder if they would have owned their sin if they had not felt God’s punishment; but they surrendered under the rod, for as the Psalmist said “when he slew them, then they sought him… (see Psalms 78:34). Too often that’s when most of us turn to the Lord; after He has disciplined us. Then the people said to Moses “pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” They beg “Moses” to “pray” for them. Undoubtedly, they were aware of their own unworthiness to be heard by the Lord, and convinced of the great relationship “Moses” had in heaven. How soon has their tone changed! Those who had just before quarreled with “Moses” as if he was their worst enemy now begged him as their best friend, and chose him to be their advocate with God. It’s true that afflictions often change the way men and women feel about God’s people. People’s afflictions also teach them to value those prayers of persons who they may have scorned at an earlier time. In response to the people’s plea for prayer, “Moses prayed for the people.” To show that he had heartily forgiven them, “Moses” blesses those who had cursed him, and prayed for those who had despitefully used him (see Luke 6:28). In this manner, Moses was a type of Christ, who interceded for His persecutors (see Luke 23:34), and is a pattern to us to go and do likewise, showing that we love our enemies (see Matthew 5:44).
B. The bronze serpent of healing (Numbers 21:8-9).
1. (vs. 8). This verse says “And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” Here is the wonderful provision which God made for their relief. We are told that “the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole.” God didn’t use “Moses” in summoning the judgment, but He used him to make an instrument for the people’s relief. The LORD administered the punishment, but He also provided the cure for it when the people repented (see verse 7). So God ordered “Moses” to make the representation of “a fiery serpent,” which he did out of brass, and set it up on a very long “pole,” so that it might be seen from all parts of the camp. The LORD went on to say, “and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” Whenever anyone who was “bitten” by “a fiery serpent” was healed simply by looking up at this “serpent” of brass (see verse 9). However, for healing to take place the person who had been bitten would have to believe that looking up at the brazen or bronze “serpent” would actually bring healing. In other words, it would take faith in the LORD’s ability to heal them. Note: Here we see how God works. We should never expect God to answer our prayers exactly as we requested. The people asked Moses to pray that God would “take away the serpents from us” (see verse 7), but God saw fit not to do that. He gives effectual relief in the best way, which is often not our way. God can bring about His purposes by whatever means He desires and it often involves a lesson to be learned. The lesson the people needed to learn here was that they received their healing from God by the hand of Moses so that they might never speak against God and Moses again. The Jews themselves say that it was not the sight of the brazen” serpent” that cured them, but by looking up to it, they looked up to God as the LORD that healed them. But there was much prophecy about salvation revealed in this episode. Our Saviour confirmed this when He said, “and as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (see John 3:14-15). Being lifted up is a metaphor for the crucifixion. The brazen or bronze “serpent” was lifted up and so was Jesus Christ. He was lifted up upon the cross (see John 12:33-34), and was made a spectacle to the world. He has been and continues to be lifted up by the preaching of the gospel.
2. (vs. 9). Our final verse says “And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” In accordance with the Lord’s instructions, “Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole.” As always, God was faithful to His Word when Moses obeyed Him. Just as God had said (see verse 8), everyone who looked at the “serpent” on the “pole” was healed and “lived.” There was nothing magical or mystical about the “serpent of brass.” It had no healing properties. It was faith in God that healed the people. In times of struggle, it’s always important to look up to Christ. To look upon Jesus now is to express faith in His saving work on the cross. The result is forgiveness of sin and eternal life (see John 3:16-18).
VI. CONCLUSION. Belief or faith is required to have eternal life. Believing in Jesus is the same thing as Israel looking to the bronze serpent. When we say “look to Jesus Christ,” we are saying ‘believe in Him!” In other words, to look is to believe. Just as the Jews who did not look to the serpent died, so too will those who do not believe in Jesus. But those who believe have eternal life. So, this story which was once a story of wilderness survival became a key illustration of eternal survival.
***The Sunday School Lesson, Union Gospel Press Curriculum; The Bible Expositor and Illuminator***
Commentary from First Gethsemane Baptist Church.