The bronze serpent on the cross foreshadowed our sins cast upon Jesus1
Introduction: At the edge of the Promised Land, God molded His people to prepare them for victory. He first showed His faithfulness when King Arad placed a number of Jews into bondage. When the Jews later murmured against God, He allowed snakes to afflict them to bring them to repentance. He then provided a test of faith through the bronze serpent to heal them from their afflictions. This foreshadowed Jesus. He then brought the Jews safely through the desert. When the Jews responded with praise and worship, He protected the Jews from the Amorites. With each of these events, Satan sought to destroy God’s people. But, with each of these tests, God showed how Satan had no power when the Jews had faith. The same lessons apply today. Satan seeks to destroy you. But he has no power when you put your faith in Jesus.
King Arad became filled with fear and took God’s people captive. Because God’s miracles were widely known when the Jews left Egypt, the King of Arad became feared that the Jews would destroy his country: “1 When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he fought against Israel and took some of them captive. 2 So Israel made a vow to the LORD and said, ‘If You will indeed hand over this people to me, then I will utterly destroy their cities.’ 3 The LORD heard the voice of Israel and turned over the Canaanites; then they utterly destroyed them and their cities. And the place was named Hormah.” (Nu. 21:1-3). The Canaanite king put the Jews into physical bondage. This was symbolic of the spiritual bondage that they would later impose on God’s people. Thus, God later commanded the Jews to remove them from the Promised Land.
Satan’s spies (his demons) are probing your weaknesses. The Canaanite King Arad had previously defeated the Jews who tried to enter the Promised Land when God told them not to try to enter (Nu. 14:41-45). At that time, Arad would have learned of the Jews’ intentions to enter the Promised Land and conquer its inhabitants. Presumably through spies, King Arad learned that the Jews had returned. To stop the Jews, he found them and took some of them captive. Satan also seeks to keep us from entering the Promised Land. Like King Arad, Satan has demons who act as spies to probe your weaknesses. If you know your weaknesses and take steps to keep yourself from environments where you are more prone to sin, Satan’s job will be more difficult. Do you know where you are most vulnerable to sin? Are you taking steps to keep yourself from places where you are most likely to be attacked?
Satan attacks those who have strayed from the herd. King Arad captured some of the Jews that he attacked (Nu. 21:1). To be captured, they would have been separated from the rest of Israel’s army. Like King Arad, Satan acts like a lion (1 Pet. 5:8). Like a lion, Satan also attacks the members of the herd who have strayed from the flock. Thus, we are told not to forsake the fellowship (Heb. 10:25). Jesus also warns that He is sending us as “sheep” amongst the wolves (Matt. 10:16). Thus, we have no natural defenses outside of the flock. Many Christians today claim that they can worship God privately, online, or simply by floating in and out of large services where they can be left alone. Yet, these Christians are vulnerable to being captured by the enemy and placed in bondage. Have you strayed from the protection of the flock? Are you accountable to another believer for your actions?
Satan seeks to make us slaves to sin. King Arad captured but did not kill his prisoners (Nu. 21:1). For the most part, Satan also captures rather than killing his prisoners. He then uses drugs, alcohol, pornography, sex, fornication, lust, greed, gambling, and debt to capture and enslave us. Have you fallen into any sins where the devil may try to place you into bondage?
You cannot fight without God. The Jews were initially defeated in battle (Nu. 21:1). They prevailed only after they prayed directly to God, not through Moses (Nu. 21:3). God alone was responsible for their victory (Dt. 9:4; Ps. 44:3). You also are at war with Satan. Yet, the weapons you need today to fight the enemy are spiritual weapons, not carnal ones (2 Cor. 10:3-5). Your sword is the Word of God (Heb. 4:12). To be an effective swordsman, you need to know God’s Word. Do you know enough of His Word from memory to be wielding a sword or merely a knife? Are you also praying directly to God for help?
God will help you free others captured in bondage. The vow that the Jews made was to destroy the Canaanite cities if God would help them free the Jews in bondage (Nu. 21:2). God honored that vow and helped them to prevail (Nu. 21:3). The place became known as “Hormah,” which means “devoted to destruction.” A vow to help others be freed from bondage is the kind of vow that God wants us to make in life (Lev. 27:1-8). Have you made a vow to free your brothers and sisters in bondage? Have you promised to destroy the things in your life which have enslaved you? Are you praying for God to remove the things which have enslaved our nation?
Satan influenced the Jews to murmur against God. To prevent God’s prophecy from coming true, Satan then induced the Jews to murmur against God: “4 Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. 5 So the people spoke against God and Moses: ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we are disgusted with this miserable food.” (Nu. 21:4-5). The Jews spent almost 40 years wandering in the wilderness because of their prior rebellions. Thus, even with Satan trying to influence them, their actions were simply inexcusable.
Don’t long for your old life. After leaving Mount Hor, the Jews had to travel 120 miles through the desert around the land of Edom. This caused people to become impatient with the long journey (Nu. 21:4). They spoke against God and complained that they had been taken out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. They complained about the lack of water (which meant that God was testing them). They then stated that they “loathed” God’s “miserable food.” (Nu. 21:5). This was the sixth time that the Jews longed for their life in Egypt. The first time, Satan deluded them into thinking that they had leisurely lives in Egypt where they “sat by the pots of meat” and “ate bread to the full.” (Ex. 16:3). The second time, Satan caused them to long for the condiments of their old life; melons, cucumbers, leeks, onions, and garlic (Nu. 11:5). The fourth time, at the edge of the Promised Land, the Jews even decided to select a leader to take them back to Egypt (Nu. 14:4). The fifth longing for Egypt happened after the Jews returned from a 37 and one half year-punishment to the same spot at Kadesh where they previously plotted to return to Egypt (Nu. 20:5). Now, only four months after seeing God cause water to gush forth from the rock, the Jews again longed for their old life in Egypt (Nu. 21:4). Their old life was filled with misery. Was your old life without God better? If you long for your old life, you are not fit for the kingdom (Lk. 9:62).
Your old desires will control you if you don’t control them. When you are born again, the desires of your old lives should pass away (Ro. 6:6; Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:9). If you allow yourself to indulge in the old desires of the flesh, God may hand you over to your sins (Ro. 1:26). When you are tested by the things of the world, do you crave them? (1 Jo. 2:15-17).
Rejecting God’s provision is irrational. God’s manna had all the nutrients that they needed. It also tasted like honey (Ex. 16:31). The people were able to boil or bake it (Nu. 11:8). With the exception of the Sabbath, it came every night like the dew (Nu. 11:9; Ex. 16:22, 27). Thus, the people were not under the original curse, which required them to toil in the Earth for their food. Soon after the Jews began their journey, they complained that their “appetite” for the manna was gone (Nu. 11:6). Near the end of their journey they again complained about their manna. They at first claimed that they had no food. They then contradicted themselves by claiming that they “loathed” what they called “miserable food” (Nu. 21:5). They did not want God’s food. They wanted different food. The rabbis taught that this was the Jews worst sin to date in the wilderness. By rejecting the manna, they were rejecting the mercy and grace that God had to offer (1 Cor. 10:9; Jo. 6:32-35). Do you give thanks for God’s provision? (Ps. 145:15-16). Or, has your appetite for Him grown cold?
Let Christ be your manna. Christ revealed that He was the manna in the wilderness (Jo. 6:32, 38, 41, 51). Like the Jews in the wilderness, the Jews later rejected Him when He revealed that He was their manna (Jo. 6:51). Christ promised eternal life for those who accept His manna (Jo. 6:49-51). Yet, just like the Jews in the wilderness, the Jews in Jesus’ day instead wanted the things of the flesh in the form of a military leader. Are you content with Christ’s offering for you? Or, do you also need the things of the flesh?
Don’t be impatient about your trials. The Jews succumbed to temptation for their old life only after they became impatient with their long and difficult journey (Nu. 21:4). Your journey through life will also include many long and difficult times in the wilderness where you will struggle. The water may be scarce. Your provision might also be simple. You are told to look upon these trials with joy for the patience that they bring you (Jam. 1:2). Paul warns to do all things “without grumbling or disputing.” (Phil. 2:14). In “everything” you are to “give thanks.” (1 Thess. 5:18). Are you willing to wait upon the Lord and give thanks for everything in your journey? Or, have you grown impatient with God’s timeline?
God allowed His people to experience hardships to bring them to repentance. Out of love for His people, He disciplined His people with hardships to bring them to repentance: “6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 So the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and against you; intercede with the LORD, that He will remove the serpents from us.’ And Moses interceded for the people.” (Nu. 21:6-7). If God were wrathful, He would have given up on the Jews long ago. His actions were carefully calculated to cause the Jews to see the error of their complaints.
God used affliction to bring His people back to Him2
God punishes those who sin out of love. God sent “fiery serpents” to bite the people who complained. Many died from these bits (Nu. 21:6). Although these serpents were always around them, God had protected the Jews from them until this point (Dt. 8:15). Some rabbis taught that He sent serpents to punish the people’s complaints about their manna because the serpent had been previously punished with a diet of things that live in the dust (Gen. 3:14). By contrast, others like Matthew Henry believe that these were flying serpents (Is. 14:29). We know that the serpent was in fact the devil (Rev. 20:2). The word for serpent is also “seraphim”, the angelic creatures that surround God in the throne room (Is. 6:2). Satan was once a seraphim. Yet, he complained about his lot in life. He was punished, and God allowed him to punish those who failed to repent of their sins. His bites burned with fire. His temptations are also called fiery darts or arrows (Eph. 6:16). Fire is also how God purifies the sins of the people (Is. 48:10; Ezek. 10:1-2; Dt. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). When you sin, God allows you to experience punishment to correct your behavior (Mal. 3:2). Many people object that a just and loving God would ever punish. He does not want any to perish (2 Pet. 3:9). Yet, He would not be a just God if He did not punish wrongdoers.
Repent of any sin in your life. When previously judged with fire, God’s fire died out only when Moses prayed for forgiveness (Nu. 11:2). Here, the people came forward and confessed to Moses their sins. They asked for Moses to pray again on their behalf. Only after they confessed their sin did God instruct Moses on building the bronze serpent (Nu. 21:8). Likewise, John the Baptist and Jesus taught that people needed to first “repent” before their sins could be forgiven (Matt. 3:2, 4:17; Mk. 1:15). Today, some believers preach a counterfeit gospel that God accepts anyone and anything that people believe. Have you repented of your sins? Or, are you looking for God to accommodate what you believe is right?
God set a test of faith to heal those afflicted by their sins. Out of love, God provided a means for atonement that required the sinner to have faith: “8 Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and put it on a flag pole; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, and looks at it, will live.’ 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and put it on the flag pole; and it came about, that if a serpent bit someone, and he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” (Nu. 21:8-9). Just as a believer must have faith that Jesus took their sin, the Jews also needed to have faith that their sins were placed on a cross.
Anthony Van Dyck (1599 - 1641) Moses and the Brazen Serpent (painted 1620)3
Your faith alone brings salvation. God is your healer (Ex. 15:26). He commands: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth.” (Is. 45:22). He stated that only those who looked upon the raised bronze serpent would live (Nu. 21:8). Bronze was the metal of judgment in the Bible. The altar of judgment was overlaid with bronze (Ex. 27:2). The raised bronze serpent represents a sinner who was condemned. The rabbis taught that it was faith alone in following God’s instructions that allowed the Jews to be healed. There was no act by the Jews that brought them salvation (m.Rosh Hashanah 3:8). The Hebrew word for “standard” “nes” is also the same word for “miracle.” Thus, some rabbis taught that Moses threw the bronze serpent in the air, and it stayed there. In other words, the fiery serpent took on the sins of the people (2 Cor. 5:21), and it was set on “a miracle”. Jesus later explained that He would also need to be lifted up, just like the bronze serpent: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life.” (Jo. 3:14-15). He stood as a “signal for the people” (Is. 11:10). Being “lifted up” foreshadowed His crucifixion (Jo. 12:32-33). He was lifted up or resurrected by a “nes” or a miracle. Like the people in the wilderness, you have also been bitten by Satan through Adam and Eve’s original sin. Yet, with the antidote of faith in Christ, you will not die from the serpent’s venom (Mk. 16:17-18). Based upon this account, the Old and New Testaments have no differences regarding whether we are saved by faith or our works (Ps. 14:2-3; Ro. 3:23). Some think that they are going to heaven because they are good people. Yet, if this were true, did Christ need to die for them? Likewise, if you say that you do not sin, is the truth of God’s Word within you? (1 Jo. 1:10).
Don’t turn your faith into a symbol of pride or idolatry. The Jews kept and later worshiped the bronze serpent. They called it “Neshastan”. Up until the reign of King Hezekiah, the Jews burned incense to Neshastan. King Hezekiah later broke the serpent into pieces (2 Kgs. 18:4; Zech. 12:10). The Jews’ actions violated the Second Commandment not to have idols (Ex. 20:3-4). Today, the healing power of the bronze serpent has become the symbol of the American Medical Association. Yet, some people also pray to a crucifix or wear the cross as a fashion symbol. Is this any different that what the Jews did in Hezekiah’s day?
God guided the Jews safely to Oboth. Having healed His people, God guided His people between hostile enemies to a place where they could find rest: “10 Now the sons of Israel moved out and camped in Oboth. 11 Then they journeyed from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim, in the wilderness which is opposite Moab, to the east. 12 From there they set out and camped in Wadi Zered. 13 From there they journeyed and camped on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness that comes out of the border of the Amorites; for the Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. 14 For that reason it is said in the Book of the Wars of the LORD, ‘Waheb in Suphah, and the wadis of the Arnon, 15 And the slope of the wadis that extends to the site of Ar, and leans to the border of Moab.’ 16 From there they continued to Beer, that is the well where the LORD said to Moses, ‘Assemble the people, that I may give them water.”’ (Nu. 21:10-16). But it was at their places of rest like this when the Jews put their guard down against temptation.
A road without conflict can also be dangerous. After leaving the desert areas surrounding Edom, the Jews traveled through Moab without asking their king for permission. They camped in Oboth, which means “water bags,” Iyeabarim, which means “Ruins of Abari,” Arnon which means “rushing torrent,” and Wadi Zered which means “the valley of osier brook.” (Nu. 21:10-13; Dt. 2:13; Is. 15:7; Amos 6:14). All of these places were filled with water (life) and were conflict-free places on their journey. The last place was next to a river leading to the dead sea in central western Jordan. These places were located on the eastern edge of Moab, next to Edom. The Jews’ safe journey through Moab was recorded as a poem of praise in the “Book of Wars” (Nu. 21:14). Their journey through Moab would eventually take them to the top of Mount Pisgah (Nu. 21:20). It was from this mountain top that God would later show Moses the Promised Land before his death (Dt. 34:1-5). Although other kings attacked or threatened to attack the Jews, the Moabites put up no resistance at all. Their king greatly feared the Jews and later sent Balaam to curse them (Nu. 22:3). God had separately commanded Moses not to attack or provoke the Moabites (Dt. 2:9). Their king could not attack them militarily. Balaam would also fail to curse Israel. But the Moabites later enticed and seduced the Jews with the Moabite woman using the Canaanite fertility rituals of Baal. This would in turn lead to idolatry and the Lord’s anger against Israel (Nu. 25:1-3). The Jews would likely not been seduced if they were struggling for survival. Thus, a life without strife can also be dangerous to your walk. What types of seductions are you vigilant against when things are going well?
There are many books in heaven. The “book of wars” is only mentioned once in Scripture (Nu. 21:14). Although we don’t know its contents, we can assume that it also records Christ’s righteous acts of judgment. We can also infer that other books exist recording our deeds in heaven. If you have lived a life full of acts of love, faith, and charity, there will be lots written in your book. Yet, if you have lived a carnal life, your book will be empty.
God protected the Jews when they turned to Him in worship. The Jews recognized God’s mercy and grace in their lives. Thus, they did what they should have done throughout their journey - worship God and give thanks: “17 Then Israel sang this song: ‘Spring up, O well! Sing to it! 18’The well, which the leaders dug, which the nobles of the people hollowed out, with the scepter and with their staffs.’ And from the wilderness they continued to Mattanah, 19 and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth, 20and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the land of Moab, at the top of Pisgah, which overlooks the desert.” (Nu. 21:17-20). Because the Jews turned to God in praise and gratitude, God was a shield to them, and He protected them from attack.
God is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Although the Jews may have sung songs during their time in the wilderness, their songs were not recorded. This was presumably because their hearts were not right. Indeed, Korah, their worship leader, led a rebellion against Moses (Nu. 16:1-20). The Jews’ last recorded song was after crossing the Red Sea (Ex. 15:1-21). In the 40th year, the first song of praise after that was recorded. The Jews sang praises at Beer, which means “well.” The nobles dug with their scepters and their staffs, and God provided water (Nu. 21:18). The Jews sang “Spring up, O Well! Sing to it.” (Nu. 21:17). Jesus was in fact the water in the well which gave life (Jo. 4:13-14). Today, this song of praise is sung on the third Sabbath of every month in the Jewish temples. After singing God’s praise, the Jews were protected in their journey through Moab until they reached Mount Pisgah (Nu. 21:20). He then protected them when the Amorites came to attack and kill them (Nu. 21:21-35). He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him (Prov. 30:5; Ps. 18:30). Singing His praise is an excellent way to take refuge in Him. When was the last time you felt defeated or depressed after you sang His heartfelt praise?
God aided the Jews in defeating the Amorites. The Jews sought to avoid conflict with the Amorites. But when the Amorites tried to destroy the Jews, God destroyed the Amorites: “21 Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon, king of the Amorites, saying, 22 ‘Let me pass through your land. We will not turn off into field or vineyard; we will not drink water from wells. We will go by the king’s road until we have passed through your border.’ 23 But Sihon would not permit Israel to pass through his border. Instead, Sihon gathered all his people and went out against Israel in the wilderness, and came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. 24 Then Israel struck him with the edge of the sword, and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the sons of Ammon; for the border of the sons of Ammon was Jazer. 25 Israel took all these cities, and Israel lived in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon and in all her villages. 26 For Heshbon was the city of Sihon, king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and had taken all his land out of his hand, as far as the Arnon. 27 For that reason those who use proverbs say, ‘Come to Heshbon! Let it be built! So let the city of Sihon be established. 28 ‘For a fire spread from Heshbon, a flame from the town of Sihon; it devoured Ar of Moab, the dominant heights of the Arnon. 29 ’Woe to you, Moab! You are destroyed, people of Chemosh! He has given his sons as fugitives, and his daughters into captivity, to an Amorite king, Sihon. 30 ‘But we have shot them down with arrows, Heshbon is destroyed as far as Dibon, then we have laid waste as far as Nophah, which reaches to Medeba.’ 31 So Israel lived in the land of the Amorites. 32 Now Moses sent men to spy out Jazer, and they captured its villages and dispossessed the Amorites who were there. 33 Then they turned and went up by the way of Bashan, and Og the king of Bashan went out against them with all his people, for battle at Edrei. 34 But the LORD said to Moses, ‘Do not fear him, for I have handed him over to you, and all his people and his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon, king of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon.’ 35 So they killed him and his sons and all his people, until there was no survivor left; and they took possession of his land.” (Nu. 21:21-35). God was faithful to keep His promises. When the Jews trusted God and walked with Him, no evil could prevail.
The Jews’ defeat of the Amorites was predicted 400 years earlier. Like the King of Edom, Moses wrote a letter to request to peaceably cross the land of the Amorites (Nu. 21:21-22). Yet, unlike the Edomite king, King Sihon, whose name means “sweeping away” attacked the Jews (Nu. 21:23). God soundly defeated him, and Israel took possession of his cities (Nu. 21:24-31; Dt. 2:24-37; Judges 11:19-22). When a second Amorite king Og attacked, God told Moses not to fear him for He planned to give his lands to the Jews. The Jews also defeated this second king and took his lands as well (Nu. 21:32-35). This defeat gave the Jews control over central and northern Jordan, which prepared them to invade Israel. The defeat of the Amorites should have come as no surprise to the Jews. Exactly 400 years earlier, God told Abraham that the sins of the Amorites would be ripe for judgment after the Jews spent 400 years in oppression (Gen. 15:13-16). By the time the Jews reached the Amorite kingdom, exactly 400 years had passed. At that time, the Amorites had engaged in sins including temple prostitution, sacrificing children, and other hideous sins. Today, the US exports pornography, it celebrates abortion, it imports more illegal drugs than any other country, and many condemn defenders of traditional marriage as bigots. If we continue in our sins, should we expect our fate to be any different than the Amorites?
The Jews defeat the Amorites4
With faith, you can defeat the giants who stand against you. God later revealed that King Og was a giant. His bed was nine cubits long and four cubits wide (Dt. 3:11). This means that his bed was 13’6” long! The Jews previously turned back because they were afraid of the giants that stood before them (Nu. 13:32-33). Now, by faith in God’s promises, they fought him and defeated him. Matthew Henry notes that “Giants are but worms before God’s power.” God has not given you a spirit of fear in facing the enemy (2 Tim. 1:7). You are to only fear God by hating evil (Prov. 1:7; 8:13). Do you fear anything else in life?
Give praise to God for your victories. The Jews recorded their victories over Kings Sihon and Og in songs of praise to God (Ps. 135:11-12; 136:17-22). Have you given God praise for the victories that He has given you in your life?