The account of Moses and the Bronze Snake in the Bible is one of the weirdest stories ever. It’s found in the Book of Numbers 21.
The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land and the going got tough. They grumbled and complained against God, and then the going got even tougher.
One thing that makes this story so strange –and so wonderful- is it foretells the salvation Jesus Christ would bring to all mankind.
In a strange way, the bronze serpent takes the place of Jesus Christ. Does that sound weird? It gets even weirder. (Speaking of weird -here’s my post on the Weirdest Verses in the Bible)
Stick around and you’ll see the New Testament angle to this story, and it will all make sense.
Numbers 21 – Why God Sent Fiery Serpents
In the book of Numbers 21 we read that God sent fiery serpents against the Israelites because of all their grumbling and unbelief. The people quickly repented of their grumbling and asked Moses to pray to God for them.
Some of the Israelites died because of the fiery serpents, but others changed their ways and lived. What changes did they make? What can we learn from this story?
As with many other true stories of the Old Testament, this one also has an amazing New Testament lesson. Did you know that?
Another New Testament lesson to an Old Testament story is found in this other post called “Who Changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday?”
Table of Contents:
1. How did the Israelites end up grumbling against God?
2. Why did the Lord send fiery serpents against the Israelites?
3. Manna from Heaven
4. What did God Promise the Israelites?
5. Why did God tell Moses to make a bronze serpent?
6. Why did Moses tell the Israelites to look intently on that bronze serpent?
7. Why were the people saved by staring at the bronze serpent?
8. Foreshadowing of the Messiah in this story and its New Testament fulfillment.
Let’s move in for a closer look. Here’s #1.
How did the Israelites end up grumbling against God?
We see in Numbers 21 that the Israelites were on their way through the desert to the Promised Land of Canaan, when the Edomites refused to allow them to cross their land.
Now Israel had to backtrack and take a longer way to get to their destination. It was difficult and discouraging.
They thought they’d had enough setbacks so they began to grumble. But then along came the snakes.
Related Content: Zero: That’s How Many Contradictions There Are in the Bible
Now here’s an interesting thought… #2
Why did the Lord send fiery serpents against the Israelites?
OK. The Lord sent fiery serpents. How do we know the Lord sent them and they didn’t just show up on their own?
It’s real easy. Turn to Numbers 21:6.
It says “The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.” (Num. 21:6, NASB)
So now we know for sure the Lord did it.
That’s… confusing. This is the same God who just saved his people at Passover a few chapters back in the book of Exodus, right? They did as they were told, and the angel of death “passed over” their houses and all was well.
So what happened this time? Why did God treat them differently?
The Israelites didn’t do as they were told by God through his servant Moses. Instead, they grumbled and complained against God instead of giving him the worship he deserves.
Here we learn there’s a penalty for defying God’s commandments. Aren’t you glad Jesus paid the price for our transgressions through his death on the cross?
Next comes #3.
Manna from Heaven
God had taken care of them in the wilderness and met all their needs. He sent them manna every day. He sent them quail to eat and even brought water out of the rock for them –not just once, but twice!
God even gave them great victories against adversaries with superior military forces.
Later –after they started getting bitten by the fiery serpents, the Israelites realized their error and went to Moses and repented and asked him what they could do to save themselves.
But it’s even worse than that. The people had spoken against Moses many times earlier. But this time they not only spoke against Moses –but they also spoke –brazenly- against God.
Next, let’s see #4.
What Did God Promise the Israelites?
God promised to give this land to the Israelites in Genesis 15:18-21:
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”
So when the Israelites grumbled and complained against God, they actively doubted the very promise he had made to Abraham (he was still “Abram” in Genesis 15) and then repeated to Isaac and Jacob in the book of Genesis.
They were doubting and complaining against the God who was caring for them and daily providing their needs. This same God was actively guiding them by day with a cloud and by night with a pillar of fire so they had a constant reminder of his presence.
Are you ready for #5?
Why did God tell Moses to make a Bronze Serpent?
In the Old Testament, Bronze is the metal associated with judgment. There are a number of brazen serpent Bible verses in the Old Testament but it’s surprising to know there are New Testament references as well.
In the New Testament, Jesus tells us “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” (John 3:14 NET)
In a later verse Jesus says “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32, NET).
What is Jesus telling us?
He is saying that the bronze serpent of Numbers 21 represented Himself. He took the judgment we deserved by hanging on the wooden cross just as the serpent hung on the wooden pole in Numbers 21.
The serpent on the pole represented the judgment of God that Jesus took in place of us. The serpent was the same serpent that was –deservedly- cursed by God in Genesis 3:14 after it deceived Eve.
Bronze is itself made through fire. It has to be heated to a very high temperature to be melted. It has to pass through the fire of judgment to achieve the shape and size the craftsmen design it for.
To the Israelites, the serpent on the pole was salvation from the fiery serpents on the ground. Gazing on it for them was to believe that this serpent would save them from their sin against God that was under judgment.
To us, the serpent on the pole is a shadow of Jesus Christ, because when he died on the cross, he took the judgment we deserve. It’s the same judgment the serpent deserves.
He took the place of that serpent –the same serpent from the Garden of Eden that deceived Eve. What does that evil serpent deserve? It deserves punishment for standing against God.
But Jesus Christ took our place on the cross so that if we only believe in him, we will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16b)
Why did Moses tell the Israelites to Look Intently at the Bronze Serpent?
Next, in Numbers 21:7-9, God tells Moses to make a fiery serpent out of bronze and have the people gaze on it. In this case, gaze means to look intently with a strong intensity.
May I ask a question? What is your gaze fixed on? Where is your attention concentrated right now?
If we fix our gaze on God, life goes so much better. This was a time when the Israelites had taken their eyes off of God and it was hurting them dearly.
“because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2Cor 4:18, NET)
Are we fixing our gaze on God and looking at the unseen –permanent- things?
Next is #7
Why Were the People Saved by Staring at the Bronze Serpent?
Salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ. Salvation is by faith and not by works. Saving faith is faith in Jesus Christ, and no work of man can take its place.
So God told the people through Moses to simply look upon the bronze snake and believe. He didn’t ask them to go through some strange rituals, but only look at the fiery serpent on the pole -and believe.
Ready for #8?
Foreshadowing of the Messiah and his New Testament Fulfillment
The serpent on the pole signifies Christ, who took our place at the cross. The wooden pole itself signifies the wooden cross on which Christ himself was hanging.
When Christ took our place at the cross, he died the death we deserved, and he rose again victoriously.
This is the same judgment the serpent deserved from Genesis 3:14, since man began following the serpent at that time rather than following God.
“God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God.” (2Cor 5:21 NET)
When the Israelites gazed at the bronze serpent, they were saved from the fiery serpents. When we look to the cross and we look to Christ’s finished work on the cross, we are saved.
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, NET)
Nehushtan- How the Bronze Serpent became an Idol
The Israelites kept Moses’ bronze serpent. Years later, many Israelites had become attached to it.
They burned incense to it and worshiped it because the story of the salvation of Israel was so strong. They missed the true reason Moses made the brass serpent. It was to show Israel the great lesson of the Messiah to come.
But King Hezekiah wanted to turn the people back toward the Lord:
He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it.
Meaning of Nehushtan: “A thing of brass” (a derisive term) (from 2 Kings 18:4)
So What Does All This Mean?
God made great, exciting promises to the Israelites. He brought them through the wilderness to test them and see if they would still believe him. They didn’t always pass the test. But God was merciful and gave them the way of salvation.
That’s a lot like us, isn’t it?
God also makes us promises. Then he allows us to go through trials and we sometimes don’t always pass these tests.
Sometimes our trials are too great and we complain and speak against God, don’t we? And don’t we also act out and do the wrong things because we forget about his goodness and mercy?
Let’s not forget –even in times that aren’t what we think are the best for us- about his blessings and gifts and all the good things he has done for us.
God has given us the way of salvation in Jesus Christ. Are you following the way of salvation?