The Old Testament is a wonderful gift from God to us. It is wonderful that we have this record — so ancient, so fascinating. These were the Scriptures of the earliest Christians — who turned to them to understand what God had done in their midst in Christ. It was the context of these Scriptures in which Jesus himself had taught — to a community shaped by it’s stories and laws and prophecies and poetry.
And if anything is central to the Old Testament itself, it is the first five books.
No doubt the material we currently know as the books of Moses (or the Pentateuch, or the Torah — that is, Genesis through Deuteronomy) were assembled and edited in the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon — they became especially valuable to the people in the times of the exile and then the re-establishment of the nation — they served to teach the people who they were in the light of their history as the people of YHWH. But, the stories themselves go back much further. The people of Israel knew themselves to be a nation that had been delivered by God from Egypt — and the exile, no doubt served as a time to gather those stories together.
So, here we have the record of the people who have been delivered from Egypt, but have not yet entered the promised land. They are still in the wilderness — that is, the desert.
And, the people become discouraged along the way. It’s not the first time.
In fact, this story is the culmination of a struggle that has been going on between the people and Moses — really, between the people and God. They have been complaining all the way. It is very important to see the story in Numbers 21:4-9 in this context. This is the culmination of a series. The complaints against Moses started from the beginning. (1.) While they were still in captivity the leaders of the people complain: “The LORD look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” (Exodus 5:21 NRSV). (2.) At the edge of the Sea, with the Egyptians in pursuit they cry out: “They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”” (Exodus 14:11, 12 NRSV). (3.) At Marah the water was bitter and the people cry out: “And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”” (Exodus 15:24 NRSV). (4.) The Israelites complain again, this time about lack of food in the desert: “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”” (Exodus 16:2, 3 NRSV). This is the point where the miraculous manna is provided for their food. But, before that happens, Moses warns them about their complaining: “And Moses said, “When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.” (Exodus 16:8 NRSV). (5.) They complain about the lack of water: “The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”” (Exodus 17:2-4 NRSV). This is where Moses strikes the rock and water flows out. (6.) Moses goes up to the mountain to receive the commands and instructions of God. But, because this takes time, the people rebel. “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”” (Exodus 32:1 NRSV). This is where, with Aaron’s assistance, the construct the Golden Calf. This is a great crisis, and Moses intercedes for the people. (7.) Then the Israelites complain again about their misfortunes. A fire breaks out and consumes some of the camp. (Numbers 11:1). (8.) After this they complain again about the lack of variety in their food (Numbers 11:4-6). This is when the Quail are provided for their food (Numbers 11:31-33). But, with the quail there is also a great plague that breaks out. (9.) In Numbers 12:1 Miriam and Aaron complain publicly against Moses because Moses married a Cushite (that is, Ethiopian or African) woman. (This is not a reference to Zipporah, but a woman he married afterwards.) The LORD speaks out against Miriam and Aaron for this — and Miriam is struck with the dreaded disease of leprosy (a skin disease). She was shut out of the camp for seven days, then she returns healed. (10.) Spies are sent to Canaan to determine the prospects for conquest. While some (notably Caleb and Joshua) feel the people’s prospects are good, the majority report is unfavorable: “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size.” (Numbers 13:32 NRSV). In response to this report, the people rebel again. “Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.”” (Numbers 14:1-4 NRSV). And the LORD responds: ““How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (Numbers 14:11 NRSV). Again, Moses intercedes for the people. (11.) In Number 16 Korah mounts a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. As a result of this many die. (12.) As a result of the death of Korah and his followers, the Israelites rebel again. “On the next day, however, the whole congregation of the Israelites rebelled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the LORD.”” (Numbers 16:41 NRSV). Moses and Aaron intercede for the people. (13.) Again, when the people come to Kadesh there is a shortage of water, and rebellion ensues. “Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had died when our kindred died before the LORD! Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.”” (Numbers 20:2-5 NRSV). Once again, water comes from a rock — Moses is supposed to command water to come, but instead he speaks against the people and strikes the rock twice.
And, this brings us to the incident in chapter 21. I go through this long list of incidents of complaining, grumbling. and rebellion to set the stage for this brief passage. This is the culmination of the series, the final instance (in this series) of grumbling and rebellion. The themes are similar: rebellion against Moses (and thus YHWH, whom Moses represents) and the expressed desire to return to Egypt. The rebellion brings suffering on the people, but Moses intercedes for them. Here YHWH is pictured as force of justice and righteousness who demands due regard and worship. Moses is the one who seeks mercy from God. The experience of God that any of us has at any time is partial and incomplete. So, Moses senses that by right God should destroy the people for their continual unfaithfulness. Yet, he desires mercy for them. Here is that basic tension between justice and mercy that characterizes the whole of the Bible’s story.
So, this story is notable for being the last in a long series of complaint-and-rebellion stories and for being the one in which a remedy is offered.
Chapter 21, verses 4 & 5:
וַיִּסְע֞וּ מֵהֹ֤ר הָהָר֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יַם־ס֔וּף לִסְבֹ֖ב אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ אֱד֑וֹם וַתִּקְצַ֥ר נֶֽפֶשׁ־הָעָ֖ם בַּדָּֽרֶךְ׃
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.
וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר הָעָ֗ם בֵּֽאלֹהִים֮ וּבְמֹשֶׁה֒ לָמָ֤הa הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֙נוּ֙b מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לָמ֖וּתc בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין לֶ֙חֶם֙ וְאֵ֣ין מַ֔יִם וְנַפְשֵׁ֣נוּ קָ֔צָה בַּלֶּ֖חֶם הַקְּלֹקֵֽל׃
The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
The phrase “Mount Hor” always seems redundant to me since “hor” (הֹר) means “mountain” — but the phrase is in the original (מֵהֹ֤ר הָהָר֙), so maybe there really was an ancient Mount Mountain. The translation “by way of the Red Sea” (דֶּ֣רֶךְ יַם־ס֔וּף) should be “by way of the Reed Sea” — but “Red Sea” has been the traditional translation. Technically, the Israelites were delivered through the Sea of Reeds — and that is not necessarily what we call the Red Sea. Whatever. Some commentators say this would have been an especially dry and hot trek. And, if Canaan is their ultimate goal: they are now on a detour around Edom that takes them in the opposite direction. So, they do seem to be wandering aimlessly at this point.
We are told: “the people became impatient on the way” (וַתִּקְצַ֥ר נֶֽפֶשׁ־הָעָ֖ם בַּדָּֽרֶךְ). Literally: the soul of the people was cut short on the way. The Hebrew language is filled with concrete images like this. They were suffering from shortness of soul. In Proverbs 14:29 this quality of “shortness” is presented as the opposite of being “slow to anger” (אֶ֣רֶךְ אַ֭פַּיִם) or patient. Unlike some of the stories listed above, there was no real ground for complaint in this case. They had food and water apparently — it just wasn’t to their liking.
And: “The people spoke against God and against Moses.” It is significant that this is not just a complaint against Moses — as it had been so many before it had been. Now they are openly speaking against God — seeing Moses now as the representative of God. They are now openly rebelling against God.
A familiar refrain in their complaint is the notion that they had it better in Egypt anyway: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” They are, of course, remembering their history among the Egyptians incorrectly — and they are seriously deluding themselves to think that there is any way back. Fantasies about the “good old days” don’t help them to live in the present.
They also complain about the food: “For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Their complaint, of course is about the manna that had miraculously sustained them in the desert all this time. They now call it “miserable food” (בַּלֶּ֖חֶם הַקְּלֹקֵֽל). This is an expression of contempt — it is “worthless.” In (the old edition of) the Expositor’s Bible Commentary Ronald B. Allen says: “In their styling the “bread of heaven” (see Psalms 78:23-24) as something vile and despicable, the people were actually contemning the Lord its giver. The venom of the people’s anger led them to blaspheme the Lord (v.4), to reject his servant Moses, and to contemn the bread of heaven. This is the most vitriolic of their several attacks on the manna….” John Wesley remarks: “Thus contemptuously did they speak of Manna, whereas it appears it yielded excellent nourishment, because in the strength of it they were able to go so many and such tedious journeys.”
Verses 6 & 7:
וַיְשַׁלַּ֨ח יְהוָ֜ה בָּעָ֗ם אֵ֚ת הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים וַֽיְנַשְּׁכ֖וּ אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיָּ֥מָת עַם־רָ֖ב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
וַיָּבֹא֩ הָעָ֨ם אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֜ה וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ חָטָ֗אנוּ כִּֽי־דִבַּ֤רְנוּ בַֽיהוָה֙ וָבָ֔ךְ הִתְפַּלֵּל֙ אֶל־יְהוָ֔ה וְיָסֵ֥ר מֵעָלֵ֖ינוּ אֶת־הַנָּחָ֑שׁ וַיִּתְפַּלֵּ֥ל מֹשֶׁ֖ה בְּעַ֥ד הָעָֽם׃
The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
And, this time there are serious consequences to the complaints. Fiery serpents (הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים) are sent by YHWH among the people. The word used for “snake” here (נָחָשׁ pronounced “naheesh”) reminds us of the story of Adam and Eve — where the same word is used for the “serpent” in the garden. Likely these are called “fiery” serpents because of their poisonous bite. This calamity is seen as being the direct result of their complaining. And, it brings death to many. The appearance of venomous snakes in the desert, is, of course, a natural event — but in this case they come in such numbers and with such vengeance that it is recognized as a judgement of God. Throughout this story, YHWH is the one who is calling them into a life of faithful obedience. God is intent on forming a faithful nation. When they rebel, consequences follow. It is Moses who continually intercedes for the people. While this is quite a contrast to our contemporary conceptions of God — and rightly so, since this comes at a much earlier point in salvation history, and from a very different culture — I think it is also a corrective to our more indulgent ideas of God — as if God doesn’t care about what we do — or as if actions don’t have consequences.
The word for “fiery” (שְּׂרָפִ֔ים) here is especially interesting since it is the same word “seraphim” which appears in Isaiah 6 to describe the heavenly servants of God — where they are depicted as beings of fire. Thus in Hebrews 1:7 we read: “Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.”” (NRSV).
One of the many things that makes this story so striking, is the fact that the people realize they have done wrong, confess their sin, and call on Moses to pray for them. Thus, in this case there is confession and repentance.
Verses 8 & 9:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה עֲשֵׂ֤ה לְךָ֙ שָׂרָ֔ף וְשִׂ֥ים אֹת֖וֹ עַל־נֵ֑ס וְהָיָה֙ כָּל־הַנָּשׁ֔וּךְ וְרָאָ֥ה אֹת֖וֹ וָחָֽי׃
And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
וַיַּ֤עַשׂ מֹשֶׁה֙ נְחַ֣שׁ נְחֹ֔שֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵ֖הוּ עַל־הַנֵּ֑ס וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־נָשַׁ֤ךְ הַנָּחָשׁ֙ אֶת־אִ֔ישׁ וְהִבִּ֛יט אֶל־נְחַ֥שׁ הַנְּחֹ֖שֶׁת וָחָֽי׃
So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
And, the nature of the remedy is remarkable: they look upon a symbol of their affliction and they are healed. There are two different words used here for “look” — in verse 8 it is רָאָה (ra’ah) the general word for “look”, but in verse 9 it is נָבַט (navat) which means “gaze upon” or “consider.” The second word seems to suggest a look from the heart as well as a looks with the eyes — to look and consider.
John Wesley remarks:
This method of cure was prescribed, that it might appear to be God’s own work, and not the effect of nature or art: and that it might be an eminent type of our salvation by Christ. The serpent signified Christ, who was in the likeness of sinful flesh, though without sin, as this brazen serpent had the outward shape, but not the inward poison, of the other serpents: the pole resembled the cross upon which Christ was lifted up for our salvation: and looking up to it designed our believing in Christ.
Thus, we read in John 3:14: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up….” (NRSV).
A Christian cannot help but be struck by the correspondences in the symbolism of this story and the story of the Cross of Christ. The representation of sin and its consequences becomes, by faith the source of healing and hope.
But, we have to add one more thing here. In 2 Kings 18:4 we are told that King Hezakiah “removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.” (NRSV). In Old Testament times there was a religious cult centered around the bronze serpent. Thus, the symbol of their salvation from the snakes eventually became an idolatrous impediment to the people’s worship of God. Philip J. Budd in his commentary on Numbers in the Word Biblical Commentary thinks Numbers 21:4-9 may have originally been written in response to the Nehustan cult. Certainly this is possible, but it seems to me that such an interpretation obscures the significance of the story in its context in Numbers.
There is a reflection of this story in the ancient book of Wisdom: “For when the terrible rage of wild animals came upon your people and they were being destroyed by the bites of writhing serpents, your wrath did not continue to the end; they were troubled for a little while as a warning and received a symbol of deliverance to remind them of your law’s command. For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Savior of all.” ( Wisdom 16:5-7 NRSV).