I do not. I see this as something that actually happened. It was something that God brought about for our instruction.
The story goes like this: The Israelites were complaining. This, at least, was not new. The entire forty years that they were in the wildness after the exodus from Egypt can be chronicled by the times that they were murmuring or complaining about something. We fault them for this, but I wonder what many of us would have done under similar circumstances. Every day the Israelites got up to a day much like the previous one—wandering over a hot and dry desert with seemingly no real objective in mind.
But if you remember the entire story, this situation was really of their own doing. It was just because the people had complained so much and had exhibited such lack of faith that their trip through the wilderness was almost directionless for so long. The Israelites had witnessed God’s miraculous interventions on their behalf in the Exodus from the land of Egypt, and yet they continued to doubt and to try God’s patience.
Finally God said, “None of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it” (Numbers 14:22-23 ESV).
The younger ones would one day reach the Promised Land where they would be able to settle down, but the older ones would not. These were destined to wander through the desert until the heat and the sand claimed them. In fact, of the perhaps one-half million (or more) adult Israelites that left Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb finally set foot inside the land of Canaan.
After seeing and witnessing such miracles as no one has seen before or since—miracles leading up to their escape from Egypt, one would think that the faith of the Israelites in God would have been so great that nothing would be able to shake it. But it was not so. From the very first days after their escape from the slavery of Egypt, they began to complain about their situation. They failed to see that God was supplying all that they needed, and they failed to believe that he would always supply their needs.
In the incident of the Fiery Serpent, or the Bronze Serpent, we find the people complaining once again. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”
Wait a minute! Let’s take a look at their complaints. No food? Well, perhaps no food except manna – and they had not always despised this food. When God first gave them the manna, they said the taste of it was like wafers with honey (Exodus 16:31). It came to them almost every morning like the dew on the grass. It was a food that simply appeared every day without the need to cultivate and grow it. It was available only for the gathering.
What about their complaint of the lack of water? I am sure that at the moment they were thirsty, but this is now in about the second year of living in the hot and arid land, and how often had God previously supplied water to them in what seemed like an impossible situation?
The first time was a mere three days after leaving Egypt. When the people saw that the water in the area through which they were passing was too bitter for drinking, their reaction was to grumble. “What are we supposed to drink?” they complained to Moses.
God showed Moses a tree that, when he threw it in the water, made the water drinkable. Then, immediately after that incident, God led the people to a place called Elim, where there were twelve springs of fresh water.
Then there were at a couple of times that, when the people were in need of water, God gave them a river of water that began to flow out of a hard, dry rock, of all places! (Exodus16:25; 17:3-7; Numbers 20:10-12).
And concerning their complaint of lack of food – I just mentioned the place called Elim that had twelve springs of fresh water. Another thing about that place was that it also had seventy date palms. God also at one time supplied quail for them to eat, which blew in from the sea and fell at their feet (Numbers 11:31).
The Fiery Serpent
In the incident of the fiery serpent, the Israelites had once again been complaining about the lack of food and water. At other times when we read of this grumbling by the people, we see that although God was not happy about their lack of faith, he did respond to this need.
This time however, the text does not tell us of any extra provision sent by God. The people were complaining because they had no food, but they actually did have food. I do not know about the water situation in this case, but I doubt if they were really dying of thirst. In this instance, we do not read of any water flowing out of rocks or the people coming to twelve springs of water.
The only response of God to the grumbling of the people in this case was the sending of the poisonous serpents. When we read the text, to me it seems like God was just fed up with all the complaints after he had shown them time and time again that he always would supply all of the needs of the Israelites. It seems like this time, he simply wanted to teach them a lesson.
And, it also seems like in this instance, they perhaps may have learned the lesson. When the serpents came and began to bite them, many people died. Somehow, the Israelites connected this curse of the serpents with their complaining attitude. They said to Moses, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.”
That would seem like the logical solution—remove the serpents. Separate the people from the danger. But that is not what God did.
The Bronze Serpent
With the lesson learned, the people knew that the curse was upon them because of their lack of faith and because of their endless complaining. But instead of removing the serpents, God instructed Moses what he needed to do.
Moses was to cast a small figure of a serpent out of bronze and set it up on a standard, or on a pole. God then told him to instruct the people that if they should be bitten by a serpent, they need only to look to the bronze serpent, and they would live.
I must admit that this is a very strange story and we might ask ourselves why God would not instead simply take away all of the poisonous serpents. Why go through the process of the bronze serpent on the pole?
The answer to this dilemma is answered best in the reading of today’s scripture in John chapter three. I mentioned that I accept the story of the fiery serpent in the Old Testament to be literally true, but that does not mean that there is not an allegorical sense to it.
Jesus, speaking to the inquisitive Pharisee named Nicodemus, brings out the allegorical sense of the event by saying this:
For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:14-18 BSB)
The primary reason that God had instructed Moses to cast the bronze serpent and to lift it up onto a pole was not because it was the only way that the poisonous serpent problem could have been dealt with, nor even was it the simplest solution. What God was doing was teaching a lesson on how all problems and all curses would be ultimately resolved.
This deeper lesson was actually not for the Israelites at all, but for those who would benefit by seeing how the lesson of the Bronze Serpent applied to the sacrifice of Jesus for the sin of the world.
Jesus, in referring to the account of Moses and the bronze serpent spoke of it in an allegorical sense. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
When Jesus spoke of the “Son of Man,” he spoke of himself. Actually, this is the term that he used most often of himself. And when he spoke of himself being “lifted up,” he was alluding to the time when he would be crucified on the Cross of Calvary. This reference of being lifted up was actually used several times in the Bible.
Jesus later said to some other Pharisees, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he” (John 8:28).
Nicodemus would understand that by Jesus saying he would be “lifted up,” he was actually referring to his crucifixion. Even the crowds understood clearly the meaning of what it meant when Jesus said that he would be “lifted up.” At another time, we read this about an exchange between Jesus and a crowd of people. Here, Jesus first said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Then the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:32-34 ESV).
To them, this was a confusing contradiction. If Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah, how is it that he said that he would be “lifted up,”—that is, to be crucified?
Nicodemus was a knowledgeable man, and well-educated in the Scriptures. He knew the incident in the Old Testament to which Jesus was referring and some of the implications of the meanings, but even to a learned man, these words of Jesus were very cryptic. That is why Jesus went on to explain himself by putting his meaning into clearer terms.
The words are these, and they are very familiar to us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
All of us have probably heard these words many times, but let’s think about it in terms of the story of the bronze serpent. The poisonous serpents were what brought death to the Israelites. They bit the people, and the people died. It was as clear as that.
God’s solution to this predicament was for Moses to make a model of the very thing that was bringing death to the people, and place it on an upright pole. When a person bitten by death looked on that representation of their own death, their lives were saved. Just how this could result in their lives being saved may not make any real sense to us, but this was what happened.
But the point is that they had to do it. They had to place their trust in this provision by God and act upon it. They had to realize that their only hope of life was to act in accordance with what God had told them to do. It did them no good to say that it did not make sense.
It may not have made sense to the Israelites in the wilderness, but when we think about the incident in the light of what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, it makes perfect sense. Like many things done in the Old Testament and even like the Old Testament sacrificial system itself, through this incident of the bronze serpent, God intended to teach something of the fulfillment of what Jesus would do to give us life.
Jesus likened himself to that bronze serpent that was lifted up on the pole. The allegorical meaning of the Old Testament story is that those poisonous serpents, the ones that brought death, is what sin does to us. Sin brings us death.
In order to save us from this predicament, Jesus was also “lifted up” and took upon himself the penalty of our sins. Like the bronze serpent that was cast in the form of the poisonous serpents that brought death to the people, Jesus also took upon himself the punishment for our sin.
God’s Provision for Our Need
In very simple terms, this is the message of Jesus. The fact of the matter is, we were all condemned to die. Or, if you prefer, we have all been bitten by a serpent of death. In other places of the Bible, this “bite of death” is called “sin.”
The Israelites were looking for salvation from their own physical death, but when Jesus spoke of death, what he meant was not the physical death that we usually talk about in our everyday conversations, but he is talking about an ultimate death – an eternal death. This is a death not only of our bodies, but also the death of our souls.
This fact alone would also be ultimately distressing. Without the lesson of the Fiery Serpent, we would be condemned to this fate. But as Jesus explained to Nicodemus, Jesus did not come to the world to condemn us to this fate. Rather, he came rather to save us from this condition of death.
Despite the fact that many people think that Jesus only wants to make us feel guilty about ourselves, this is not his purpose. He came to give us life.
How does Jesus accomplish this? The lesson of the bronze serpent allegorically teaches us. In that event, whoever had been bitten by death had to believe in the provision of God. This belief gave them life.
Jesus gives us life in the same way. He has provided for us a solution to our problem of death. If we believe this, we are not condemned. We are instead given life.
In the words of Jesus:
The Son of Man [will] be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Did you notice how often Jesus used the word believe in his explanation of how we can be saved from death? So you don’t need to count, I will tell you. He used it five times. Despite the fact that this salvation from an eternal death seems to make no logical sense to us, much like the bronze serpent in the wilderness, this is the solution provided for us by God. We do well to accept it and believe it.
Life from Death
Of course, Jesus did not stay on the cross. That is the fact that we celebrate today. Jesus rose from death to life, opening up the way for us also to rise from a fate that only can lead to permanent death to one of a life that will not end.
“He is the beginning and firstborn from among the dead,” Paul writes. “Once you were alienated from God and were hostile in your minds…But now He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy, unblemished, and blameless in His presence— if indeed you continue in your faith, established and firm, (Colossians 1:18, 22-23).
This is the celebration of Easter Sunday. Not only that He lives, but that we live. If we look to Him, we will live. The curse of the serpent is lifted, and we have life in Jesus!