The Fiery Serpents

Deliverance From Sin

“And Jehovah sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6, ASV unless otherwise indicated).

The Fiery Serpents

The Canaanites had been watching the Israelites for decades. At the beginning of Israel’s wilderness journey, Amalek challenged Israel militarily, but was defeated (Exodus 17). Amalek even seemed to know about what Jehovah had done to the Egyptians. Perhaps they even knew about the 40-year curse. If so, it would explain the military aggression in this 40th year of wandering.

The King of Arad attacked Israel and took some captives. “The Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the South, heard tell that Israel came by the way of Atharim; and he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive” (Numbers 21:1).

This new generation of Israelites was enraged at the unprovoked Canaanite incursion. In their anger, they pledged a vow of revenge. Actually, it was also a request they made to Jehovah God for Him to act in their protection.

“Israel vowed a vow unto Jehovah, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities. And Jehovah hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities: and the name of the place was called Hormah” (Numbers 21:2, 3).

Verse 3 seems to be a parenthesis and explanation that after this, during the campaign against the Canaanites under Joshua, Israel did in fact, destroy their cities in harmony with their vow. They named the place “Hormah,” which means “devoted.” This would be a reminder of their new vow. But it would also remind them of the transgression against Jehovah’s will after the spies brought back a bad report.

At that early time the people decided they would march into Canaan anyway, with disastrous results. “Then the Amalekite came down, and the Canaanite who dwelt in that mountain, and smote them and beat them down, even unto Hormah” (Numbers 14:45). Jehovah brought Israel back to the same place, against the same enemies, but this time gave Israel the victory.

Such annihilation of Israel’s enemies seems extreme by standards of warfare today. But we are to remember that the Lord, in his dealings with Israel, had the sovereign right to destroy such terribly corrupt peoples as the Canaanites to protect Israelites from the foreigner’s practices. In those experiences Jehovah also created prophetic types that would have far‑reaching significance by teaching His future people.

Murmuring Again

“And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. 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, and there is no water; and our soul loatheth this light bread” (Numbers 21:4, 5).

Here, in year 40, was a new generation of Israelites. The previous generation of 20 year olds and higher were nearly gone by this time. But the then present generation had similar bad attitudes against Moses as their forefathers did. One would think that they would have remembered the sad consequences murmuring had produced at the beginning of the 40 year trek. In a way, this murmuring was worse. How?

On eight previous occasions (Exodus 15:24, 16:2, 17:3, Numbers 12:1, 14:2, 16:3, 16:41, and 20:2), Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron. Moses explained that their complaints were really against God (Exodus 16:7‑8, Numbers 14:27). At that time, the Israelites were not shameless enough to do it openly. But there was an important difference in attitude now; more dangerous because they spoke directly against God and against Moses.

Manna Despised

This is especially sad, because they, as a nation, had just made a vow to Jehovah, indicating a degree of trust in Him. Worse, their attitude to the miraculous manna that Jehovah had generously been providing was deplorable. It was “loathed” by the people! “And we detest this miserable food!” (Numbers 21:5, NIV).

This was an insult to God. This manna was a precious gift! It truly was “food from heaven.” “He commanded the skies above, And opened the doors of heaven; And he rained down manna upon them to eat, And gave them food from heaven” (Psalms 78:23, 24).

They ridiculed Jehovah’s care for them through these decades. It was unpardonable unbelief. Charles Spurgeon succinctly characterized this terrible defect in their characters: “When the grumbling humor is on us we complain of anything and everything, as did these Israelites: they complained of God, they complained of Moses; they complained of the manna. They would have been ready to complain of Aaron; but, fortunately for him, he had been dead a month or so, and so they poured the more gall upon Moses. To men in this state nothing is right: nothing can be right.”1


“Fiery Serpents”

Whatever the explanation for this behavior, their ingratitude required correction. This was especially necessary in view of the upcoming military action in conquering the Promised Land. They needed to be strong in faith to face the cities and armies of the Canaanites. So, God acted. “Jehovah sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6).

At the beginning of the wilderness wandering, the people’s weak faith was understandable, having been slaves for years in Egypt. Consequently, the early punishments Jehovah inflicted on them did not include loss of life. By the tenth temptation, God’s punishments included the destruction of some. But here, at the end of the wandering, there was not the same tolerance. The record of what happened to those who first murmured against God and Moses was known by all. No similar development period for these Israelites was required or appropriate. A devastating reminder of what constitutes unfaithful behavior is necessary.
Those bitten by the fiery serpents died!

The meaning of “fiery” refers to the burning pain of the serpent’s poison following a bite. The Greek Septuagint uses the term “deadly,” and the Latin Vulgate, uses “burning.” Identification of the species of snake is uncertain, but some suggest it was the naja haje of Egypt.2

(2)‑bible‑dictionary/ serpent‑fiery.html

The people complained about the manna, and fiery serpents were sent as punishment. There are a couple of interesting contrasts to reflect upon between the manna and the fiery serpents. The manna was from heaven, the fiery serpents were from the earth; the manna sustained life, the fiery serpents delivered death.

It is especially sad that those who died were on the very doorstep of the Promised Land. Had they been faithful for a few more months, they would have arrived. It is possible that those who died were that last number of those condemned at the beginning of the journey. If so, there is a certain justice to the punishment.

Apparently, death was not immediate. Many were stricken and dying and asked for help. “The people came to Moses, and said, we have sinned … we have spoken against Jehovah, and against thee; pray unto Jehovah, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people” (Numbers 21:7).

This collective confession was appropriate, acknowledging their sin and asking that the consequence of that sin be removed. Perhaps it was out of fear of God that they asked Moses to pray for them, an indication at least that they still trusted him. Moses was sympathetic and he prayed to Jehovah for the people.

“And Jehovah said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a standard: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it upon the standard: and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21:8, 9).

This provision seems a very strange resolution to the problem. We may be sure that when God ordains strange things, it is intended to convey great lessons.

Moses was directed to make a brass serpent. Several translations render it a “bronze” serpent. The metal was certainly not brass, as this alloy of copper and zinc was not available at that time. While “bronze,” an alloy of copper and tin was available, the metal Moses used was most likely copper.

“The word nechosheth is improperly translated by ‘brass,’ since the Hebrews were not acquainted with the compound of copper and zinc known by that name. In most places of the Old Testament the correct translation would be copper, although it may sometimes possibly mean bronze, a compound of copper and tin. Indeed a simple metal was obviously intended, as we see from Deuteronomy 8:9, 33:25, and Job 28:2. Copper was known at a very early period, and the invention of working it is attributed to Tubal‑cain (Genesis 4:22).”3

(3) William Smith, A Concise Dictionary of the Bible, 1865, page 122, “Brass”

So, the antidote to dying from a bite from these fiery serpents was simply to gaze upon the copper serpent, recognizing its healing and redemptive properties.

The apostle Paul touches on many of Israel’s experiences in 1 Corinthians 10. In verse 11 he writes, “All these things as types did happen to those persons, and they were written for our admonition, to whom the end of the ages did come” (Young’s Literal Translation).

A Symbol of Jesus

Jesus explained the antitypical meaning of the copper serpent in John 3:14, 15. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.”

Jesus provides us a very interesting and counter intuitive connection between the copper serpent and himself. When we think of serpents or snakes, we naturally associate them with Satan in the Garden of Eden and with the sin he introduced to Adam and Eve. How then could Jesus be associated with a serpent?

The parallel that Jesus made was the lifting up of both the serpent and our Lord himself. Why were they both lifted up? In the case of the copper serpent, it was lifted up to deliver the Israelites from the death of serpent’s bite. In the case of the world, Jesus was lifted up so they would be delivered from Satan’s bite, death itself. In both cases, an individual action is required. Stricken Israelites had to “look” upon, or gaze, upon it. The world must look to the crucifixion of Jesus, and believe.

“Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else” (Isaiah 45:22).

The use of a serpent as a type of Jesus is consistent with recognizing that Jesus bears the sins of the world. “Christ … having been once offered to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time, apart from sin‑offering, to them that wait for him, unto salvation” (Hebrews 9:28, RVIC). “Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). “We like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way … Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

We observed earlier that the metal used for the serpent was copper. This, too, is significant. In Tabernacle Shadows the Pastor wrote: “Copper representing the human nature in its perfection” (page 18). Using copper reminds us that Jesus was a perfect man in the flesh, the exact substitute for Adam as a ransom.

A last observation involves what an Israelite would see when looking at the copper serpent. As the illustration from the Photo Drama of Creation shows (previous page), one would see an undeniable image of a cross. This is another way the Cross of Christ is beautifully typified.

It is interesting that a modern symbol of medical healing is the so‑called “Rod of Asclepius.” Though this snake‑entwined rod is popularly considered to be linked to the writings of Homer in the Illiad (circa 8th Century BC), there is reason to believe that its origin is actually the Biblical account.4


King Hezekiah

We note one more reference to the Copper Serpent, in the days of King Hezekiah. He was a good king, devoted to the worship of Jehovah God. In his effort to restore true worship in Israel, he discovered that this ancient object which had meant life to so many in the time of Moses, had been degraded into an idol!

“He removed the high places, and brake the pillars, and cut down the Asherah: and he brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made; for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it; and he called it Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:4).5

(5) “Nehushtan, the name of the copper serpent which King Hezekiah broke into pieces (2 Kings 18:4). The name suggests both its serpentine shape (nahash) as well as the material (nehoshet) of which it was made.”

There are profound prophetic implications to this historical event. The Cross of Christ, typified by this copper serpent, had wonderful meaning to First Century Christians. It was a symbol of the saving power of Jesus’ sacrifice and their own consecration unto death. “Far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14). “The word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us … it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Unfortunately, after the apostles were gone, doctrinal errors crept into the thinking of the sectarian churches. And the Cross of Christ, which had been such an awesome and powerful symbol, transmuted into an idol. In Catholic systems, even today, it is worshipped, even to the point of kissing an image of a cross. In the dark ages, so‑called Crusades for the Cross of Christ resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Muslims and innocent civilians, all, supposedly, in the name of the Cross of Christ!

The revival work of Hezekiah prefigures dealing with such corruption. He dealt with it appropriately: he destroyed the holy object that had become an idol! Satan seems to have accomplished his objective, turning something precious into a hated object, especially as perceived by Muslims during the Crusades!

The truly consecrated appreciate what the cross means and they maintain their dedication to the principle of sacrifice unto death. “They that are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with the passions and the lusts thereof” (Galatians 5:24). “I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). “Our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away, that so we should no longer be in bondage to sin” (Romans 6:6). “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).

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