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I will bless the Lord, Who has given me counsel; yes, my heart instructs me in the night seasons. I have set the Lord continually before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. (Psalm 16:7-8, AMP)

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Always Surprises
Published on 03-13-2017 , 12:41 PM

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. The people spoke against God and 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 loathe this miserable food.” The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived. Numbers 21:4-9, NASB

Much of the book of Numbers is a recitation of key events in the meandering desert journey of the people of Israel. The incident recounted in the 21st chapter, however, is both surprising and perplexing. The passage leaves many unanswered questions behind.

  • Why did God even pay attention to this sort of low-level grumbling that is so common amongst we humans?
  • Why did He respond to that grumbling with an infestation of poisonous snakes?
  • Why did he answer the intercessory prayer of Moses with a demand for an art project that would take a while to complete (there are quite a few steps involved in making a bronze statue)?
  • Why did God heal His people of fatal snake bites with the creation of an idol—the very thing He prohibits?
  • Why was that bronze statue, so faithfully created by Moses, not enough; why did the people have to see the bronze serpent to be healed?

As often as I have read this passage, I am always surprised by the snakes. Why serpents: both a real infestation and a bronze replica as a cure? After all, we only need to look back to the second chapter of Genesis to see that snakes are extremely problematic. The Enemy used a snake to tempt the first humans into sin. Psalms and other passages of Scripture also cast serpents in a negative light.


The bronze serpent was made by Moses at God’s command as a means to heal the people. But, we later learn (2 Kings 18) that the people of Israel retained the bronze serpent statue and centuries later were worshiping that statue as an idol. Our omnipotent God must have known this was going to happen in years to come. So why use a serpent statue to heal His people instead of the prayers of Moses? Why did He predicate the solution to the current problem on the creation of something that would lead to a future problem? Or was this just a test for future Isrealite generations?


A lot of why’s spring forth after reading this passage. Certainly, we can read it and answer all these why’s with the truth that we cannot know all that God has done or is doing. He is a mystery beyond our full understanding. Part of our faith in Him is to be willing to trust that everything our good God is doing will culminate in a good result at some point. So yes, we can leave our questions posited but unanswered, awaiting more information at a later date or full enlightenment when we see Him in glory. But I have come to realize, or Someone has brought me to the realization, that this tale is more than just a test of faith to await full understanding.


We can begin our improved comprehension of this passage with the reminder that God, unlike human beings, is never just doing one thing at a time. He is always doing many things, some evident at the time and some to be subsequently revealed; rippling across the later years of those involved in the initial event and into the lives of subsequent generations.


In this case, God is doing at least two things: expressing His holy righteousness by punishing the people for their rebellion and displaying His compassionate mercy by healing them of the deadly consequences of their actions. This is not unlike the parent who disciplines an unruly child and later hugs him to assure continued love and protection. Just as we do when dealing with other people in our lives, God sets boundaries in His relationship with us. But we can always depend on His mercy and love for us to make a way of reconciliation and healing.


We also learn from this passage, in comparison to other such rebellious incidents in the wilderness sojourn, that there is nothing rote or routine in God’s interaction with people. Each time the people grumbled in discontent or rebellion, God interacted with them differently. One time He sent a plague. In another instance, he sent fire to consume the offenders. Once, the earth opened and swallowed up the rebels and all their households.


Scripture surprises us with many such unexpected incidents. That is because He is creative in ways we cannot imagine. He created each one of us to be a unique individual in specific circumstances with customized talents and limitations. Each of us is bespoke: a custom-created special order. Since He is unbelievably creative and we are unique in the world, God's involvement with us will be different from person-to-person and over the course of each individual life.


This time, in this passage, God responds with snakes. Snakes that assault with venom in their fangs. Snakes that kill the ill-prepared and unobservant. Attacks and assaults not unlike the rebellious diatribes of the Israelites against their God. What was God telling His chosen people at that time—and us today? "Wake up and see who you truly are! You chose your own path and then blame God for the lousy scenery along the way. You turn away from God at the first sign of trouble. You are a rebellious people.”


But with the prayerful example of Moses—turning to God, expressing the truth of our nature, asking for help—we are given tangible proof of the mercy of God. Yes, the whole bronze serpent statue thing is a weird way to heal the people. But that stature was both an ongoing reminder of their sins and tangible evidence of the healing power of their merciful God. Doing many things again, God used this very statue as a test for future Israelite generations; a test many of them failed.


So yes, there is a lot we can learn about God in this fairly obscure passage of Scripture. But, as the infomercials so often say, “Wait! There is more!” The biggest surprise of all is that that Jesus himself refers to this incident in the Gospel of John. The Pharisee Nicodemus sneaks over to visit Jesus under cover of darkness. Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born anew, this time a birth into the Spirit of God.


Nicodemus is stymied by this statement, so Jesus offers several other explanations. But the learned Pharisee remains clueless. Finally, Jesus provide an analogy to help Nicodemus find the answer to his query: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15, NASB)


All of our sins, all of our rebellious serpents, are overcome and healed when we look to Jesus. Our God in heaven can and does transform our sinful serpents. He turns all things, no matter how apparently disastrous, to good: whether immediately or eternally. We know this from the very next words Jesus spoke after His reference to the serpent statue: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NASB)