From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And 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 loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “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.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:4-9 ESV)
Speaking against God and blaming him for our troubles is a serious offense to him. The people complained, forgetting the miracles he performed to liberate them from slavery and disregarding all the blessings (i.e. food, water, protection) he provided on their journey through the wilderness. As a parent, we get upset when our children do not take ownership of their mistakes and blame someone else. How many times have you heard these comments?
- “It’s not my fault! She made me do it!”
- “It’s not mine. I was just holding it for a friend.”
- “I was never asked to be born!”
As ridiculous as these statements sound, we are not that far off from doing that exact same thing to God. We may say, “Why me?” Or “I can never catch a break!” Now the Lord is patient and caring, and he will to listen to us grumble; but when we direct our frustrations towards him when we are at fault, then we can be sure to receive a spiritual spanking.
God sent Israel fiery serpents that bit them and caused them to die. I believe this was intentional; he chose the serpent because it was the lowliest creature that provoked sin in mankind. God punished this slithering creature saying, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:14). God reminded them of their sins and consequence of death for committing them. By their grumbling they violated a great commandment: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). They spoke against him and even described the food he provided as worthless and loathsome. How many of us would dare tell our parents in the most detestable manner that the dinner they cooked was cheap and gross? Now you may chuckle a bit because you probably have done this, but when you say something like this to God, it is a very serious offense. Think about it. Israel was created by him, the author and giver of life, and they elevated themselves to be the judge of his work and gifts? That was definitely a bad move. I think in this instance, they were negligent in their walk with God by forgetting his statutes and all that he has done for them. They allowed adversity to sour their attitude towards him thinking that they deserved better; therefore, he spanked them for it.
One key detail to notice here is that he did not take the serpents away. Instead, he allowed them to continue biting the people because they needed to be disciplined. God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent on a pole and instruct the people to look up at it so they would be healed from their snake bites. This cure is symbolic of Jesus hanging on the cross, where people look up to him to be healed and forgiven of their sins. How do we know this? Jesus explained, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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” (John 3:14-15).