Numbers 21:4-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
4 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. 5 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.” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 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. 8 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.” 9 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.
By the fourth week, the Lenten journey could be getting old, especially if you’re fasting (I’m not). Many churches try out things they don’t normally do during the season (we’re using a prayer of confession and words of assurance in worship), which means that some in the church might be ready to get back to the status quo or move on to the next thing. After all, by now the stores are filling up with Easter paraphernalia.
In the previous three Lenten readings from the Hebrew Bible, we have explored God’s covenants—first with Noah, then Abraham and Sarah, and finally with Moses and Israel at Sinai. Now we’re moving on from the initiation of covenants to living in the covenant. The reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent places us on the road toward the Promised Land. The people of Israel have arrived at Mount Hor, a mountain in the desert near the border of Edom, one of Israel’s traditional enemies. Although the journey from Egypt to the Promise Land should only take a few weeks at most, the people of Israel have been wandering in the desert for months and maybe years, making little progress. It is true that they have received the keys to the covenant and established the priesthood, with Aaron as the first chief priest, but they’re still wandering in the wilderness.
Having arrived at Mount Hor, change is setting in. When they arrive at this point in the journey, Aaron dies, and the priesthood passed on to his son Eleazar (Num. 20:22-29). Moses has lost his closest confidant, and a person whom the people gravitate toward. Aaron is a buffer, but he’s gone. The journey has been long. The people are tired. There is no end in sight. Do you ever feel that way? Do you feel like you are wandering in the desert with no end in sight?
Having buried Aaron at Mount Hor, the people of Israel head out again on their ever-lengthening journey. They again begin complaining about God’s provision and Moses’ leadership. They’re anxious and afraid. They fear dying in the desert of thirst and starvation. While there is manna, it is detestable. Now, they are told they will take another detour, even if it is a smart decision, so they can avoid traveling through Edom. More wandering. More time. More suffering. It’s no wonder that the people of Israel got anxious and impatient! In their frustration they challenged Moses’ authority, and even that of God. After all, hadn’t Moses promised them that Yahweh would liberate them. Instead of liberation, all they seemed to experience was death (symbolized by that of Aaron).
As we all know, either from our own childhood memories or as a parent, a long trip can wear on you. The longer the trip, the more likely that our patience grows thin and we begin to complain about everything. In this case it’s the lack of food and water, and the detestable nature of the food they have (I’m assuming we’re talking manna here). In other words, Israel is ungrateful. Of course, this is the first time we read of Israel murmuring. This is the fifth and final such episode. Now, we’re supposed to side with Moses and God in this matter, but I can sympathize with Israel. If I had been on a journey like this, one that was filled with obstacles and never seemed to end (did they know there was a shorter road to the Promised Land than the one they were taking?). Even Egypt might start looking good if they didn’t get to their destination soon.
This is all a backstory to God’s decision to punish Israel because their continued complaints. Perhaps in a fit of divine impatience, God sends poisonous snakes into the camp to kill off members of the community. Yes, many were bit, and many died. It sounds horrific, but apparently it got the people’s attention, because they went to Moses and confessed their sins against God and Moses. They asked Moses to intervene and ask God to get rid of the snakes. So, Moses prayed for them, and God provided a remedy. God told Moses to create a totem of sorts that featured a poisonous snake. So, Moses fashioned a bronze serpent and placed on a pole, and if a snake bit a person, Moses would have the person look at the bronze serpent and the person would live.
This is quite interesting. After all, images were prohibited in the commandments (though Numbers doesn’t have the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments. Still, this is odd. Of course, this passage might raise other questions in our minds. First, there is the question of whether this is magic. Then there is the picture of God it presents. Once again, we see God act somewhat petulantly. The people complain, and God sends snakes to kill them. What kind of God is this? Moses seems to have more patience with the people than Yahweh. But then God does seem at times to be short-tempered. Remember how Abraham had to talk God down from destroying Sodom with Lot still present? Is this the God we worship? We could try an age-old tactic and separate Jesus from the Old Testament God, but that leads in a dangerous direction. Yahweh becomes Marcion’s demiurge, the evil creator god who is overcome by the loving God of Jesus. We should stay away from such views, but this is a good reminder why we should not read Scripture flatly, as if everything is the same. Both testaments speak of God in ways that we likely will find problematic, at the very least.
A deeper question has to do with the message of this passage for our Lenten journey. The reading from the Gospel of John designated for this Sunday equates Moses’ serpent to Jesus on the cross: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believed in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-16). In John’s Gospel the serpent of Numbers 21 is a precursor to Jesus. By looking at the serpent, the people lived. They were healed. They were saved. By believing in Jesus, who was lifted up on the cross, we receive eternal life. It is not magic. The cross is not a totem, but both the bronze serpent and the cross of Jesus are signs of healing. Note that in both cases, life is the result. In one case it’s physical and the other is eternal, but both bring healing, wholeness, and life itself. So, we lift our eyes to the cross, and we see our salvation. In him, we are healed. In him, we find the source of patience in the midst of challenging times.
Robert D. Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, MI. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. The author of a number of books, his most recent books include Out of the Office: A Theology of Ministry (Energion Publications, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015). He blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.