The Bronze Serpent
By Shawn Tomlin
This story, left on its own, is quite obscure on the surface. It can also be viewed by some as a glimpse of the stereotypical “angry God of the Old Testament.” Let’s look a little closer at this passage and we will discover some things about this text that you may not have seen or connected before.
If they all died it would have been just punishment for their sin...
If you read this passage, God sent “fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that the people of Israel died.” Well that’s a downer, isn’t it? Doesn’t sound like the “loving hippie Jesus” does it? Well a couple points, the idea of “Hippie Jesus,” please throw it out. Also, the people died because they sinned and complained about God and what He had done for them, rescuing them from slavery in Egypt. We learn way back in Genesis 2:17 that the just result of sin is death. So we have a bunch of dying people laying around, and God has every right to leave them there to suffer and die, but does the “angry Old Testament God” do that? Let’s see...
Instead of letting them suffer justly for their sin, God hears the intercession of Moses and instructs him to make a bronze serpent, raise it on a pole, and “when everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” First, this is a gracious act on the part of God. If they all died it would have been just punishment for their sin, “but God...” took it upon himself to provide for His chosen people a way out of the punishment they deserved. We see a very blatant connection here with Christ. Christ Himself draws the parallel between Himself and the bronze serpent when he says in John 3 :14-15, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so just the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” So the text about the bronze serpent is foreshadowing the work of Christ on the cross.
The central idea I wanted to communicate is the connection between the bronze serpent and Christ, but there is something else, minor as it may be, about this passage in Numbers. God, in both the old and New Testament, communicates his grace to his chosen people in earthly ways. He uses ordinary stuff. Bronze here in this passage and ultimately he communicates that grace through ordinary water in Baptism in through ordinary bread and wine in the Lord supper. Just like the serpent in itself didn’t save the people neither do the ordinances themselves have power to save a person. What saves a person is faith in the One who can save them, faith which is received as a gift from God. Our role in our salvation is this, we believe with the faith given to us, and look to Christ who can save us, just as those in the wilderness looked to the bronze serpent with faith in God and His promises.