Illustrated Bible Stories (that they won't tell you in Sunday School)
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Got the Father, God the Son,

God the Serpent


Why this story matters

(commentary on Numbers 20-21)

(Page 3 of 4)


More complaints and retribution

Shortly after this, the people embark on another long journey during which food and water again become very scarce. When they complain to Moses, Yahweh sends snakes to kill them. After many have died, they implore Moses to help. Moses prays to Yahweh and Yahweh tells him that he can heal the people using an antidote. But it's the nature of the antidote that has caused consternation among Bible teachers for a long time.


The healing  serpent

Yahweh tells Moses to make a replica of a serpent so that people can look upon it and be healed: “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” (Num. 21:8). But this sounds like something pagans would do. It's known as sympathetic magic, and it's the idea that like can cure like, or like can harm like. An obvious example is voodoo dolls. But why is Yahweh advising magical pagan cures?

And this is particularly puzzling in light of the fact that Yahweh had already explicitly prohibited the making of such a likeness: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4 ESV). And on top of this, the people end up worshiping this particular serpent later on. In 2nd Kings, chapter 2 we're told that King Hezekiah pleased Yahweh when he, “broke up the bronze serpent that Moses had made, because the people of Israel had been offering sacrifices to it.” But then this is quite predictable when you consider that Yahweh told them to make it and it saved their lives and the lives of their loved ones. 

How is this problem dealt with by Bible teachers? Well a typical example comes form Matthew Henry's commentary. He wrote,  “in looking up to [the snake], they looked up to God as the Lord that healed them.” The serpent, then, represented God. Some apologists even say the snake symbolized Jesus. They point to John 3:14-15 which says: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him, may not perish; but may have life everlasting.” The bronze serpent on the pole, then, is just like Jesus on the cross. This is quite a provocative concept for most Christians. Normally in Christian theology, the serpent represents Satan, but here we have a serpent acting as a substitute for God or symbolizing the messiah's offering of salvation.

It's a bit of a dilemma for conservative Christians. They must either accept that a bronze image of a snake healed the people's wounds, or they must accept that a bronze serpent acted as a conduit for God's power. But why would the people need a bronze image through which they could channel their god? Shouldn't a heartfelt prayer work? This is very perplexing for the faithful. However,  for those who don't have to follow Judeo-Christian dogma, there are other, more rational, explanations.

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