Chukat — “Ordinance of”
Portion for the week leading up to July 1, 2017
The Brazen Serpent
The story of the bronze serpent is one that naturally piques one's interest. There are some striking parallels between this account and the words of Yeshua (Jesus), so we are going to take a closer look at this.
The people of Israel had just had a military victory over the king of Arad. After this, God leads them the long way around the land of Edom: "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'" (Numbers 21:4-5). Even though the people had experienced the great deliverance and support of God over and over again, they continued to show that they really did not trust Him. Each time this happened, God would punish the people, and yet they continued in their behavior.
In response to their rebellion, God allows the people to be punished: "The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died" (Numbers 21:6). The description of these snakes as "fiery" likely refers to the effect which the bites had on their victims, such as a burning sensation. Amidst the great suffering and death brought on by the snakes, the people recognize that they are being punished for their sins in speaking against God and against Moses: "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" (Numbers 21:7).
"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 21:8-9). The remedy is a strange one, and yet it is this which God commanded. The bronze serpent would represent the sin of the individual who had been bitten, and when they looked upon it, they would remember their sin and repent in their hearts, believing that God would heal them.
There is an interesting commentary on this verse in the Jewish work known as the Mishnah: "Similar to this matter, you [can] say concerning the verse; 'Make a [graven] snake and place it on a pole, and everyone bitten who sees it will live' (Numbers 21:8): And is it the snake that kills or [is it] the snake that [revives]? Rather, whenever Israel would look upward and subjugate their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed; and if not, they would be harmed" (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 3:8). In other words, what this is saying is that it was not that the snake on the pole had any significance or power of itself, but when the people looked at the snake, it was as if they were raising their heads towards heaven and asking God to forgive them. The people of Israel did not understand this early enough, however, as the bronze snake became an idol which was worshipped (2 Kings 8:14).
Yeshua alludes to this event in His conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the gospel of John: "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). What is the connection between the bronze serpent and Yeshua being crucified? Aside from any visual connection between the snake on a standard vs. Yeshua on the cross, there is a deeper significance. The bronze snake represented the punishment of snakes that the people had merited because of their disobedience. When they looked upon this snake, believing in their hearts that God would forgive and heal them, they were saved from death. Likewise, the crucifixion of Yeshua calls to mind the fact that we all have sinned and therefore merit eternal death (Romans 6:23). When we look to Him and subjugate our hearts to Him, we are healed and forgiven of our disobedience.
This would not be the last time the people of Israel disobeyed God and merited punishment in the wilderness. The bronze serpent would not be used again for the healing of their subsequent sins. But for us today, Yeshua's sacrifice remains the only way to be healed and forgiven (John 14:6). Not only this, but God's desire is that we will not only be forgiven of our sins, but that we will walk in obedience to Him through the power of the Holy Spirit: "And He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf" (2 Corinthians 5:15). Let us never cease from living our life in the power granted to us through the sacrifice of Yeshua, but always lift our eyes and hearts to heaven so that we may continue to be healed and perfected until the return of our Messiah Yeshua.