1 When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive. 2 And Israel vowed a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction.” 3 And the Lord heeded the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah.
4 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. 5 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.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 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. 8 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.” 9 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 21:1-9 ESV
One of the things the Israelites seemed to quickly forget was that their presence in the wilderness was their own fault. God had led them from Egypt to the edge of the land of promise 40 years earlier, but they had decided that entrance into the land was way too risky. The 12 spies they had in to reconnoiter the land had returned with a conflicting report concerning conditions in Canaan.
“We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak!” – Numbers 13:27-28 ESV
The second half of their report left the Israelites dejected and demoralized. Despite the news that this land was fertile and filled with abundant fruit, the presence of “giants” was too much for the Israelites. And the spies fed their doubts and anxieties by confirming their worst fears.
“We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!” So they spread this bad report about the land among the Israelites: “The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!” – Numbers 13:31-33 ESV
These rumors succeeded in convincing the Israelites that God’s promise of victory over their enemies was impossible. Rather than enter the land and risk certain death, they decided it would make more sense to return to Egypt. This bit of twisted logic earned them the wrath of God. He made the fateful decision to allow that entire generation to spend the rest of their lives wandering aimlessly in the wilderness until none of them was left. They would not be allowed to enter Canaan or return to Egypt. Instead, they would spend the remaining days of their lives in a kind of existential limbo that lasted four decades.
During that time, both Miriam and Aaron died. Many of their friends and family members succumbed to the effects of old age and illness. And they all discovered that life in the wilderness was no picnic. Their persistent presence near the borders of Canaan had attracted the attention of the land’s occupants. These nations had heard the rumors about this massive host of people who had escaped from Egypt and were headed their way. It is likely that they knew the Israelites to be the descendants of Jacob and were afraid that they would be looking to find a place to live. This was a migrant problem of epic proportions. The thought of two million-plus Israelites invading their borders caused these nations to react with fear and brute force.
The last chapter revealed that the Edomites sent a large army to dissuade the Israelites from attempting to pass through their land. They wanted nothing to do with them. And now, “The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that the Israelites were approaching on the road through Atharim. So he attacked the Israelites and took some of them as prisoners” (Numbers 21:2 NLT). Nothing was going well for the Israelites. As a nation, they were persona non grata. They had no home and were finding the nations outside the borders of Canaan to be just as dangerous as the “giants“ they had refused to confront. Their refusal to enter the land had come with serious repercussions.
Yet, there is one glimmer of hope in this dark period of Israel’s existence. Their self-inflicted troubles caused them to call out to God. When some of their people were captured by the forces of the king of Arad, the Israelites begged God to come to their aid. And what’s interesting to note is that these very same people who had seen the odds in Canaan as insurmountable were suddenly ready to take on all comers. They even made a vow to completely annihilate the opposition if God would come to their aid.
“If you will hand these people over to us, we will completely destroy all their towns.” – Numbers 21:2 NLT
What makes this even more fascinating is that the Israelites had been here before. Thirty-eight years earlier, after having refused to enter the land of Canaan the first time, God had sentenced them to their life of wandering in the wilderness. In response to this death sentence from God, they quickly changed their minds and decided to enter the land after all. But Moses warned them that it was too late.
“Why are you now disobeying the Lord’s orders to return to the wilderness? It won’t work. Do not go up into the land now. You will only be crushed by your enemies because the Lord is not with you. When you face the Amalekites and Canaanites in battle, you will be slaughtered. The Lord will abandon you because you have abandoned the Lord.” – Numbers 14:41-43 NLT
But the people refused to listen, and “defiantly pushed ahead toward the hill country, even though neither Moses nor the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant left the camp” (Numbers 14:44 NLT). The result was a rout. The Israelites were soundly defeated because they attempted to take on their enemies without God’s permission or help.
Now, 38 years later, they decided to seek God’s assistance, and He “heard the Israelites’ request and gave them victory over the Canaanites. The Israelites completely destroyed them and their towns” (Numbers 22:3 NLT). Amazingly, what they had feared was impossible four decades earlier, was actually quite easy when they did it God’s way. Their victory was assured when they chose to seek God’s permission and assistance.
But even after that exhilarating display of God’s power, they quickly reverted to their old habit of complaining about their lot in life. While they had enjoyed a great victory, they were not allowed to occupy the towns they had conquered. Instead, they had to backtrack to Mount Hor and then travel further south and east in order to skirt the borders of Edom. They had gotten a taste of success, but still found themselves cursed to wander through the wilderness. Those conquered cities and villages were not theirs to occupy.
And as the people made the long trek around Edom, the thrill of victory soon gave way to the agony of defeat and despair.
…the people grew impatient with the long journey, and they began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!” – Numbers 21:4-5 NLT
The incessant wandering they had brought on themselves soon led to discontentment and dissidence with God’s will. They were not happy with the way things were going and they let Moses know. And God let them have it. He sent a plague of poisonous snakes among them, and soon the bodies of the dead began to pile up. And suddenly, the people were singing a different tune.
“We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” – Numbers 21:7 NLT
God’s judgment produced a confession. The people repented of their sin and begged Moses to intercede on their behalf and ask God to remove the curse of the snakes. And when Moses sought God, he was given the following instructions.
“Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” – Numbers 21:8 NLT
This rather strange command makes it appear as if God was asking Moses to make an idol. But the serpent on a stick was not meant to be worshiped. It was intended to be a test of their faith.
God did not answer their request to remove the snakes. In fact, He indicated that the snakes would continue to do what He had sent them to do. They would keep inflicting pain, suffering, and death upon the Israelites as punishment for their ingratitude and dishonor of His holiness. What God did was create a rather bizarre plan for receiving deliverance over certain death. When bitten, all the people had to do was look at the serpent on the pole and they would be healed. But that simple glance would require faith.
God did not remove the penalty for their sins. They would still be bitten by the snakes. But now they had a means of receiving life rather than death. The bite of the snake would no longer prove deadly. But the secret to receiving life rather than death was faith – the belief that God could and would heal. And that faith required the one who had been bitten to look their death sentence in the face. They had to turn their eyes to the pole and see their condemnation on public display. And if they refused, they would die.
And the apostle John would later record the words of Jesus where He stated that this entire scene in the wilderness was meant to foreshadow His coming and His substitutionary death on the cross.
…the Son of Man has come down from heaven. And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. – John 3:13-15 NLT
When a sinner looks at the cross, he sees the wrath of God poured out on the sins of mankind. Jesus was not the cause of our death but the means of our victory over it. He bore our sins so that we might not have to pay for them with our own lives. And that is exactly what the apostle Paul told the believers in Corinth.
God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 BSB
And Peter would state the same blessed hope.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 ESV
And the key to victory over death is faith. One must “believe in Him” to be saved. The Israelites had only to look at the serpent on the pole to be saved from death. And all those under the death sentence that comes as a result of sin need only look at the cross of Christ to receive life everlasting.
It should be noted that this entire scene began with the people complaining about the manna that God had graciously given as a source of life. Their ingratitude was met with God’s judgment. They had refused His offer of the bread of life and faced the sting of death. And the only means of salvation would be faith in His mercy and grace.
“The bread is a picture of Jesus; as the Bread of Heaven he is the proper nourisher of his people. The bronze snake is a picture of Jesus, who became sin for us as he hung on that awful tree. The manna had to be eaten. The snake had to be seen. The commands of Scripture are for doing. The manna was no good if left to rot. The metal snake would not avail if none looked at it. The manna and the snake are twin aspects of the grace of God.” – Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers.” In Genesis—Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.