The Old Testament is full of interesting stories. Many of them seem downright immoral, but that’s mostly because of mistranslations and/or cultural differences. They are usually full of symbolism and capable of teaching us many things.
One of my favorite stories has always been the story of the brass serpent. I like this story because it brings up two questions:
- How do you make the Lord so mad, he sends poisonous snakes to kill you?
- Why did He choose to heal them this way?
The Israelites were slaves in Egypt. God loves all His children and doesn’t want them to be slaves. Through Moses, God told Pharaoh to let them go. He didn’t and increased the burden on the Israelites. The Israelites complained about Moses to Moses. Moses complained to God. God put pressure on Pharaoh, eventually killing Egypt’s firstborn sons. Pharaoh let them go.
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Having nowhere to go, the Israelites wander around for a while. When they need something, they follow a pattern to get it:
- Complain to Moses and tell him they wish they were back in Egypt.
- Moses tells God to kill him.
- God tells Moses to have faith and answers their prayers, while trying to teach them a lesson.
- The Israelites are happy and meek (for a little while).
During this time, God decides to prepare the people to inherit the promised land. He does this by giving Moses 10 commandments. This takes a long time with Moses away in a high mountain
While he’s up there, the Israelites decide two things:
- Moses is dead.
- We should make a golden calf and worship it.
I don’t know where the calf idea came from or why they do it, but they do. For some reason, idol worship was the crack-cocaine of ancient Israel. Every time Moses turned around, somebody was worshipping a rock or an earring or some other ridiculous object that they’d made. What’s the deal with that?
Anyway, the calf tells them to do all kinds of terrible things. He’s a really naughty calf.
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It turns out, Moses wasn’t dead. He was talking to God, face-to-face. God had given Moses two tablets made of stone. He wrote the 10 commandments on them with His own finger. Remember that last part, because it’s important.
Well, Moses comes down and sees the rampant debauchery and idol worshipping and flips his lid. He’s just come from the most uplifting, spiritual experience you can have and sees this. Well he goes in-freaking-sane. As in, throws down the tablets written on by God’s own finger and breaks them insane.
Needless to say, the calf doesn’t survive either. Moses whips his people back into shape and then he goes back up the mountain to get more tablets. He brings them back down and everybody’s happy.
Well, except Israel. They keep not having their needs met (according to them). They continually go through the cycle above. If I were the Lord and had had to kill thousands of my children in order to rescue some of my other children, I would definitely be tired of hearing about how these other children wish I hadn’ t done it.
The last straw is when the Israelites complain about not having food and they wish they were back in Egypt. AGAIN!
At this point, the Lord realizes they need to learn faith and hope. They need to learn gratitude for what they have. So, this is the answer to Question 1. He’s not mad, He just wants them to learn.
He does this by sending fiery (read: poisonous) snakes to bite them. They all get bitten. There’s no escaping the fiery snakes.
Moses asks how to fix this and the Lord tells him to make a brass serpent and stick it on a pole. Then, raise the pole up. The people who look at the pole will live.
Seems pretty simple. I don’t know how or why that works but it did. Those who looked, lived. Those who didn’t, died. I’m in no position to judge those who didn’t look but I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t look. Maybe it took great effort, who knows?
Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?
And this brings me to Question 2. Of all the ways the Lord could have taught this lesson, why this way? Didn’t He just spend decades teaching them not to worship idols? Now He’s telling Moses to make a brass idol and that looking at this idol will cure them. Why?
I get that there’s a difference between a golden calf and the brass serpent. First and foremost, Moses was commanded to make the serpent. Second, the serpent was merely a type of Christ, not a supposed deity in its own right. It was meant to point people to the actual Savior Jesus Christ, not away from Him.
But my question is, why did God choose to test His people in such a potentially confusing way? I don’t really have an answer yet but here are my thoughts:
- To teach them the difference between golden calves and symbols/types
- To teach them to obey God’s will, even if you don’t understand it
- To teach them the value of modern revelation
What do you think? Why did the Lord choose this way to heal His people? What message was He sending?