In a context of confusion and flashy journalism, rigour becomes a precious value.
Did Moses go bonkers?
It’s hot. You’re hungry, tired and sweaty. The good news is the Promised Land is just to the north. But all of a sudden some bad news is announced: “We’re heading south!”
Heading south? What? How come? What gives?
Not a bit of wonder you and those around about you start to grumble and complain. There’s hardly any food. Water is hard to come by. And now, to top things off, now you’re headed south. Hallelujah!
That’s exactly how the Israelites reacted when they couldn’t plod through Edom. “The soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. 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 bread; neither is there any water; and our soul loathes this light bread [a reference to the manna God sent on a daily basis]” (Numbers 21:4-5).
Now, if you know your Old Testament, you’ll be well aware that this was not the first (nor the last) time the Hebrews kicked up a fuss about Moses’ travel plan. A common five-fold pattern emerges as the trip to Canaan materializes:
In Numbers 21, God’s punishment (stage two of the pattern) is to send “fiery serpents” amongst the people. They were not fiery in the sense of being ablaze but rather fiery because their bite left a stinging inflammation behind.
If you’ve ever got yourself bitten by a snake or stung by a bee/ wasp or sucker-punched by a demon-possessed jellyfish, I’m sure you can imagine the agony the Israelites were facing.
So, you’ve just been struck by serpentine poison. Remember, you’re in the desert. There are no first aid kits, no chemists and no doctors or nurses on standby. Just Mr. Sunshine beaming his dizzy rays into your wobbly, woozy head! What do you do you?
“Moses, do something! Pray for us! Ask God forgiveness! We’ve sinned! We shouldn’t have complained! Please pray! Pray lest we perish!”
The amazing thing is that Moses prayed. I’m sure if that man of God were like most of us, he would have rubbed his hands in joy upon witnessing the suffering of the insubordinate. What that poor fella had to put up with! Every other day there was an insurrection against him.
I’m sure most of you pastors out there could say to Moses: “I feel your pain, brother!”
But Moses prayed. He interceded for the rebels. And then God said something weird, “Make a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass that every one that is bitten when he looks upon it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8).
Had Moses heard right? Were there specks of sand lodged his ear-drums? Did the Lord really ask him to set a serpent on a pole to heal the people? Yes, yes, He did.
Why a serpent? It just doesn’t seem to make sense.
First of all: aesthetics. Let’s face it: snakes are ugly. You’ve never seen a toad, a crocodile or a snake win a beauty pageant. Rather than sticking some beautiful angelic figure on the pole, Moses is commanded to lift up a snake.
Don’t snakes make you squirm? When was the last time you saw someone come across a serpent saying, “Oh, my cutey wutey, coochy coo!” It just doesn’t happen. Some of the teenage lasses surely had a good giggle at Moses’ fashion sense. “That snake is like so 2017!”
Second of all: uncleanness. Leviticus 11:42 tells us that snakes were “an abomination”. They were unclean animals according to the Most High. Maybe some of the more scrupulous leaders questioned Moses, saying, “Are you certain it was “a snake” that had to be lifted up? Are you sure He didn’t say “steak”, “hake” or “cheesecake”? But Moses stuck to his guns. He knew the Lord commanded unclean animal to be placed on the pole.
Third of all: enmity. Snakes were the problem not the solution. How was Moses going to give prominence to the vicious beast that had been wreaking havoc amongst the Hebrews? Weren’t snakes to blame for all that was going on? It was madness with a capital M.
Well, it just so happened that all those who looked upon Moses’ serpent were healed.
And it also just so happens that this episode is a powerful reminder of the Gospel.
First of all: aesthetics. God’s chosen means of salvation was not a triumphant conqueror but a bloody Saviour on the cross of Calvary.
Humanly speaking, there was nothing even remotely attractive about the crucifixion. Our blessed Lord was a mass of blood and flesh.
Second of all: uncleanness. Just as the people of God were to keep their distance from snakes, so too in the New Testament, Christ was rejected by His own. He was handed over to the Romans, condemned by the Jewish authorities.
Third of all: enmity. God is the natural man’s biggest problem. The Creator’s gift of conscience frequently torments the unbeliever.
The ungodly would love to wipe God off the map. He is public enemy number one. They hate God and His precious Son with all the perverse might their hearts can muster.
It seems then absolute folly, complete stupidity to even suggest that God chooses to save men by means of a bloody, rejected and despised Deliverer. And yet, that’s exactly what the Bible teaches! Paul puts it this way, “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21).
And what is the content of Christian preaching? Paul answers, “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block and unto the Greeks foolishness” (v. 23).
The New Testament Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection for the ungodly is so wholly alien to human wisdom that it only allows men to glory in God.
And only those who look at the serpent (that is, at Christ) can be healed. Who looks? Those who realize they have lethal venom of sin pumping through their bloodstream.
After all, Jesus said, “They that are well do not need a physician, but they that are sick” (Matthew 9:12). No one will ever look to Christ until they know they are sick.
God is so merciful that salvation is a mere matter of looking. An eight-year-old kid can look and an eighty-eight year old granddad can look.
Today, I urge you all to look upon the Son of God who our beloved Father placed on the cross so that, “if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21:9).