OT Encounters: Numbers 21:4-9 – Can You Recognize a Snake?

By Jeff Pulse

The Old Testament lesson for Lent IV, March 11, 2018, is from the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers. The text is Numbers 21:4-9 and is the interesting account concerning the grumbling and sinning of the Israelites and the LORD’s response of sending the “fiery serpents” into their midst. Moses’ making of a bronze serpent and raising it upon a pole is directly referred to in the New Testament passage from John 3:14: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also the Son of Man must be lifted up.” This is an explicit type in the Scriptures and references the crucifixion of Christ who was lifted up on the tree of the cross. The question of why Jesus is a “snake” in this typological reference might at first seem complicated. However, if we think of Christ on the tree bearing the sins of mankind, and, “He who knew no sin became sin,” then we can see the connection. When we look upon the cross, we see our sin as well the One who washes it away and gives life. To demonstrate this better, I have included a sermon I preached a few years ago. I hope it is helpful.

21:4 wayisu—root: nasa “to set out; to go up”

         yam—suph “sea of reeds; red sea” suph is Hebrew for reeds or rushes.

         watiqtsar—root: qatsar “to become impatient”

21:5 qatsah—root: quts “to feel disgust; to loath; abhor”

         haqeloqel This is a difficult word to decipher. However, in this context, it appears to mean worthless or wretched.

         Note that the Hebrew reads: “…and we loath in the wretched bread.” The people of Israel are complaining about the Manna—God’s special provision for them.

21:6 wayeshalach—root: shalach “to send”

         hanechashiym haseraphiym “fiery serpents” Because of the root “seraph” meaning “burning, to burn,” many have speculated that these serpents are somehow connected to the seraphim—heavenly beings. Because of this, some have also speculated that they are flying serpents. Generally, the fiery reference is taken to mean that their venom caused the sensation of burning as it went through the blood stream.

         wayenashku—root: nashak—piel “to bite”

21:7 hithpalel—root: palal—hithpael “to make intercession for; to intercede”

21:8 nes “standard; pole”

21:9 nechash nechosheth “bronze serpent”

         wehibiyt—root: nabat—hiphil “to look”


There is an old tale about a peasant who came across a snake while out hoeing his field during the early spring thaw. He raised his hoe to kill it, but the snake spoke to him and begged for mercy. “I am too frozen to do you any harm,” it said. “Please help me before I freeze to death. “The peasant had pity upon the snake, picked it up, and placed it inside his shirt to warm it up. As the warmth of the peasant’s body slowly brought the snake back to life, it began to move around, until suddenly the snake bit the peasant. The peasant reached inside his shirt and grabbed the snake and threw it on the ground. As the peasant began to die, he asked the snake, “Why did you bite me? I befriended you. I saved your life!” “Do not blame me,” said the snake, “You knew I was a snake when you picked me up!”

Can you recognize a snake? The people of Israel in our Old Testament text for today are traveling through the wilderness with Moses as their leader, but they are growing impatient—with Moses and with God—and they begin to complain. They murmur against God and His prophet. In truth, they begin to reject God! They are sinners, and so God sends snakes into their midst. The snakes bite, and the people die!

Did they recognize the snakes? Did they know what these snakes represented? Did they have any idea why the snakes showed up? Oh, I think so—sin. Their sin brought the snakes. Their sin was the poison. Their sin led to their death. They preferred the darkness. They thought the darkness was a better walk. They thought the darkness of their souls would save them. When they deserted God for the darkness of sin the LORD sent the snakes—and they knew why!

Can you recognize a snake? Do you know what these snakes represent? Do you recognize the snake of your own sin? We reject the light for the dark. The darkness looks so exciting; sin seems so mysterious! We reject the light for the dark. The light is so boring; there must be more to life than the light. Or perhaps we convince ourselves that this will be just a brief journey into the dark—a mere flirtation with sin. “I can handle it. It will never best me.” We pick it up. We hold it close. And we’re shocked when we are bitten, hooked, addicted, and coerced by its poison. Can you not recognize a snake? You knew it was a snake when you picked it up! You knew it was wrong when you did it. You knew it was sin.

The Israelites died from the snake bite of their sins. Their rejection of the LORD led to their death—to eternal darkness. They embraced the darkness, and they were overcome, for sin always overcomes the sinner—their sin, our sin. The poison of sin opens the gates of hell and ushers us in. “For the wages of sin is death…”

But the Israelites repent of their sin. Even as the poison flows through their bodies and their systems begin to shut down they crawl to Moses begging him to beg the forgiveness of the LORD on their behalf. And the LORD God is gracious and merciful, and He provides a tree upon which hangs a snake! Do the Israelites recognize this snake? I think so… It is the snake of their sin, hanging on a tree. It shows them that on a tree the LORD will remove their sin and they shall have life! As they look upon the snake on the tree, as they see their sin, the LORD is faithful and just and forgives their sin and cleanses them from all unrighteousness. The snake on the tree is their sin being removed. They are being atoned for.

Do you recognize a snake? “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” How can John compare the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, our LORD and Savior, with a snake? Do you recognize a snake? Do you recognize your own sin? As we look upon the cross and see our God, we are looking upon our sin. The Christ has taken the burden of our sin, the corruption of our sin, the filth and darkness of our sin, and placed it upon Himself and carried it to the cross. Surely, He has borne our grief and carried our sorrow! Christ has become sin for us. He has lifted the burden of our sin and placed it upon Himself. As He hangs on the tree, as we lift up our eyes, as we gaze upon this terrible sight, we see our sins. We see the sacrifice for our sins. We see, we believe, and we are saved. Eternal life is ours.

The Israelites looked upon the tree and the snake, and they were saved. They continued on in their wilderness wanderings until the day they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land of Canaan. They still struggled with sin. They still murmured and grumbled. They still flirted with the darkness. But the grace and mercy of God continued to be poured out upon them, and the gates of the Jordan River parted before them and they entered into that Promised Land.

As we look upon the tree—the tree of the cross—when we recognize the snake—the snake of our sin—we too see our Savior. We are saved, not by our own thoughts, words or deeds, but by the precious, cleansing blood of the all-availing sacrifice, and therefore we enter into the Promised Land of everlasting life. Yes, we still struggle with sin. We still murmur and grumble. We still flirt with the darkness. But the grace and mercy of God continues to be poured out upon us.

The blood of the all-availing sacrifice is visited upon us day after day. We repent. We confess. And God, who is faithful and just, forgives our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. We see it at the font. We taste it at the altar. We hear it in the words: “I forgive you your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  And so the LORD preserves and strengthens His chosen people. And one day we shall enter into the Promised Land of our Sabbath rest. For the Son of God has parted the gates of heaven to receive His people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

One thought on “OT Encounters: Numbers 21:4-9 – Can You Recognize a Snake?

  1. How wonderful it would be if more of our LCMS pastors preached thoughtful sermons with the clarity of this particular message. I agree, as you postulated, that the snakes we must contend with in the Christian life embody a flirtation with sin in all of its manifestations. Since each of us sin regularly in a cycle of continuous confession, repentance, and seeking forgiveness, the words of 1John1:9 should be memorized by rote repitition. And although we lean heavily on God’s grace, we must at some point sense that the Lord has commanded us to make more than a casual effort to resist sin and exercise self control over our passions and willful disobedience. Some Lutherans rest on God’s longsuffering patience and grace as if there is no will and no ability in themselves to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the sanctification process. Indeed, we are sinners saved by grace, and we must contend with the snakes ( the world, the flesh, and the devil), and some positive effort on our parts are biblically commanded. May Jesus lead us to practice our faith, not just sit back and abuse His grace.

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