Victory at Hormah, 1-2
Since Hormah is also mentioned in Num 14:39-45, some scholars regard the present story as an alternative account of the same conflict.
21:1 When the Canaanite king of Arad who lived in the Negev heard that Israel was approaching along the road to Atharim, he fought against Israel and took some of them prisoner.
21:2 So Israel made a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will indeed deliver this people into our hand, then we will utterly destroy their cities.” 21:3 The LORD listened to the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites, and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. So the name of the place was called Hormah.
Hormah means ‘destruction’.
Fiery Serpents, 4-9
‘From excavations at Timna about 15 miles (25 km) north of Eilat has come remarkable confirmation of the biblical story, or at least of its origin in the wilderness period. At the foot of one of the Pillars of Solomon in Timna, Rothenberg found a temple of the Egyptian god, Hathor, used in the 13th century BC. When abandoned by the Egyptians about 1150 BC, it was taken over by the Midianites who covered it with curtains to make a tent shrine, somewhat like the tabernacle. Inside this tent temple in the holy place was found a copper snake 5 in. (12 cm) long.’
Wenham suggests that the making of this object may have influenced or (more likely from the perspective of Bible-believing criticism) have been influenced by the copper snake mentioned in the present passage.
21:4 Then they traveled from Mount Hor by the road to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom, but the people became impatient along the way. 21:5 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 bread or water, and we detest this worthless food.”
The road to the Red Sea – in the direction from which they had come. And this was now the 40th year of their travels!
They had to go around the land of Edom because the latter had refused to allow Israel to pass through its territory (Num 20:21).
The people became impatient along the way – Even though they were fresh from victory (vv1-3), they became irritable, fractious, short-tempered. Their impatience may have been for several reasons. They had been on the verge of the Promised Land, but not able to enter it. They had been forced to follow a circuitous route (and one which led them back in the direction from which they had come). There had been no divine intervention in these regards.
They spoke against God and against Moses – They had a recurring tendency to complain (Exod 16:1–3; Num 11:1–3, 4–6; 14:1–3), only this time, it is not only against Moses, but against God himself.
But the one complaint that is actually mentioned here is to do with their diet. The people had complained about this before, in Num 11:33. On that occasion, God had punished them with a plague.
In 1 Cor 10:1-13 the sin of grumbling is mentioned in the same breath as idolatry and sexual immorality.
Brown notes that ‘a contemporary psychotherapist has spoken about the basic problems that cause people to seek help, identifying them as ‘the fearsome foursome’. All four make their appearance in this narrative: resentment (‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?’), fear (‘to die in the desert’), self-absorption (‘we detest this miserable food!’) and guilt (‘We sinned when we spoke against the LORD’).’
Underlying this fourfold reaction (writes Brown) lie a number of spiritual defects:
(a) They did not acknowledge God’s power. Would not the God who had brought them out of Egypt provide them will all things needful for their subsequent journeying?
(b) They did not appreciate God’s generosity. For forty years God has sustained them with heaven-sent food. But, instead of being thankful for this miraculous provision, they complain about it.
(c) They did not recognise God’s mercy. Day after day, God had fed them, even through times of rebellion and apostasy.
(d) They did not accept God’s sovereignty. They were irritated that they would not reach the Promised Land sooner. They could not see that God was building them into a people who would be better able to face the tough days that lay ahead.
(e) They did not trust God’s word. They were more adept at itemising their grievances than in counting their blessings. They had God’s promises, and the long record of his faithfulness and mercy. But, being forgetful of the past, they were fearful of the future. They needed to see once again that they were God’s beloved children, and that nothing would befall them that was outside his sovereign will.
21:6 So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit the people; many people of Israel died. 21:7 Then 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 would take away the snakes from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
‘Some people learn to cope with petty trials only by encountering greater ones.’ (Brown)
Poisonous translates a word that means ‘fiery’. So the snakes might have be fiery in colour or even (if the text were to be taken as some kind of fictional reconstruction) ‘fire-breathing’. But the present translation seems, in context, to be entirely satisfactory. The adjective might well described the inflammation which a bite led to.
Then the people came to Moses – Under lesser trials, they spoke against Moses (and the Lord). Now, under greater trials, they acknowledge their faults and ask for help from Moses (and the Lord).
‘When difficult experiences befall us, reliable friends are an immense mercy. Israel’s wise men regularly testified to the superlative worth of good friends, and urged the godly to cultivate the qualities of dependable friendship. God’s Son valued his friends (Prov. 17:17; 18:24; 27:6, 10). As he approached his loneliest hours, he thanked his disciples for their genuine love and sympathetic understanding during life’s intense pressures (Luke 22:28).’ (Brown)
For reflection: when adversity increases, will it drive us away from, or back to, God?
Pray to the Lord – ‘The grossly maligned leader became the urgently needed intercessor. Adversity sifts our priorities; they were no longer interested in more refined culinary provisions. They knew that Moses was a friend of God, and pleaded earnestly for something that now mattered more than food or drink. Trouble had changed their values and reshaped their ambitions. P. T. Forsyth made the point that God’s ‘final purpose in all trouble’ is to drive us closer to himself.’ (Brown)
21:8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and set it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will live.” 21:9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, so that if a snake had bitten someone, when he looked at the bronze snake he lived.
The main elements of the story: Israel is forced, by circumstances, to take a longer route; they become impatient complaining about their diet; God sends poisonous snakes, and many of the people die; they confess their sin; Moses intercedes; God commands Moses to lift a snake on a pole, and anyone who had been bitten could look at the snake and be spared.
‘The people prayed that God would take away the serpents from them (v. 7), but God saw fit not to do this: for he gives effectual relief in the best way, though not in our way. Thus those who did not die for their murmuring were yet made to smart for it, that they might the more feelingly repent and humble themselves for it; they were likewise made to receive their cure from God, by the hand of Moses, that they might be taught, if possible, never again to speak against God and Moses.’ (MHC)
“When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will live” – ‘For the healing to occur, no religious work was involved; a person simply looked in faith and lived.’ (Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, p259)
A bronze snake – Although the word could refer to one of the alloys of copper (bronze or brass) the archaeological evidence cited above suggests that the pure metal is meant.
Why make a snake, and why make it out of copper? Some appeal to the fact that in the surrounding nations, snakes were regarded as symbols of life and fertility, and in Egypt model snakes were used to ward off venomous snakes.
Wenham, however, advances the view that ‘the clue to the symbolism should be sought in the general principles underlying the sacrifices and purificatory rites in the Old Testament. Animals are killed, so that sinful men who deserve to die may live. Blood which pollutes when it is spilled can be used to sanctify and purify men and articles. The ashes of a dead heifer cleanse those who suffer from the impurity caused by death. In all these rituals there is an inversion: normally polluting substances or actions may in a ritual context have the opposite effect and serve to purify. In the case of the copper serpent similar principles operate. Those inflamed and dying through the bite of living snakes were restored to life by a dead reddish-coloured snake. It may be that copper was chosen not only because its hue matched the inflammation caused by the bites, but because red is the colour that symbolizes atonement and purification.’
Turning to our Lord’s use of this story as a picture of his own saving work, Wenham notes: ‘Men dying in sin are saved by the dead body of a man suspended on the cross. Just as physical contact was impossible between those bitten by snakes and the copper snake, so sinners are unable to touch the life-giving body of Christ. Yet in both situations the sufferers must appropriate God’s healing power themselves: by looking at the copper snake or ‘believing in the Son of man’ (John 3:15).’
In the present passage, the snake is a symbol of God’s healing power. In 2 Kings 18:4, however, there is a negative connotation: the bronze serpent was destroyed by Hezekiah because it had become an object of idolatry. In fact, some critics think that the present account is a fictitious aetiological story, invented in order to explain how the bronze snake found its way into the temple in the first place.
Note how the Lord deals with his people’s grumbling: not be improving their diet, but by punishing them!
In Jn 3:14f, the lifting up of Jesus is likened to the lifting up of the snake. In both cases, the person who exercises faith by looking will live.