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The Bronze Serpent

Numbers 21:8-9

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.” So Moses made a bronze[c] serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live’.

Full bible text

Numbers 21:4-9
‘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. 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.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 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. 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.” So Moses made a bronze[c] serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live’.

About this painting

Rebellion against God and unbelief in His promises caused the Israelites to stay in the desert for 40 years. Now the moment approaches that the young generation may enter the Promised Land. But then, due to the hardships of the desert, combined with an attack of the Canaanites, it all becomes too much for them. They start to grumble against God and against Moses, despise the manna and complain about the lack of water.
Then God sends fiery snakes among the people, and many are bitten and die. The people confess their sin and Moses prays for them. The Lord then gives a means to stay alive after being bitten by a snake. He commands Moses to make a bronze snake, set it on a pole, on a high place, so that anyone can see it. If anyone who is bitten by a snake looks to the bronze snake, he will stay alive.
Jesus mentions this story in His conversation with Nicodemus. John 3:14-17.
14 ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’.
‘Be lifted up’ refers to the crucifixion of Jesus. John 8:28
The satan, who is called ‘that ancient serpent’ (Rev.12: 9) tempted man to sin. Genesis 3. Since that moment, every descendant of Adam is born as a sinner. This condition is comparable with the Israelite who is bitten by a fiery snake. Like the Israelite who could only be saved by looking to the bronze snake, so we can only be saved and have eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. As the bronze snake looked like the poisonous snake, so Jesus, the Son of God, became like a human, except for sin. 2 Cor. 5:21
In 1 Cor.10: 9-12 Paul reminds the Corinthians to this story. 9 ‘We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall’.

The reason Paul warned them was that some Corinthians failed to esteem the Lords Supper. Bread and wine point to the body and blood of Christ. It should be seen as spiritual food to strengthen faith in Him.
In Numbers 21 the Israelites despised the manna the Lord had given them, and grumbled about the lack of water in the desert. The manna and the water from the rock were spiritual food and drink. It pointed to Christ, the Bread from heaven, and the Rock from which flows living water. John 6:30-35, 1 Cor. 10:4.

John 3:36 ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him’.

John 6:40 ‘ For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’

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