The Fiery Serpents

Series on Numbers (ch.21: 4-9)

“Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. And the people spoke against God and 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 miserable food.’ And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, ‘we have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you: intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.’ And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live.’ And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived” (21:4-9).


The end of the wilderness wanderings was in view. The people had begun to journey in a roundabout way up the east side of the Sinai Peninsula toward Canaan. Since Edom had not allowed Israel to take a short cut through their territory, Israel had to go around them. It was a hard journey through a region that is especially desolate and rough. The way was intensely hot, barren, and visited by frequent and terrible sand storms. The people again grumbled and complained. God’s punishment, once again, is significant. For this reason, the incident in Numbers 21:4-9 cannot be passed over. It has deep spiritual applications that we must not fail to see. As we examine the external circumstances, we might conclude that the Israelites were somewhat justified in their complaint. I would be weary of forty years of tent camping, from place to place, always hearing of a better land and not seeing it, were I in their shoes. Yet, some truths should have been learned from their previous experiences with God:

I. The story:

A. The rebellion:

As Israel journeyed toward Canaan, they ran into opposition from those in the land. The Canaanites made a raid upon the Israelites and captured some of them. Israel made a vow, before the Lord; that if He would grant them victory over this enemy, they would destroy them and wipe out their cities. This was in harmony with God’s plan for bringing judgment upon these people because of their idolatry and sin against Him, as the one true and living God. God gave Israel the victory in this first battle of their life, as a nation. It seemed easy. But after the easy victory came the hard journey and life began to get tough. The people became impatient and wanted to give up. They complained before God, becoming ungrateful for all He had done for them.

Often the period of greatest discouragement can come right after a victory. Jesus makes the same application in His parable of the soils (Matthew 13:20, 21). What Israel had failed to see was that God was preparing them for many long battles. The conquest of Canaan would not come in one, short, easy victory, but would come after hard-fought wars over a period of years. The people fell back to their old desires, a longing for Egypt. Even though this younger generation had never seen Egypt, this was still their plaintive cry: “Back to Egypt!” (21:5). They became tired of God’s provisions. In our spiritual journey, only two directions exist: forward or backward. The old haunts of sin try to pull us back to a former life. Satan tries to make us believe that things were better “back then.”

In the punishment inflicted upon Israel, because of this complaining, God did not ask Moses, in advance, about what He was going to do. The nature of the complaint was against Moses as well as against God. Watch how God took care of these complainers. He basically removed His providence from them, as He had done in the tent fires of 11:1, and allowed snakes to bite them. Snakes were a common part of this section of the desert. One traveler to this region noted: “The sand on the shore showed traces of snakes on every hand . . . my guide told me that snakes were very common in these regions.” Another traveler on the exact route of the children of Israel stated:

"In the afternoon a large and very mottled snake was brought to us, marked with fiery spots and spiraled lined . . . which evidently belonged, from the formation of the fangs, to one of the most poisonous species ... The Bedouins say that these snakes, of which there is great dread, are very numerous in this locality."

God did not have to invent some new punishment. He simply multiplied some local inhabitants and sent them Israel’s way.

B. The remedy:

The cure for Israel began, as with all sins against God, with an acknowledgment of those sins (21:7a). Until Israel took responsibility, nothing would change. The Bible says they “repented and confessed” their sin. This was not a generic “I’m sorry for something.” It bespoke the very nature of the complaints they had lodged against God. The Bible makes a distinction between godly sorrow and the “sorry-I-was-caught” type of sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:9, 10).

The confession also included the idea that they were incapable of curing themselves (21:7b). They asked Moses to intercede with God and remove the snakes. Moses heeded and asked God to stay the plague. The cure had to be God’s cleansing and not man’s (21:8, 9). God’s ways are not man’s, and man’s ways are not always God’s ways. God’s logic and reasoning are beyond man’s full understanding. Therefore, God took a different course than man might have. God did not cure the wound but the wounded. He had Moses make a snake resembling the one that plagued Israel. It was made of most likely copper. Thus, it was fiery in appearance. Moses was to put this symbol on a pole before the assembly. Everyone who had been bitten could look upon it and be cured of the bite. This serpent in every way resembled the ones on the ground, with one exception — this snake brought life and not death.

It is amazing that the medical profession chose as the symbol for healing, a symbol which has been emblazoned on plaques, arm patches, etc., a symbol which still bears this figure, a serpent on a pole.

II. The lessons:

Like God’s remedy in times past, the cross of Christ was God’s devising. Paul states that the wisdom of God appears foolish to man, but man will be the fool if he does not recognize the power in it: For since, in the wisdom of God, the world, through its wisdom, did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. . . . but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews, a stumbling block, and to Gentiles, foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:21, 23-25). The cross proclaims God’s power, not man’s (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

Second, Jesus became God’s symbolism for man’s sin. In John 12:32, 33, Jesus compared the wilderness experience to that of His own: “‘and I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.” Cure was found in both of these lifted up symbols. Paul says that Jesus was made to be sin on our behalf: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God, in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Like the serpent on the pole, which was made in every way like those on the ground, yet harmless itself, sinless Jesus was made to be like sinful man so that man might be cured.

Third, all men have been “bitten” by sin and need the healing that God can provide. The sting of sin has caused many to look for their own cure, but to no avail. The sting of sin has a way of bringing people to a conscious need for Jesus Christ. It is like a prodigal son “coming to himself”. A humorous parallel that applies well at this point can be made.

Once upon a time, there was a family of wayward church members. One day, while the three boys, Jim, John, and Sam, were in the woods, a large rattlesnake bit Sam and he became violently ill. The doctor was summoned and did what he could; but said they would need divine help, too, if Sam were to recover. So the preacher and the elders of the church were sent for and they came rushing to Sam’s bedside. The preacher was asked to pray and did so as follows: “O wise and righteous Father, we thank Thee that in Thy wisdom, Thou hast sent this rattlesnake to bite Sam, in order to bring him to his senses. He has not been in the church house for years and it is doubtful that he has, in all these years, until now, felt the need for prayer. It seems, therefore, that what all our combined efforts could not do, this rattlesnake has done. We trust, O Father, Thou wilt send another to bite Jim and John and a big one to bite their father, for we conclude the only thing that will help this family is rattlesnakes. So send us, we pray, three bigger and better rattlesnakes.”

Fourth, people must be cured God’s way. Since God is the offended party, being healed of sin begins with repentance and confession of sins (Acts 2:38; Romans 10:9, 10). Then one must act, as Moses and the people did, on God’s specific instructions. In our case this involves being baptized (Acts 9:4; 22:16). One must trust in God to take away sin and its deadly effects (1 Peter 3:21). Just as no curative power was inherent in the brass serpent, even so no magic inheres in the waters of baptism. Both acts depend upon faith in God. When man does what God says, God does His part.


You may never live in an area where you would be bitten by a poisonous snake. But if you are old enough to know right from wrong, you have been bitten by sin. You will die unless you let Jesus heal you. By God’s grace a permanent cure for sin exists.

Another encouraging side to this is seen: We are all the walking wounded who have been cured by the blood of Jesus. I am helped by knowing that others bear the same scars I bear and by knowing that all wounds are healed. I can know through Jesus that my wounds are not spiritually fatal (1 John 1:7-9). What are your wounds like? Are they temporary or terminal? Consulting the Great Physician can make all the difference.