Bible Study #25 – The Fiery Serpent

This week we have a special guest and friend of the podcast, Rev. Michael Landsman, the pastor at Zion Stone UCC in Northampton, PA.  He takes us through Numbers 21, focusing primarily on the fiery serpents and the bronze serpent God had Moses to heal their poisonous bites.  Enjoy the show!

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OT Class: Numbers 21 November 28, 2017

Class Notes: The Bronze Serpent

I. Background:

The Children of Israel have just come through some rough experiences tinged with God’s goodness in response to their complaints.

  • Fr. Anthony last week:
    • God knew that the generation would not be able to enter and take the land, see the effects of this played out through the book of Numbers.

In chapter 20 & 21 a few big things happen:

  • Water of Meribah
    • No water so they complain to Moses and Aaron
      • “You have brought us out here to die…”
      • That’s actually true!
    • Numbers 14:22–23, [22] None of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, [23] shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.
    • Moses gets angry and instead hits the rock
      • God still gives water but Moses & Aaron punished because, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel…
    • ASK- why is this important?
  • Edom troubles
    • Army formed to keep them from traveling through their land
      • Will come back to haunt them later
  • Aaron dies
    • He did not enter the Promised Land either
      • The head of the priests
  • Canaanites
    • Fight Israelites
      • They are defeated by Israel after promises to devote them to destruction
    • ASK- what’s odd about this?

II. Numbers 21:4-9: The Bronze Serpent:

[4] 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. [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 food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” [6] Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. [7] 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. [8] 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.” [9] So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

  • ASK- what do we notice right away in this text?
  • People are becoming impatient
    • They do something so dumb you’d think they’d have learned their lesson by now: they speak against God and Moses
    • They add something to this complaint, “We loathe this worthless food.”
  • ASK- what is this worthless food?

Fiery serpents”

  • At first glance this seems straightforward. Snakes are slithering around biting people BUT the text suggests something else may be at play
    • Hebrew haseraphim hannachashim
      • In Numbers it gets translated as venomous or fiery serpents
      • Could translate as: the serpents, the seraphim
  • In Isaiah haseraphim gets translated as seraphim
    • What are seraphim?

Options here in Numbers 21:

  • Regular snakes?
    • Speaking of poisonous effects of snakebites?
      • Seraph: Could means burning ones (Kugel)
  • Snakes on fire?
  • Divine serpent-like beings?
    • In Isaiah 14 they’re mentioned as flying serpents
    • Isaiah 6 they are winged creatures associated with the fire of divine holiness (Dozeman)

DISCUSS: So are the Children of Israel being harmed by angelic beings?

III. Christological Lesson:

Jesus makes reference to this story in the Gospel of John:

  • 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 life. [16] “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.
  • St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St. John XXVII
    • Now if the Jews, by looking to the brazen image of a serpent, escaped death, much rather will they who believe on the Crucified, with good reason enjoy a far greater benefit. For this takes place, not through the weakness of the Crucified, or because the Jews are stronger than He, but because “God loved the world,” therefore is His living Temple fastened to the Cross. – St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Homily XXVII
      • Jews escaped death, our escape is greater
      • Christ the Crucified One destroys death itself on the Cross
    • Seest thou the cause of the Crucifixion, and the salvation which is by it? Seest thou the relationship of the type to the reality? there the Jews escaped death, but the temporal, here believers the eternal; there the hanging serpent healed the bites of serpents, here the Crucified Jesus cured the wounds inflicted by the spiritual dragon; there he who looked with his bodily eyes was healed, here he who beholds with the eyes of his understanding put off all his sins; there that which hung was brass fashioned into the likeness of a serpent, here it was the Lord’s Body, builded by the Spirit; there a serpent bit and a serpent healed, here death destroyed and a Death saved. But the snake which destroyed had venom, that which saved was free from venom; and so again was it here, for the death which slew us had sin with it, as the serpent had venom; but the Lord’s Death was free from all sin, as the brazen serpent from venom. For, saith Peter, “He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth.” (1 Pet. ii. 22.).”

St. Chrysostom relates the type (bronze serpent) to the reality (the Crucified Christ)

  • Their escape from death was temporal;
    • Our escape from death is eternal
  • Serpent bites healed by looking at the serpent
    • Jesus cures us of the wound given by the spiritual dragon
  • Serpent made of brass/copper
    • Body “built” by the Spirit
  • Serpents had venom which kills
    • Jesus free from sin, gives life

IV. Application:

  • Sin locks us into patterns
  • Complaint of the manna
    • Jesus calls himself the manna in John 6
    • Not discerning the Lord’s body per St. Paul?
    • 1 Corinthians 11:27–30, “[27] Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. [28] Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. [29] For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. [30] That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
  • People refuse Christ and his salvation
    • Will die of their wounds
      • Wounds representative of sin and the wages of sin: death
  • The Cross lifted high for all to see shows God’s salvation is offered to the world