By David Faust
I’m not orphidiophobic (possessing an abnormal fear of snakes) or even herpetophobic (fearing reptiles), but of all the creatures God designed, snakes are not my favorite. Everything about them hisses. Snakes slither on the ground, skulk in the grass, and surprise unsuspecting hikers who push through underbrush.
Jesus told his disciples to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), but most of the time snakes don’t fare well in the Bible. Solomon warned against the abuse of alcohol, for eventually “it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper” (Proverbs 23:32). From Satan’s fateful conversation with Eve in the Garden of Eden to the downfall of “that ancient serpent called the devil” in Revelation 12:9, snakes portray spiritual danger and enmity toward God.
When a Frightening Thing Becomes a Tool for Good
On one occasion, however, God used the snake as an instrument for healing. While the Israelites traveled through the wilderness “the people grew impatient on the way” and “they spoke against God and against Moses” (Numbers 21:4, 5). Bitter complaints overflowed from ungrateful hearts: “There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” (v. 5). Daily manna from Heaven wasn’t enough to satisfy them.
Grumbling didn’t help. (It never does.) So God’s discipline intensified. Venomous snakes invaded the camp until the people came to Moses, admitted their sin, and begged for the Lord to remove the snakes. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived” (vv. 8, 9).
This incident seems strange to us, but there is gospel truth in it. Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14, 15). Home remedies can’t save us from Satan’s poison. Only God can do that. We must look to the cross, where Jesus was lifted up and bore sin’s curse for us (Galatians 3:13).
When a Good Thing Becomes an Idol
In the days of Moses the bronze serpent served a positive purpose, but what happened to it afterward? Fast forward seven centuries. Amid the reforms King Hezekiah brought to the spiritual life of Judah, he “broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it” (2 Kings 18:4). The people kept the bronze snake around for 700 years! It even had a nickname. They called it Nehushtan, which sounds like the Hebrew for “bronze” and “snake.”
The snake on a pole served a useful purpose in the wilderness, so in a way I can understand why they kept it around. Would you have wanted to destroy something God ordered Moses to make? But God never said to make the snake an object of worship! In fact, one of the Ten Commandments specifically prohibited worshipping graven images. Over time the bronze snake had become an idol, and Hezekiah was right to destroy it.
God uses all kinds of tools to help and heal his people, but we greatly err if we worship the tools instead of the God who gave them.
David Faust serves as the Associate Minister at East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The Lookout’s Bible Reading Plan for March 15, 2015
Use this guide to read through the Bible in 12 months. Follow David Faust’s comments on the highlighted text in every issue of The Lookout.
Numbers 21, 22
Numbers 26, 27
Numbers 31, 32