Friday, December 15, 2006

Understanding The Bronze Serpent Story in Numbers

Explore Your Assumptions About the Text
The bronze serpent story in Numbers 21:4-9 is one of the more famous stories in the Old Testament. I have heard many sermons on this text, yet I still do not have a good grasp on its significance. Most if not all of those sermons focused on the story's relation to the crucifixion of Christ. As the semester has progressed I have become very interested in understanding Biblical narratives in their original context. Why would Moses have included this story if its only significance was as a picture of the crucifixion? There must have been an original intent, and I want to find it.

As I read the story I noticed the importance of following God's commands in faith. Those who were bitten by the serpents would die if they did not look at the bronze serpent, but there is no sensible connection between the act of looking and physical healing, or at least not from a 21st Century perspective. In order to live, the ancient Israelites had to believe God's Word and obey.
Maligning God's provision is also an important aspect of the story. In verse 5 the Israelites call the manna God sent "worthless food." God sends the fiery serpents in response, and it is difficult to understand how to apply this punishment. Vague answers warning us not to treat God's provision as worthless do not satisfy because they do not grapple with the text. This first application is obvious, but what more is there to be said? Is the fact that God sent fiery serpents significant? I know that I have treated God's provision lightly, and that others have as well, but we have not all suffered the fate of these Israelites. What made that situation different? What sort of help might be provided by investigating the context into which this story was delivered?

Another interesting aspect of the text is the bronze serpent itself. A cursory reading of the text provides no clue as to God's reason for commanding Moses to forge it, yet I have difficulty believing no such reason exists. The only clue is that there were also serpents involved in the chastisement, but that does not provide much help.

Preliminary Summary: Numbers 21:4-9 served to warn the Exodus community against grumbling against what God has provided, or else chastisement will occur. It was also an encouragement, however, because it showed that God is merciful to those who repent and trust His Word.

Examine the Text With Guidance Toward its Original Significance
Clarify Your Understanding of the Original Setting and Purposes of the Book.
It seems that the presuppositions of the commentator are one of the most important factors in how he or she dates the book of Numbers. For instance, in his commentary, John Sturdy subscribes to source-criticism theory. Proceeding from an assumption of its accuracy he dates the J source at about 950 BC, and P around 450 BC.[1] Gordon Wenham's commentary, however, presents a very different picture. Rather than assuming a source-critical methodology, Wenham engages a number of arguments to establish a probable date range for the book's composition. He particularly attacks the late date for the so-called 'P material.' He points out that a number of institutions that figured prominently in the P material, such as the ark and the Urim and Thummim, had disappeared by the post-exilic era. He also points out that much of the technical terminology of the P material was obsolete after the 7th century. Comparison with Ezekiel and Deuteronomy lead Wenham to choose the 7th century as the latest date for Numbers.[2]

Wenham push for an even earlier date for Numbers by producing no fewer than thirteen arguments for its antiquity. For example, the Hebrew encampment was square with the Tabernacle, which was the divine king's tent, in the middle. This was the practice of 13th century Egyptians, and not for later nations like the Assyrians. The descriptions of cultural artifacts and literary forms were also more in line with a second-millennium date. Taking all this into consideration, Wenham suggests that we give the tradition of Mosaic authorship the benefit of the doubt.[3]

In determining the original pastoral purposes of Numbers it is now obvious that we cannot side with the proponents of source-criticism. The author was Moses, not J or P, and the audience was an ancient one. The question is, however, was the audience the Exodus generation or their children? The best answer to this question is provided by the text itself. Numbers contains the stories of the failures of the Exodus generation and the resulting judgments. This indicates that it is the children's generation Moses had in mind. This generation was actually entering the Promised Land and needed first to be assured that God was on their side. Just because their parents' generation died didn't mean God had abandoned the entire nation. They also needed to be reminded of the price of disobedience. There are a number of laws given in the book of Numbers and the book also provided examples of the cost of disregarding those laws.

Attend to the Literary Shape of the Episode
Numbers 21:4-9 opens with a broad, fast-moving statement about the Israelites traveling around Edom. The pace is slowed and the scope is narrowed quickly when the opening problem of the passage is presented. This problem is the impatience of the people of Israel (v. 4). This impatience then leads to grumbling against God and Moses in verse 5. The people complain about the lack of good food and water, and say that the food they do have is "worthless." In response to their complaint, God sends judgment in the form of "fiery serpents" (v. 6). This is the turning point of the story. After this
judgment the people change dramatically. They are the only dynamic characters in the story, because they realize that they have sinned against God and Moses and are humbled. They look to Moses, who they had earlier criticized and asked him to pray for them.

The strength of Moses' character is revealed by his response to the request of the people. He does just as they asked without complaint. There is a contrast between Moses and the people: When in trying circumstances (v. 4-5) the people complain and question Moses' leadership and God's providence. Moses does not answer back in kind. In fact, only God acts in response to their complaint. Once the people are repentant, Moses does not allow their past attacks to stop him from praying for them. He makes no complaint, but does as they ask (v. 7). Though it is not specifically stated, from the narrator sets Moses as the example.

Further into the story, Moses acts in a godly fashion again by obeying the Lord's command. God resolves the conflict by telling Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. Anyone who is bitten by a serpent need only look at the bronze serpent and they will live. This 'look and live' phrase is emphasized by repetition in vv. 8-9. Wenham suggests this repetition emphasizes the physical contact of looking as analogous to the touching of the sacrificial animal required in other Old Testament cleansing rituals. Without the physical contact, the sacrifice is ineffective.[4] At this point the scope has broadened and time has quickened again. The scope is focused on the nation as a whole and the time in which the remaining action takes place is nonspecific.

Summarize the Original Significance of the Story
It is difficult to determine how Numbers 21:4-9 serves the larger book of Numbers because at first blush Numbers does not seem to have much purpose. It can look like a smattering of legal texts and narratives that could not fit anywhere else. This is, however, a false impression. According to Wenham the book is highly structured, with the legal portions operating on several levels. First, they teach how Israel is to behave once they are in the land, and second, they function as evidence that the land promises will be fulfilled.[5] Why give a bunch of nomads a book of laws on how to live when they settle in a land unless it is certain that they are settling?

The narrative portions of Numbers describe the journey to the land itself. Specifically, 21:4-9 is the last instance of the Israelites complaining about their food.[6] This had occurred previously in Numbers 11 and judgment ensued. It did again, but God's grace was demonstrated because they were allowed to move forward with the campaign after their repentance.

The sinfulness of man and the graciousness of God are strong themes from the covenant relationship. As is always the case, it is God who works the reconciliation after we mess things up. Yet, as always, God is faithful to his promises. He told Abraham his descendents would have the land, and God took them there in spite of their failures.

Original Significance: The original significance of this passage was to show the continuing faithfulness of God and the continuing sinfulness of men. This is a repetitive cycle, but it also gave the audience a warning against such rebellion against God.

Trace Biblical Elaborations of the Text Through the Canon
There is not much specific reference to Numbers 21:4-9 in the other books of the Old Testament. The bronze serpent itself is mentioned in 2 Kings 18:4. Hezekiah destroyed the serpent, then called 'Nehushtan,' during his reforms because the Israelites had begun worshipping it. Beyond that I could find no mention of the story.

The three characters of the story, the Israelites, God, and Moses, are obviously mentioned throughout the Old Testament. The Israelites are often shown to be impatient and prone to complaint, as they are in the Numbers passage. In Exodus 16:2-3 and 17:1-3 the Israelites grumble for food and drink, respectively. Earlier in the book of Numbers itself the Israelites make a similar complaint. In 14:1-4 they again grumble against both God and Moses. This cycle of unfaithfulness calls into mind the cycle of rebellion in the book of Judges. Both occurred because of the persistent sinfulness of the Israelites.

These stories emphasize some facets of God's character as well. In all three instances God is shown to be merciful and two of three show God's judgment. In the Exodus passages the people grumble for lack of food (16:3) and water (17:2-3). They were certainly sinning in doing so, but God was merciful on both occasions, providing for their needs. Numbers 14 is heavy with judgment since this is the passage in which God tells the Exodus generation they will not enter the land (v. 20-23), but even here He shows His mercy. Earlier God shows what He could have done when He offers to disinherit the Israelites and make a nation of Moses (v. 11-12). After Moses' intercession (v. 13-19) God pronounces His judgment, but also promises to allow the children of the Exodus generation into the land. In Numbers 21 God begins His action with a judgment, the sending of the serpents (v. 6), but He ends with mercy, giving the people an opportunity for healing (vv. 8-9).

The compassion and intercession of Moses is featured prominently in two of the aforementioned stories. On all three occasions Moses comes before the Lord with the complaints of the people. He prays in Numbers 14 that God will not destroy the people of Israel even though God would have made him a great nation. In Numbers 21 the judgment of God has already fallen upon the Israelites, and when they are repentant Moses goes before the Lord with their request for deliverance. In all of these stories we see the mercy of Moses alongside the mercy of God. This gives legitimacy to Moses' role as God's messenger.

The most famous biblical reference to the Numbers 21:4-9 story is found in John 3. It is also the only New Testament reference to the story and Christ uses it as a picture of his crucifixion. In verse 14 Jesus says that he must be "lifted up" as Moses lifted the bronze serpent in the wilderness. It is plain that Jesus' focus is on the serpent's God-given power to heal because of his statement in verse 15: "…that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." Looking to the serpent brought physical life (Numbers 21:8,9), but believing in Jesus brings eternal life.

How Does the Episode You Are Studying Function in Relation to Other Chapters of the Biblical Storyline?
The biblical storyline should be viewed in a 'Creation-Fall-Redemption- Consummation' framework.[7] At least two of these 'chapters' throw light on the Numbers 21:4-9 narrative. The story begins with a confirmation of the Fall. The Israelites are characterized by impatience and complaint. They grumble not only against their leader Moses, but also against the God who appointed him. God had steadily provided for them, yet they called His provision "worthless" (v. 5). The result here is the same as the result of the original Fall: a curse. God sends poisonous serpents among the people, bringing death (v. 6). The people have no hope on their own, but they realize they have done wrong and ask Moses to intercede for them (v. 7).

Now the story moves from the confirmation of the Fall to the execution of redemption. Through the bronze serpent, God provides a means of delivery from death (vv. 8-9). In one small story we see both fall and redemption.

What Would Be Lost if Your Episode Did Not Appear in the Biblical Story?
If Numbers 21:4-9 did not appear in the biblical story there would be two major losses. First, the story completes a tripartite cycle in Exodus and Numbers that highlights man's continued sinfulness and God's continued grace.[8] Strictly speaking, both of these are present in other episodes, but the tripartite literary device adds beauty and emphasis. Perhaps the greatest loss, however, would be the loss of the rich redemptive imagery Christ uses in John 3. His use of the bronze serpent imagery certainly resonated with Nicodemus and provides us with insight on the nature of Christ's sacrifice on our behalf.

Come Under the Coaching of Other Christian Interpreters Who Apply this Text
Throughout the centuries it seems that Numbers 21:4-9 has only had a few types of application. I was interested to see that both Luther and Calvin applied this text with reference to sacraments. For instance, Calvin says that along with receiving manna and the water from the rock, the bronze serpent was a sacrament. He goes on to say that this regular variation should have told the Jews that they were not to hold on to these practices, but to wait for something better and more abiding. These better things are, of course, the two Christian sacraments of the Lord's Supper and baptism.[9]

Luther, while staying with the theme of sacraments, applies the text differently. He uses the brass serpent as a weapon against "sacramentarians." Accusing such people of seeking the Spirit apart from the Word, he says they would want to see the serpent held up on the pole but not bother with the Word of God that came with it.[10]

Not surprisingly, Catholic commentator Robert Culley takes a different approach to the text. Culley focuses on the "punishment…followed by a rescue or mitigation"[11] in the text. When the text is combined with other narratives in Numbers, one strong application is that God should never be provoked. His punishments are often deadly. Yet, this particular story intrigued Culley because the rescue actually draws more attention than the punishment.[12] He does not elaborate on that theme.

Gordon Keddie takes a similar approach as Culley. He claims the snakes were meant to teach the Israelites that rebelling against God will lead to their death, and that there was no hope for them to rescue themselves. Any salvation would be of grace and grace alone.[13] Keddie believes that "[t]he bronze snake preached gospel grace to Israel and speaks to us of Jesus, the only Saviour of sinners like ourselves."[14] Here, of course, Keddie is referring to Christ's use of Numbers 21:4-9 in John 3. It is useful to point out this both applications although the first was originally to Israel. Christians can still understand and appropriate the truth for our own context.

Unlike other sources I found, the Westminster Confession of Faith did not refer specifically to the Numbers passage. I was, however, able to draw an interesting connection between the Israelites in Numbers and the Church in the Confession. Both Israel and the Church represent the covenant community, and as such what is said about one will often apply to the other. Chapter 25.5 states "[t]he purest churches under heaven are subject to both mixture and error."[15] Israel in Numbers, like the church today, had people in the covenant community with rebellious hearts. This is what lead to the terrible offense when the Israelites called God's provision worthless. It should give us cause for thought as well because we are not so different from them. The book of Numbers shows over and over that mankind is marred by the Fall, so we are capable of just such a rebellion. When we cry out against God in our hearts, this one statement of the Confession should stand as a warning.

Evaluate Your Preliminary Summary of the Text's Significance
When I began this paper I wanted a deeper understanding of the significance of Numbers 21:4-9. I thought I had a superficial one, but was eager to see what deeper investigation might reveal. My original summary of the text's significance was: Numbers 21:4-9 served to warn the Exodus community against grumbling against what God has provided, or else chastisement will occur. It was also an encouragement, however, because it showed that God is merciful to those who repent and trust His Word.

I find that to be a fairly accurate assessment of the text. I would change the original audience from "the Exodus community" to "the children of the Exodus community." What has changed is my appreciation for the literary structure and the emphasis that it places on the sinfulness of men and the graciousness of God. I better understand the passage's place in the overall narrative of Scripture.

Taking the literary factors into consideration, I might word the significance like this: "Numbers 21:4-9 served to warn the children of the Exodus community of their own rebelliousness and sinfulness while also strongly emphasizing that God is gracious and faithful to keep His promises even in the midst of our sin." This does a better job highlighting the story's role in the larger biblical storyline because it takes the other stories of grumbling and rebellion into consideration, broadening the scope of application.

I am still curious about the significance of the serpent as a symbol in ancient Israel. I did find some intriguing theories about its significance, but I was not able to devote much time to that. I would also love to investigate the literary structure of Numbers and the Pentateuch as a whole in order to better grasp how it coheres.

[1] John Sturdy, Numbers, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 4.
[2] Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series (Leicester, Eng: Downers' Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), 22-24.
[3] Ibid., 24
[4] Ibid., 158
[5] Ibid., 14,15
[6] Ibid., 157
[7] Michael Williams, "Covenant Theology," class lecture notes p. 1, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, 20 October 2006.
[8] Wenham, Numbers, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series, 16-17.
[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 2:1447.
[10] Martin Luther, Luther's Works, trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 54:97.
[11] Robert C. Culley, "Five Tales of Punishment in the Book of Numbers," in Text and Tradition, ed. Susan Niditch (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1990), 30.
[12] Ibid., 31.
[13] Gordon J. Keddie, According to Promise: The Message of the Book of Numbers (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1992), 147-148.
[14] Ibid., 148.
[15]Westminster Confession of Faith (Lawrenceville, Georgia: Committee for Christian Education and Publications, 1990), 84.


Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 2 vols. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Vol. 2. Louisville, London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.

Culley, Robert C., "Five Tales of Punishment in the Book of Numbers." In Text and Tradition, ed. Susan Niditch, 25-31. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1990.

Luther, Martin. Luther's Works, 55 vols. Translated by Theodore G. Tappert. Vol. 54. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.

Sturdy, John. Numbers, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976),

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series. Leicester, England, Downers' Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981.

Westminster Confession of Faith. Lawrenceville, Georgia: Committee for Christian Education and Publications, 1990.

Williams, Michael. "Covenant Theology." Class lecture notes, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, 20 October 2006.

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