Numbers 21:1-9. The Israelites complain again, and God takes away His protection.
Numbers 21:1-9. The Israelites complain again, and God takes away His protection.
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Last we left the Israelites, they were making their way around Edom. The Promised Land was just past Edom…it was so close they could almost taste it. But when they had asked the King of Edom permission to pass through his land, the king had told them no way Jose…and then marched his army to the border just to make sure didn’t go through his land. And because the Edomites were the descendants of Esau, they were under God’s protection…and the Israelites could not fight their way through Edom. And so, with sadness in their hearts, the Israelites began their long journey around Edom. And if that wasn’t discouraging enough, not too long after starting this long detour, their beloved leader Aaron died. The Israelites mourned for Aaron for a month, after which the sad Israelites continued on their journey around Edom.
But unfortunately, the sadness and disappointment wasn’t going to stop with Aaron’s death. Apparently, the king of Arad (apparently Arad was a Canaanite area close to Edom) decided that it was a good time to attack Israel. Arad, and all the other Canaanite areas, were on the other side of Edom inside the Promised Land. And probably what happened here is that the after seeing that the Israelites wouldn’t attack Edom, the king of Arad realized that he could attack the Israelites without having to worry that the Israelites would attack them back…because they were on the other side of Edom and the Israelites couldn’t go through Edom. So, taking advantage of the situation, the king of Arad sent his army to attack Israel.
And the attack went well for the Canaanites. The Bible says that king of Arad, “fought against Israel and took some of them prisoners.” (21:1) Well, this wasn’t good. Unlike the Edomites, the Canaanites were not protected by God. In fact, they were one of the nations that the Israelites would have to fight once they arrived in the Promised Land. The Israelites should be defeating the Canaanites…not the other way around. So, the Israelites asked God for help. And God did indeed help the Israelites. And while we don’t know the details…we do know that the Israelites had a great victory and the Canaanites were defeated. God was with Israel and now they knew that once they arrived in the Promised Land that they’d have no problem fighting all the people that lived their now. They might be going the long way, but they knew that they were on the path to victory.
So with this important victory under their belts, the Israelites were obviously happy and excited, right? I mean, they knew that they were eventually going to win…they knew that God was with them…and so after this victory the Israelites charged forward with all the extra energy and excitement that comes from a victory like this, right? Well, no. No the Israelites decided to get even more sad and discouraged than they already were. The Bible says that, “the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way” (21:4) Apparently, after the victory against the Canaanites, and after the Israelites had continued on their journey, they got to thinking…if we were able to defeat the Canaanites just now…and if we are such excellent soldiers…then why are we still stuck on this long and dreary journey through the desert? And for that matter, if they were such great soldiers…why had they needed to spend 40 long years wandering around in the desert? I mean…they had just proved that they were a great military power…so why had God and Moses been holding them back all these years from going to the Promised Land? Why hadn’t they just been allowed to do their thing? Why had they wasted so much time? And the more they thought about it, and the more craggy hills, dusty deserts, and barren valleys that they passed through…the more frustrated and sad and depressed that the Israelites got. So what did the Israelites do? Well, you guessed it…they complained! And the Bible said that they “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 our soul loathes this worthless bread."” (21:5)
Now, of course kidzos, we know that this is all crazy talk. First of all, the Israelites were not this great military power. Before they had beat the Canaanites, they had lost to the Canaanites. And the only reason they had beaten them is because they had asked God for help. And not to mention that we all remember when God had first banished them, that the Israelites had actually gone ahead and invaded the Promised Land anyways. And what had happened? Yah…they had fought a battle and lost…badly. And not only that, but all the craggy hills, dusty deserts, and barren valleys that were getting them so depressed…these were actually signs of God’s miraculous protection. I mean think about it…millions of people were slowly making their way through the desert without making their own food, without bringing their own water, they had no diseases, no heat stroke, no other nation was defeating them, no snakes, no scorpions, no spiders, no lions, no wild animals attacking them…just the fact that they were there at all was a huge miracle. But all the Israelites could think about when they looked around is about how they weren’t back in…Egypt…a place where almost none of the Israelites that were still alive had ever set foot in!
So, what was God going to do? Well, God decided that the Israelites needed to better understand just how much that He was doing for them out in this desert that they hated so much. And He decided to take away His miraculous protection against one single thing…the snakes. And the Bible says, “So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.” (21:6) So all of a sudden, out of nowhere, poisonous snakes exploded into the camp and started biting people left and right. Now these snakes, called “fiery serpents” in the Bible, were an especially bad snake because they were very poisonous. Basically, if you got bit by one of these snakes, you were going to die. And while you were dying, the bites were extremely painful. All during that day the snakes continued to attack the Israelites. And then night came, and the only thing worse than being attacked by snakes in the day…is being attacked by snakes at night…because they couldn’t even see the snakes coming anymore…and the screams of fresh victims got louder and louder. What were the Israelites going to do?
Well, the Israelites did what they always did at times like this…they went to Moses (the very person they were accusing just 5 minutes ago) and they asked for help. And they said to Moses, “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.” (21:7) And Moses also did what he always did…he went to God and prayed for the Israelites (despite being accused just 5 minutes ago). And what did God do? Did He do what He always did and gave Moses what he’d prayed for? Well…kinda…yes and no. Did God take away the snakes? Well actually the Bible doesn’t say anything about the snakes. Because you see, by this time the snakes no longer mattered…because so many of the people had already been bit and were on the verge of dying, what the Israelites needed right then was not to send the snakes away like they were asking, but instead that all the people who had been bit to be healed. The Israelites were in deep trouble. So what was God going to do?
Well, God did something a little strange. God spoke to Moses, and said, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” (21:8) Ok so instead of just healing everybody, God wanted Moses to make a metal version of a snake…the very animal that was attacking them…and put it on a tall pole that where everyone could see it. And then tell everyone to look at the snake on the pole. And then somehow, everyone who looked at the snake on the pole would be healed from the poisonous bites. Well, that probably sounded very strange to Moses, but Moses knew better than to doubt God. And with the screams of dying people all around him, the Bible says that Moses, “made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole;” (21:9) And then Moses sent the word out…all the Israelites who’d been bitten by the snakes, whether just bitten or on the verge of death, were to look at the bronze serpent on the pole. And anyone who looked at it, would be healed.
Now, this probably seemed really strange to the Israelites. I mean…imagine that you are one of the Israelites who’s been bitten…the bite is very painful…you can feel the poison coursing through your veins…you can feel your heart pounding faster and faster as your body tries to fight what the poison doing to you…you know that you are dying. And then someone tells you, hey go look at a snake on a pole…and you’ll be completely fine. Probably your first reaction will be like…what…look at a snake on a pole…how is that going to help? I’m dying here…let’s get serious…get me some medicine or something that makes sense.
But that was exactly the point that God was trying to make. You see, the Israelites’ problem…the reason why they were always complaining and getting sad and depressed…is because they were always only relying on their own understanding…they were always only doing what made sense to them. This is why the Israelites were always talking about Egypt…Egypt Egypt Egypt…because Egypt was all they knew. All they could see and all that they could make sense of is that Egypt was a better place than where they were. But God is so much bigger than what makes sense to us…He’s so much bigger than what we see. God understands everything, sees everything, and can do anything. And when you are following a God like that, you have to get used to doing things that don’t always make sense. Every once in a while, God is going to ask you to take a leap of faith…and to look at a pole with a snake on it (figuratively).
So…what would the Israelites do? Would they look at the snake on the pole? Would they take a leap of faith and do something that didn’t make sense to them? Well, as it turns out, it seems they did. The Bible doesn’t give us details, but I would imagine that Moses set the pole in the center of the camp where everyone could see it. And then thousands of people would have come out of their tents to look at it. I’m sure that some of them were so close to death that they could barely move…and for those people I’m sure their families would have dragged them out of their tents and pointed their faces in the direction of the pole…hoping for a miracle. And did it work? Were the people who looked at the snake healed? Well of course! The Bible says, “and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” (21:9) All the Israelites who looked at the snake on the pole were healed…all the people who took a leap of faith were saved.
And ya know kidzos, there’s one more thing that we can learn about the bronze snake on the pole. You see, God didn’t tell Moses to make it just to save the Israelites who were there that day. He also made it for many future generations…because it also pointed forward to a time when someone else would be put on a pole for all to see…to a time when someone else who would sacrifice Himself so that we don’t forever die for our mistakes…someone who even today if we trust… and take a leap of faith for…and look at…that He will save us. Just like the Israelites.