Serpents and Salvation

Torah Portion: Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)
Gospel Reading: John 3:10-17
Commentary by: Chris Knight

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, contains one of the most beautiful pictures of Yeshua in the entire Torah; the bronze serpent. In the book of Numbers, we read about the children of Israel and their encounter with an unusual plague from God. In chapter twenty-one we read,

“Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. 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 our soul loathes this worthless bread.’ So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. Therefore 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. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘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.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” (Numbers 21:4-9)

At first read, this story seems unusual and very strange. Why would staring at a statue of a bronze serpent bring healing from plague and death!? This appears out of place for God, especially since He explicitly commanded that no graven images of ANY creatures should be made and worshipped. So why do we have this serpent? Why is it here and what does it teach us?

I believe this “mini-story” within our reading is really a picture of the grand story mankind’s sin and God’s plan of salvation. It begins with the fact that the people don’t trust God with their lives. The children of Israel feel like they are missing out on better. Better food, better water, better accommodations, and that for some reason God is keeping things from them. Wasn’t that the same as our struggle in the garden? We felt that God was keeping something good from us in the tree of knowledge. We felt that God was hiding something from us and we wanted it. It was our distrust of God’s provision and a desire for something better in our own strength that caused our eating of the fruit and the downfall of all humanity. Sadly, this is still the struggle many of us face.

What else do we see in this story? Well, because of the children of Israel’s distrust in God’s provision, God sends a plague of fiery serpents which begins to bring death in the camp. This is exactly what happened to humanity as a whole. Our taking of the fruit allowed plague and death to enter into the world and damage humanity ever since. I believe that the fact that both these stories include a reference to “the serpent” is no coincidence. This story is showing us the bigger picture of humanity’s downfall through a specific incident in Israel’s history.

This story, however, doesn’t just remind us of our downfall but also of our redemption. What’s interesting about this story is the solution to the plague. The children of Israel do two things; they repent of their sin of unbelief and they put their faith and focus on the bronze serpent on the pole. This is so incredibly profound! This is so beautifully Yeshua! How does this teach us about Yeshua and our redemption? The symbol of their fear, their pain, their sickness, and their death is what became the symbol of their hope and salvation. The serpent that symbolized humanities downfall was lifted up on our behalf to symbolize our life. Yeshua Himself makes the connection in John 3 where He says,

“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.’” (John 3:10-17)

We may not be literally plagued with serpents in the desert, we may not be able to relate to some of the trials of the Israelites, but we all have sin, fear, disease, sickness, and death to face. The good news is that just as the serpent was lifted up to become our healing, so too the Son of Man, Yeshua, was lifted up on our behalf to bring ETERNAL life and healing to all who look upon Him. It is He who carries our burdens, our struggles, our fears, our doubts, our disease, and our downfall. It is in Him that we have life everlasting and full of goodness and hope. No one quite puts it better than Paul as he writes,

“For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)