Bible Commentary: Numbers 21

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Numbers 21

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Fiery Serpents Among the People

The rest of the trip toward the Promised Land would be hard and difficult. First, the king of the Canaanite city of Arad picks a fight, and carries some Israelites away captive. God empowers the Israelites to “utterly destroy” the Aradites in a place that became known as Hormah, meaning “Utter Destruction.” Interestingly, this first military victory against the Canaanites takes place in the same spot that, decades before, the Israelites had been defeated when they vainly tried to enter Canaan after God told them they would have to wait 40 years (compare Numbers 14:45 Numbers 14:45Then the Amalekites came down, and the Canaanites which dwelled in that hill, and smote them, and discomfited them, even to Hormah.
American King James Version×
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Yet the victorious spirit does not carry them all the way. Going around Edom proves so difficult that the children of Israel become discouraged—which once again turns to bitter complaining. When their ingratitude leads them to declare that they detest the God-given manna sustaining them, calling it “worthless,” God sends them deadly fiery serpents. In terror and agony, the people quickly repent, asking for Moses’ prayers on their behalf. God’s instruction then is remarkable—He tells Moses to make a bronze image of a serpent and set it up on a pole and to instruct the people to look upon it to be healed. Biblically, the serpent is a symbol for Satan (compare Genesis 3; Revelation 12:9 Revelation 12:9And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
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). Yet the New Testament tells us that this raised bronze serpent is a type of Jesus Christ, who was lifted up in crucifixion—and that looking to His sacrifice gives us life (John 3:14-15 John 3:14-15 [14] And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: [15] That whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
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So how could a seemingly Satanic symbol represent Christ? The devil, remember, was the original sinner—and the instigator of sin among our first human parents, Adam and Eve. That being so, we may view the serpent as a symbol of sin, or the sinful nature mankind has acquired from Satan (compare Ephesians 2:2 Ephesians 2:2Wherein in time past you walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience:
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; Romans 8:7 Romans 8:7Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
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). In sacrificing Himself for us, Christ bore our sin and its penalties (Isaiah 53:4-6 Isaiah 53:4-6 [4] Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. [5] But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was on him; and with his stripes we are healed. [6] All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
American King James Version×
). Indeed, the Bible says that He became “sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21 2 Corinthians 5:21For he has made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
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). And as sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2 Isaiah 59:2But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.
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), Christ could not be in the Father’s perfect presence at the moment He bore our sins and endured its ultimate penalty of death (compare Matthew 27:46 Matthew 27:46And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
American King James Version×
). Thus, in bearing our sin, Christ could properly be depicted with the image of a raised serpent. When we look upon Christ’s death by crucifixion for our sins and His resurrection from that death into new life, we can have the penalty for sin removed from us and also be granted new life (Romans 5:9-10 Romans 5:9-10 [9] Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. [10] For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
American King James Version×
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In later years, the Israelites will view the bronze serpent as a holy relic of veneration and begin worshiping it. For this reason, it will wisely be destroyed by righteous King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4 2 Kings 18:4He removed the high places, and broke the images, and cut down the groves, and broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for to those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.
American King James Version×
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Verse 14 of Numbers 21 mentions the “Book of the Wars of the Lord.” The Nelson Study Bible says this “refers to an early collection of songs and writings known today only from this citation. The fact that Numbers draws upon other early Hebrew writings shows that the ancient Hebrew peoples had other literature in addition to Scripture.” This book is not in existence today.

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