Numbers 21:4-9 Common English Bible (CEB)
4 They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea[a] road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. 5 The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” 6 So the LORD sent poisonous[b] snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.
7 The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the LORD and you. Pray to the LORD so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live.
Who knew the Book of Numbers could be so controversial? I do not like to look at snakes, living or dead. I’m not fond of serpents, real or fake. This passage would have been hard for me to digest in antiquity. As it is, I’m squeamish as I type.
Here’s what happens when you complain against God, hungry and thirsty in the middle of desert: God sends poisonous snakes to kill you. Many people all around you die from these snakebites. In turn, the way to be healed from the snakebites is to worship a hastily made bronze snake idol; a snake “God”, a snake on a pole. The answer, according to scripture, is to look at the fake snake, because you complained about being hungry and hot (a seemingly natural thing to do in the desert even for the most devout believers) and were subsequently bit by a venomous snake.
I don’t care how you slice it (whatever your interpretative method may be) this is a strange story. As the Israelite nation (God’s chosen people) you’ve gone from being a sedentary group of craftspeople into nomads, literally, overnight. Wondering around some of the harshest desert terrain on Earth, you’ve become hungry, tired, and frustrated. These are all natural human reactions. As an outgrowth of expressing what would be normal in any setting, you are set upon by venomous snakes by the benevolent creator God who has just freed you from captivity in Egypt. Yes, take me back to Egypt. At least we weren’t being eaten alive by snakes! Because the Israelites act like normal human beings they are going to be tortured to death by snakes? Really? I don’t know much about God but I’m certain this God, as described here in Numbers, is not a God with whom I want to be in a relationship. This is not the action of a benevolent deity who loves their children. The God of Numbers 21 is an abusive parent who enjoys causing pain and watching people crawl back to beg for forgiveness.
Is this our God? Should the quid pro quo, passive aggressive God of Numbers be assigned to the dustbin of history? Is a God who so willingly inflicts pain upon God’s beloved for speaking out of their humanity, worthy of our attention and praise? I would argue no. Is this not the God who died on the cross? The God of snakes, sadism, and poisonous bronze serpent idolatry died on Good Friday. Who are we trying to bring back to life this week; a God of flesh and blood, of healing and restoration, or a God of guilt and venom?