From Mount Hor the children of Israel set out on the Red Sea road,
to bypass the land of Edom.
But with their patience worn out by the journey,
the people complained against God and Moses,
“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,
where there is no food or water?
We are disgusted with this wretched food!”
In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents,
which bit the people so that many of them died.
Then the people came to Moses and said,
“We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.
Pray the LORD to take the serpents away from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses,
“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,
and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live.”
Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,
and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent
looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
21:4 Mount Hor The place where Aaron died.
the Red Sea The Hebrew words used here, yam suph, may be translated “Red Sea” as opposed to the literal translation, “Sea of Reeds.” to go around the land of Edom This move toward the Red Sea (or “Reed Sea,” yam suph in Hebrew) is a step backward from Arad (Num 21:1–3), and is due to the refusal of the king of Edom to let Israel pass through its land (20:14–21).
21:5 against God and against Moses The Israelites include God as the target of their complaint—one reason for the severity of the punishment. our hearts detest this miserable food The people were not starving, they simply had contempt for the provisions God gave them—manna and quail.
21:6 poisonous snakes The Hebrew verb used here, saraph, means “burn,” but the noun is commonly used for a type of snake (e.g., Deut 8:15). poisonous snakes The Hebrew noun used here, nachash, is the common word for “snake.”
21:8 Make for yourself a snake The Hebrew word used here, saraph, meaning “fiery,” likely refers to the shape after which Moses was to model the bronze serpent. Saraph occurs in Isa 14:29; 30:6, where the serpent is described as “flying.” The serpents referred to did not fly through the air; rather, the description comes from its appearance. The snake was likely a type of cobra whose upper body skin flanges were possibly thought to look like “wings.”
21:9 that person looked at the snake of bronze, he lived In the ancient Near East, serpents were widely associated with life and healing because they shed their skin. The prescientific observance of this ability led people to assume the serpent had regenerative power. Even today, the most common insignia associated with the medical profession contains two intertwined snakes.
In the reading today, we see the people continuing to complain against Moses. But their protest is also directed against God. When they are punished, Moses once again intercedes on their behalf. How similar are these actions today in our lives? How often do we complain or direct anger towards God as we encounter challenging events in our lives?
The point that is emphasized in this story is that it was not the bronze serpent that cured the people but the mercy of God. The serpent was a sign of the salvation which God offers all men. As mentioned in the Gospel of John, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life,” the bronze serpent is typifying Christ raised up on the cross, the cause of salvation for those who look upon him with faith (Jn 3:14–15).
When we embrace and follow the Lord’s teaching, we raise Christ above all human things. Through this action, he draws us towards himself where His saving grace and mercy pour forth. Come Lord Jesus, come!
May the virtues of faith, hope, and love go with you today – DV.