Numbers 21-22 Look up if you want to live

From Numbers 21-22

04 NumbersHow can a sinful act lead to life for others?

This post is part of my bible in a year series.

Passage and Comments

The following incident is interesting because an aspect of it can easily be overlooked.

[4] From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. [5] 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 we loathe this worthless food.” [6] Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. [7] And 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. [8] And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” [9] So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Num 21:4-9)

The LORD commands Moses to raise up a image of a serpent for them to approach and look upon to live. This is prohibited in the Ten Commandments. See below.

[4] “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Ex 20:4)

Moses takes it on faith the LORD knew what He was asking. Later on, the portrayal the LORD gives of Israel to Balaam is also interesting.

[7] So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand. And they came to Balaam and gave him Balak’s message. [8] And he said to them, “Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the LORD speaks to me.” So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam. [9] And God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” [10] And Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, [11] ‘Behold, a people has come out of Egypt, and it covers the face of the earth. Now come, curse them for me. Perhaps I shall be able to fight against them and drive them out.’” [12] God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” [13] So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak, “Go to your own land, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you.” [14] So the princes of Moab rose and went to Balak and said, “Balaam refuses to come with us.” (Nu 22:7-14)

The LORD calls them ‘blessed’. A term powerfully associated with the promises of God (Gen 12.2,3) and even justification (Gal 3.7-9). Again we see the LORD protecting his own people and commanding respect from foreign nations. The whole story demonstrates the LORD’s willingness to uphold his glory before others by protecting his chosen people.

Story of Jesus

Following the death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the early church writings by Justin Martyr actually discusses the bronze serpent incident and the issue of the LORD commanding Moses to do something prohibited in the Ten Commandments. Dialogue with Trypho the Jew has Justin arguing for Christianity with a small group of Jews. This excerpt is near the end of the dialogue.


Justin: “For tell me, was it not God who commanded by Moses that no image or likeness of anything which was in heaven above or which was on the earth should be made, and yet who caused the brazen serpent to be made by Moses in the wilderness, and set it up for a sign by which those bitten by serpents were saved? Yet is He free from unrighteousness.

For by this, as I previously remarked, He proclaimed the mystery, by which He declared that He would break the power of the serpent which occasioned the transgression of Adam, and [would bring] to them that believe on Him [who was foreshadowed] by this sign, i.e., Him who was to be crucified, salvation from the fangs of the serpent, which are wicked deeds, idolatries, and other unrighteous acts.

Unless the matter be so understood, give me a reason why Moses set up the brazen serpent for a sign, and bade those that were bitten gaze at it, and the wounded were healed; and this, too, when he had himself commanded that no likeness of anything whatsoever should be made.”

Trypho’s Friend: On this, another of those who came on the second day said, “You have spoken truly: we cannot give a reason. For I have frequently interrogated the teachers about this matter, and none of them gave me a reason: therefore continue what you are speaking; for we are paying attention while you unfold the mystery, on account of which the doctrines of the prophets are falsely slandered.”

Justin: Then I replied, “Just as God commanded the sign to be made by the brazen serpent, and yet He is blameless; even so, though a curse lies in the law against persons who are crucified, yet no curse lies on the Christ of God, by whom all that have committed things worthy of a curse are saved (Gal 3.13). Ch XCIV, Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew

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