4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The 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 detest this miserable food.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
I’m thankful that I have never been bitten by a snake, but I’ve certainly felt the venom of sin pulse through my life, its toxicity carrying destruction with it.
What a seemingly bleak story to commence a new week.
The Israelites’ situation in today’s passage could almost be comical if it were not so tragic. God’s people were miserable. They were lost in the desert. They found the food, this God-given manna, to be lousy. The manna could only be outdone by their poor outlook. Yet, God had just the remedy: a pack of venomous snakes.
In their desperation, the Israelites turned against God, which only led to more despair. It is far easier to blame others or even God for our wrongdoing and lack of faith than to come face to face with our own depravity. Still, God will bring us back to him, even if it requires our own version of a fiery serpent to do so.
God’s people saw the error in their ways, which put them in a place to receive God’s grace. The fact that God answered their prayer through the bronze snake—answering them in a way so unlike what they had asked for—is itself of note. Yet Jesus expands on the significance of this bronze snake, not just for the reptile-ridden Israelites, but for us too. In John 3, just prior to summing up the gospel message in the well-known sixteenth verse, Jesus says, “And as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
The Israelites looked at the serpent and lived. Jesus says we must believe in him as he is lifted up, which will bring us life, too. The urgency of our need for a Savior does not always feel like venom pulsing through our blood, literally dying for a remedy. And yet, this is our condition without the blood of Christ shed on our behalf.
I’ve heard it said that Lent is a time for running to God with our brokenness bare before us. Much of the year we try to focus elsewhere and run away, but Lent can help us see that, like the Israelites, “we have sinned” (v. 7) and should run to God as we pray for healing.
Prayer: Loving God, we see your work for our redemption. Help us to throw off the sin that ensnares and distracts us. Fix our eyes on your son, Jesus Christ, as we look to and believe in him. Amen.
Olivia Holt lives in Managua, Nicaragua, where she works as a bridge-builder between North American and Nicaraguan Christians who are serving in areas of extreme poverty across the country. Her local ministry partners, Tabitha’s House Bluefields and CEPAD (Council of Protestant Churches of Nicaragua), are engaged in a variety of ministries with vulnerable children, pastors, midwives, farmers, refugees, and community leaders.