Now the Israelites are in the final stage of their prolonged journey. But it must seem to them as though they are never going to reach their destination! Within weeks, discouraged by the unusually arid terrain they are obliged to traverse, they are complaining again – yearning for ‘the good old days’ in Egypt (a country that few of them have seen for themselves or are able to remember!) and grumbling yet again about the monotony of their diet.
But suddenly they are faced with a really serious problem – ‘venomous snakes’ (probably an outbreak of guinea worm infestation). As the worms emerge from the body, they cause intense pain and ulceration, and often death (from secondary infection, gangrene or tetanus). And the people, as always happens when they are in a desperate situation, know that only Moses and God (the targets of their complaints!) can help them.
But God’s response is unusual – and interesting. Instead of simply taking the ‘snakes’ away, He uses the situation as an opportunity to teach the Israelites a lesson about salvation. The remedy presented to them for the consequences of their sin is a bronze representation of a snake coiled round a pole. Winding the worm slowly onto a rod is the only way to extract it safely, and thus prevent the fatal complications. And everyone who follows this instruction survives.
The details of this story are so sketchy that it is easy to misunderstand it. After a few hundred years, the Israelites began to treat the bronze snake as if it had magical healing powers of its own, and eventually King Hezekiah had to destroy it as part of his drive against idolatry (II Kings 18:4). But no magic was involved, just a basic principle: if you want to live, you must trust in God’s way instead of following your own instincts. And this is also the message of the Gospel: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life.” (John 3:14,15) We cannot save ourselves from the consequences of our sins by our own efforts, but must put our faith in the means that God has provided – in this case, the death of His Son.