Many churches throughout the world use a Bible reading schedule called a "lectionary." It's just a fancy word meaning "selected readings." Posts like this reflect on the readings for an upcoming Sunday or other Church holiday, as found in the historic one-year lectionary.
Our reading from Numbers 21:4-9 describes a very low point in the life of Israel. As they were being rescued from slavery in Egypt by the power of God, they became impatient and distrustful. They wanted to know why God had Moses bring them into the wilderness. They were not satisfied with the heavenly bread he was giving them day by day.
God's response was that the faithless people could die in their unbelief. This may seem harsh on the surface, but it is consistent with reality. If you don't accept what is given to you, you will suffer the consequences of not having it. If you reject the provision of God, you get to continue without it.
In this instance, the people of Israel are confronted with serpents. The serpents should remind them of the role of snakes in Egyptian culture, as well as the role of the serpent in the Garden. Through the serpent, humanity was introduced to death.
There's an interesting conept at work in this passage. Moses is commanded to make a model of the serpent which will be reaised up on a pole. Those who look to it, believing, will be safe. It seems a cryptic idea, but J. Rendel Harris' The Teaching of the Apostles (Johns Hopkins, 1887, 62-77) describes this as a concept which was readily accepted and commented on in early Christianity. In effect, the thing which brings death can be used to bring life. Here, the deadly serpent can protect from other serpents. In much early Christian commentary and in Jesus' own teaching, the serpent raised up in the wilderness is a sign of Christ being raised up on a pole, the deadly human put to death so the fatally sinful human can be given life.
This is the heart of the passage in Numbers. Death itself is raised up, put on notice of its end, and replaced by life.
If this brief meditation was helpful to you, I hope you will check out the other materials on our website at www.WittenbergCoMo.com and consider supporting us.