a bronze snake and a talking donkey

This bit of the OT blew my mind the first time a friend of mine, a god-fearing man, taught me about it a year ago. And here I am a year from then reading it for myself, and it’s still just as awesome. So, Numbers 21:4-9 –

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

Funny how secular interpretations of this passage point to a pagan god, the Greek god of healing Asklepios (whose symbol is a snake on a rod). But a biblical, Spirit-filled interpretation points to the real Healer, Jesus Christ. I had already heard how this passage is a direct prophecy of Christ’s healing and his sacrifice, as John 3:14-15 makes very clear – “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Also see John 6:39-40 – “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

But my friend pointed out two great points: first is that this passage and the parallel in John shed new light on John 3:16. This is the passage of choice for many Christians today speaking of God’s love. But we often forget God’s role as the King of all Creation and the righteous Judge of all. If you look at John 3:16 in a vacuum you will miss out on this – God is a loving God who sent His Son to die because He loves us. But here is the inescapable truth: we deserve to die for our sins. The Israelites were faced with terrible judgment in the desert, but were given a chance to live after they realised their sins. So John 3:16, our chance to live, can only be truly understood (and lived out) when we realise just how close to terrible judgment we were! And it makes that love all the more incredible.

So what is the significance of the snake? The snake was the enemy of the Woman in Genesis and her offspring, the creature that led Man away from the LORD – in other words, evil, curse, sin. Something that was not a curse (bronze) was made to look like a curse (snake), and was raised up, so that anyone who looked on it would live and not die. Sound familiar? Look at 2 Cor 5:21 – “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And even more clearly, Gal 3:13 – “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” God took something that was not sin, not accursed, to look like something that was a accursed (a man hanging on a tree, and a naked, bleeding criminal, no less), so that we could look up from our own lives and our righteousness, and live. And that’s how the OT talks about Jesus. Awesome.

I was also reading the story of Balaam and Balak (Numbers 22-24), one of the strangest stories in the whole Bible. Here are some observations:

Words are powerful. A word was all that was needed to create the heavens and the earth, a word was all that was needed to bring water from the rock. Words pronounce the futures of twelve tribes. And words are all that are needed to bring blessings or curses on an entire people – which is what Balak understood. And yet a word, coming from nothing less than a donkey, had absolutely no effect on Balaam? Just what in the world was going through that man’s mind? Num 22:28 makes no indication that Balaam was surprised at all; he just talked with the donkey as if it were a particularly worthless slave. That has to be one of the oddest things I’ve ever read.

Num 22:20-35 also troubles me. In fact, frankly, this passage terrifies me. God told Balaam to go to Balak, then grows angry with the man for following his commands, and sends the angel of the LORD, no less, to kill him! I started thinking, how can anyone know if he’s doing what’s right? Who’s to say that the LORD wouldn’t kill me the next minute for doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing?

But I was listening to a sermon today by Rico Tice, and in it he mentioned Martin Luther, struggling with the false notion of why God demanded righteousness from him when He knew full well that he had absolutely no chance of giving it to Him? But one day Luther discovered the passage in Romans (1:17 – “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'”), and the rest is history. Luther caught on that even while God demands the impossible from us, he gives us, free of charge, the way to fulfil His demands – in other words, being righteous is humanly impossible, but can be achieved because of Christ’s sacrifice. Impending judgment, a demand for righteousness, and a gracious way to be covered from the judgment without dying.

To me it seems Balaam was in a similar position. There was no denying that following Balak’s men was absolutely sinful (God commanded him not to do so in verses 12), and Balaam knew this absolutely (verses 13 and 18). Yet he still did it. Does someone telling you to do something wrong automatically remove the sinful nature of the deed? No it doesn’t (and I have a sneaking suspicion that this ties in with Rom 1:25-32, 11:32).

So God ‘telling’ Balaak to sin does not excuse his actions, because it is sin, plain and simple, deserving judgment. In the same way God demands a righteousness that is humanly impossible from Luther and from us, with no excuses. Failing that, we are on the road to destruction, just as Balaam was. Plus, even if God told Balaam not to go, do you think he would have resisted the temptation? Probably not! (And I can relate to that) So a sinful fool, handed over to his sin, goes on his way to destruction and is inevitably met by righteous judgment, in the form of the angel of the LORD. And it doesn’t matter who told him to go, the man is about to die for doing what is wrong. No excuses.

But even in the face of death, the LORD grants an utterly miraculous escape, through a talking donkey. Now if you’re still reading this, congratulations for going with me through my tortured logic. But this is what I learned: that sometimes it does seem like the LORD gives us over to sin. Sometimes we feel betrayed: I was doing what I thought God wanted me to do. But along comes judgment. But the LORD is good, and though we may not understand this side of heaven why we ended up along the road to destruction with the best of intentions, there was still an escape. There always is. And that, not the ‘unreasonableness’ of the situation, is where our eyes should be fixed. Water from rocks, bread and meat raining from the skies, a donkey telling us to turn back, and the Prince of heaven dying like a dog – all of this to save us, all to God’s glory.

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