Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9
The text for today doesn’t seem like altogether good news.
Trudging through the seemingly never-ending wilderness, with nothing to eat or drink but miserable manna, the people speak against God and Moses. And how does God respond? By afflicting them with venomous snakes. The people beg Moses to intercede, and he does, and God, rather than removing the snakes, sends a cure for snakebite. They’ll still get bitten; that danger doesn’t go away, although God does offer healing if they look in the right direction.
It would be fairly easy to gloss over the aspects of this passage that we find troubling, and focus on God sending healing right where we need it. There’s no doubt that such is a part of the meaning of this text. But it’s not all of it, and it doesn’t recognize the harsh realities that the text holds up for our attention. What’s happening in this passage is that the exodus generation is being weeded out and replaced by a new generation. The book of Numbers is coming to terms with the fact that the old generation will not see God’s promises come to fruition. On this long, dangerous journey, some simply will not reach the destination.
Scholars agree that Numbers has two distinct sections, marked off by two censuses. The first census is in chapter one, in which the descendants of each of the twelve tribes are named, up to the present generation. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, none of these men will live to inhabit Canaan (14:28-30). The second census, in chapter 26, names the generation that will be poised on the edge of Canaan when the book reaches its end.
Between the two censuses, among stories of battle and ritual regulations, the people repeatedly complain and rebel against Moses. God’s anger is kindled by this rebellion, and God sends a plague (11:33), inflicts Miriam with leprosy (12:10), and more than once asserts that this complaining generation will die out before Canaan is reached (14:20-25 and 28-35; 20:12). It’s as if God is picking off the older generation a little bit at a time; Moses admits as much, when he urges God not to kill them all at once (14:13-19).
The narrative of the snakes in chapter 21 is of a piece with these stories of complaining and rebellion. This time, however, the people speak out not only against Moses but against God as well. There is no water, and the manna which God has provided for them is, as the people say, “miserable.” Earlier the people looked back with rose-colored glasses at the abundant foods they left behind in Egypt (fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, garlic!); now they’re stuck with food that tastes like “cakes baked with oil” (11.9), and they have had enough. The people may sound like spoiled children, but their complaints are not light; they have been in the wilderness of Kadesh for 40 years, and they don’t seem to have made much progress.
Unlike the narrative of the flood, where God is moved by grief, here we can assume, because of previous references in Numbers to God’s anger, it is indeed anger, inspired by the people’s lack of trust that God will provide, that moves God to send poisonous snakes. Many of the Israelites are killed by the snakes, and the people repent and plead with Moses to intercede on their behalf. Moses does intercede, and God instructs him to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole; all who look at the bronze snake are healed. Remember, though, that even those who are healed will not live to reach Canaan.
One of the most difficult questions that this text clearly raises is that of the character of God. What kind of God is this who inflicts death on people for their lack of trust? Recall that the people have been to Sinai; they have received the law and are bound in covenant with God. Their lack of faith is, to the writers of this passage, a violation of the covenant, and therefore worthy of punishment. But God does also provide the remedy. It is notable that God does not remove the snakes, but provides a means for healing in the midst of danger. God brings healing precisely where the sting is the worst.
Another question that this text raises is what to make of the failure of the exodus generation to reach the Promised Land. The narratives of rebellion in which God sends disaster upon some of the people function in large part to give theological meaning to the historical reality of the dying out of the earlier generation. The lack of faith they exhibited in the wilderness, the logic goes, rendered them unfit to inhabit the land. But what I find remarkable about the Israelites is simply the fact that they go on.
How do they do this? In the midst of their desperation at a journey that was even more arduous than they ever would have imagined, how did they go on? How would we, how do we, go on when faced with a similar circumstance? What do we do when something for which we have hoped and prayed and labored recedes farther and farther into the distance? If someone never reaches the financial security he or she has worked so hard for, if another is never able to heal a relationship that is long broken, if I never quite become the person I’ve imagined myself to be — what then?
Again God’s provision of healing in this passage is instructive. Even in our worst failures and disappointments, God provides. God offers healing for our wounds, relationship for our loneliness, and faithfulness for our faithlessness. God doesn’t remove the sources of our suffering, but God makes the journey with us, providing what we most deeply need, if we but look in the right direction.