Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9
The book of Numbers from the Hebrew Bible is not well-represented in the lectionary; only three different texts (Numbers 6, 11, and 21) are included. Our text this morning could be preached in a couple of different ways.
As a single textual unit, Numbers 21:4-9 is, with the possible exception of the reference to Mount Hor, a single and coherent unit.2 It follows an easily determined structure based on its dialogical form:
- Narrative transition (verse 4a)
- Complaint and resolution (verses 4b-9)
- Narrative introduction (verse 4b)
- Complaint proper: Lack of food and water (verse 5)
- First divine response: Punishment via serpent (verse 6)
- Repentance and intercession (verse 7)
- Second divine response: Instruction and compliance (verses 8-9)
In this context, no one comes off well until the end. The children of Israel become impatient3 and complain4 against God and Moses because they have no food or water (note that the Hebrew word lechem is used twice in this verse5). This represents an escalation in the tradition; previously, the object of the complaint was Moses.6
Moreover, if we extend the textual unit back to include verses 1-3,7 the complaint of the children of Israel gets put into sharper relief. Why? Because in that section, God hears the voice of the Hebrews (verse 3a) and gives the indigenous Canaanites into their hands, so that the Hebrews utterly destroy them (verse 3b). God gives the Hebrews their first military victory in the Promised Land, and their response is to complain about God’s provisions for them.8
In this larger context, Numbers 21:1-9 is structurally identical to Exodus 14-15. In the Exodus text, the liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt is finally accomplished (Exodus 14), and Moses, the Hebrews (verses 1-19), and Miriam the prophet (verses 20-21) sing a song of thankful praise. But this moment of thankful praise is followed by the first instance of complaining against Moses, because they had no clean water to drink (verses 22-27).
The complaint in Numbers 21:5 issues in God’s first response: to send snakes into the camps that bit some of the Hebrews who then died. This is not the result that we readers would expect.9 In response, the children of Israel acknowledge that they have sinned against God and Moses, and they ask Moses to intercede on their behalf to God. As a result, God instructs Moses to construct a snake of bronze (or copper) and to put it on a pole, with the promise that everyone who looks at it will live. That is where the narrative ends.
From this point of view, the narrative follows the typical narrative arc: sinful behavior, followed by a negative divine response, then repentance, and finally, divine restoration (see, for example, the cycles in Judges). Those last two elements are particularly relevant to the use of this text in the New Testament lesson for this week, John 3:14-15, where the Son of Man must be lifted up, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The physical gift of healing in Numbers is transformed into the spiritual gift of salvation in John. Looking at the serpent is transformed into believing in the Son of Man, but the same dynamic is clearly at play.
When viewing this passage as part of the Hebrew Bible tradition as a whole, a second vantage point emerges. The serpent is referenced again in 2 Kings 18:4, which tells us that Hezekiah “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.” That too has a parallel in the book of Exodus.
While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah, the children of Israel asked Aaron to “make gods (‘elohim) for us, who shall go before us” (verse 2), which is made in verse 3 in the form of a golden calf, and introduced to the Hebrews in verse 4.
This story of the golden calf is widely read as a polemic against the golden calves of the Northern Kingdom (see 1 Kings 12:28-30).10 Both of these objects (the calf of Exodus 32 and the serpent of Numbers 21) share an echo with Israel’s later history. In this canonical context, the question of historical priority is irrelevant; it does not matter whether an historical Aaron forged an actual golden calf, or whether an historical Moses forged an actual serpent.
What matters instead is the idea that anything, regardless of its origin, can become an idol for the community of faith. It does not matter what the idol is made of or whether the original intention of the created thing was good, pure, or even salvific. Those things in our lives that represent God’s saving action in human history can all too often replace God instead.11
From this vantage point, Numbers 21 challenges us to consider what our idols are. As I write this in late 2020, have we elevated in-person worship to an idol, like the bronze serpent that saved the Hebrews if they would but look at it? What about a conservative Supreme Court majority? What about the other things that started life as an expression of faithfulness but became the be-all and end-all of that faith? A stance on abortion or a woman’s right to choose? Or gay marriage? Or school integration? Or Black Lives Matter? Or the Second Amendment? Or anything else?
This larger canonical context of Numbers 21 together with Exodus 32, 1 Kings 12, and 2 Kings 18 reminds us how easily our ideals become our idols. Further, it challenges us to be ever vigilant about our primary commitment to the risen Savior and our secondary commitments to everything else.
- “Reality Bites,” a 1994 romantic comedy starring Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, and Ben Stiller.
- For example, Philip J. Budd, Numbers (WBC 5 [Waco: Word, 1984]), 233. The reference to Mount Hor is often seen as a piece of redaction, but I am not certain about that; see note 7 below.
- watiqtsar [BDB 894; see also Job 21:4; Judges 10:16; 16:16; Micah 2:7; Zechariah 11:8].
- wayedabber be [BDB 181 translates to speak “against,” with a sense of “hostility”; see also Numbers 12:1, 8; Job 19:18; Psalm 50:20; 78:19].
- For example, Exodus 15:24; 16:2 [Moses and Aaron, as in Numbers 14:2]; 17:2; Numbers 20:3. Note that in Numbers 11:1, 4 the complaint is not explicitly addressed against any specific individual.
- Jacob Milgrom, Numbers (JPS Torah Commentary [New York: JPS, 1989]), 173 thinks that the second use of lechem contradicts the first, but that is unnecessary; see, e.g., De Regt and Wendland, A Handbook on Numbers (Miami: United Bible Societies , 457 “Here the Israelites exaggerate by saying there is no food to eat or water to drink, and then they complain about the quality of their food.”
- Num 21:1-3 is almost certainly a secondary insertion in its present literary context. The reference to Mount Hor in 21:4 hearkens back to 20:22-29. See, e.g., George Buchanon Gray, Numbers (ICC; Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1903), 272; Martin Noth, Numbers (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), 154; Budd, Numbers, 230.
- Timothy Ashley, Numbers (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 402.
- Baruch A. Levine, Numbers (YABC; New Haven; Yale University Press, 2000), 87: “God is entirely punitive in response to the complaints of the people.” Elizabeth Webb’s treatment of the troubling aspects of this text is superb; see https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1225 (accessed 26 November 2020).
- Note the following sources: Brevard S. Childs, Exodus (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), 560; Thomas Dozeman, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 686-87; Martin Noth, Exodus (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 246. An alternative view is offered by John I. Durham, Exodus (WBC; Waco: Word, 1987), 420.
- Levine, Numbers, 90: “expressing the attitude of zealous monotheists of that period to the effect that any iconic symbol is susceptible to degeneration.”