From death to life – Tuesday, 5th Week of Lent – Numbers 21:4-9/ John 8:21-30
In order to understand the immediate text of today’s text, we need to place it in its historical background. The Israelites are near the Promised Land, approaching it from the south. Edom has denied Israel the right of passage (20:14-21). The Israelites came to Mount Hor where Aaron died (20:22-29). Aaron was Moses’ brother and Israel’s first high priest. The king of Ar’ad, a Canaanite who lived in the Negeb (southern portion of the Promised Land) fought against Israel, but Israel prevailed (21:1-3).
Scripture tells us that the people of Israel become ‘impatient’ because of the long land route around Edom to the promised land and began to speak against God and Moses while addressing their angst to Moses specifically. ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food, and water; and we detest this miserable food.’ This isn’t the first complaint of this nature that the Israelites have made. Eight times prior to this they have complained against God.
Their complaints about the tastelessness of the food represents a kind of tastelessness of their own, their ingratitude to God who fed them in the desert and prevented them from dying of hunger. Thanksgiving to God for his blessings to us is often one of the prayers we make least often. This could be the first of our reflections from this text; do I have an attitude of gratitude?
In the text of Numbers 21, the utterance of the complaint is immediately followed by the statement, “Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died” (v. 6). The Israelites are stunned by the presence of these deadly serpents. Neither the narrator nor God ever explicitly says that God sent the snakes because the people complained. Yet the people recognized that what is happening is a punishment for their complaints. The people name their sin and quickly repent, asking Moses to intercede with Yahweh to save them. We too know our sin and ought to name it. Naming our sin is an acknowledgment of our wrong doing rather than finding a reason to shift the blame. But then we need to also go one step ahead and repent!
On reading this text, one might be drawn to asking, ‘what kind of God is this who inflicts death on people for their lack of trust’? Yet while it is easy to question the wrath of God one easily forgets that it is the same people who received the law and were bound in covenant with God. A covenant that made them his people under his protection.
Yet God is merciful even to an ungrateful people; but this time with a twist. God does not give the people what they ask for. They want Moses to get God to ‘take away the serpents from them’ (Numbers 21:7). But the serpents do not go away, nor do they stop biting. Instead, God instructs Moses on how to heal the people who are bitten; they are still bitten, but they live.
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. So, here is a lesson for us to reflect upon. Deliverance does not come in the way that we expect. Rather than removing the snakes, God sent a cure for snakebite. They’ll still get bitten; that danger doesn’t go away, but God does offer healing if they look in the right direction.
The same can be said of us. God does not always answer us the way we want and take away that which bothers us. The ‘snakes’ in our life, poisonous as they may be do not disappear, rather we get to gaze at Christ on the cross who brings healing to our lives and teaches us to live with the reality of pain and suffering in our midst but now with his saving grace.