Numbers 21: Bronze Serpent doesn’t save; the look does


Numbers 21: Bronze Serpent doesn’t save; the look does

So far as I now see this story of the fiery serpents sent by God as punishment for their complaining and lack of faith in Numbers 21, it fails to convey anything close to a message of Universalism. In fact it seems to convey the opposite. Thus maybe I’ve been reading it with the wrong eyes.

There is much that troubles me about this story; however it’s pretty hard to minimize this saga because Jesus Himself uses it in His chat with Nicodemus in John 3: 14,15 comparing Himself to the uplifted Bronze Serpent.

First off, I don’t like the idea of God punishing with snake bites. For me that conjures images of coercion; return to Me in love or it’s snake-bite-city for you dude. Maybe those serpents were there all along (Deut 8: 14,15 suggests they were) and all God was doing was removing His protection. That’s substantively different, at least in my mind, but it is a scary and startling scene nonetheless.

Solution then is to make a Bronze Serpent and lift it up over the camp and those who look at it will live.
But how much sense does that actually make? Now we have a prime candidate for IDOL!

Look and live; the thing does not save, but your look does. Wouldn’t that be confusing? How close an analogy is it really to looking to Jesus to be saved? Jesus uses it yes, but doesn’t it seem kind of mechanistic and ritualistic? Almost like some kind of arbitrary magic…

And while I realize the story is not meant as a treatise on choice and free will, it is strongly implied that being saved was a matter of choice; ie choosing to look. And the consequences of not looking sure do appear both serious and permanent don’t they? If it’s a valid “choice” to be saved, then mustn’t it also be a valid choice to be lost?

Yet there do seem some number that did not look – and died! How stupid were THEY!!! Man; that’s just crazy!

Of course we can say what we always do; these deaths are not the final disposition of the individuals destiny. And I really am convinced that’s the way it is. But if all God is doing is weeding out the “super-rebels” so He can skim off the less truculent ones and then get to the more hardened later… I just don’t know… that just seems so awkward I guess. And it only deepens the mystery of how and why God uses violence the way it appears He does.

Anyway, my assertion is that this story is troublesome for the position of Universalism.

Any help?



Here’s my perspective:
Perhaps God deals with people in a language they can understand. In this case, it seems like the people understood exactly why they were suffering, and they repented.

I deal with my 2 year old in a much different way than my 14 year old. Two year olds can’t be reasoned with very well, but a 14 year old can usually be rational and reasonable.

What other courses of action might have worked? Moses could come out and give them a lecture, remind them to be grateful to be God’s chosen people, thankful instead of grumbling, because they were on their way to the Promised Land, etc… Somehow I don’t think that would have been at all effective. I get the idea that, but for the fear factor, things would quickly have decayed into chaos, the group would have disbanded as different factions arose. Moses would probably have been murdered, and much of the people lost in the wilderness, killed by animals, starvation, or other people. Some would have absorbed into other established people groups, or been captured and enslaved by them. A few might have managed to straggle back to the flesh pots of Egypt.

Moses didn’t have an easy job, and I think he might have forseen as much back at the burning bush when he insisted that he wasn’t able for it. It must have felt very unpleasant to be rooted up from his peaceful sheepherding and family life for such a task…



There are a lot of weird things about this story, and Jesus’ application of it in GosJohn 3:14-15 (during the discussion with Nicodemus). Not least that (as noted elsewhere in a thread recently) the bronze serpent is usually a metaphor for Satan!

Yet again, GosJohn also has the peculiar trait of Jesus making what appears to be double-meaning remarks that apply both to Himself and to Satan (as ruler of this world) but in different ways.

I’ve always understood the OT incident to amount to this: that the Israelites were sinning through idolatry, and God was trying to teach them (in a way they could understand) what the bad results of that would be, and so having to ‘look upon’ an idol made by Moses himself (of all people!) was a shaming event of repentance. Facing up to what they had done. Thus also explaining why some refused to look, if that amounted to a shaming event. (In many cultures, including the Near Middle East, the culture of shame and honor is such that some people would rather die than be shamed.)

One advantage to this explanation is that it also synchs up with the notion in the Gospels that (quoting the OT again) “they shall look upon Him Whom they have pierced” and thus be saved somehow. When we look upon Christ on the cross, and realize Who this really is and that He’s up there because we in our sins have put Him (of all people) up there–that can be a very powerful shaming realization, leading to repentance from our sins. (For a Jew that would be even stronger: they have to consider Jesus to be a deeply evil Satanic-level person if they take His authority and identity claims seriously, much moreso in conjunction with His attesting power, without accepting those claims. In that sense, they crucified someone they thought–or insisted–was a ‘bronze serpent’, and facing what they really did, and why, would be extremely difficult for them religiously. Similarly one of the toughest things for them to keep in mind, though they do try, is just how often they kept betraying God in the OT, and mistreating His prophets, despite everything God did for them. But I don’t want to pick on them exclusively: we all are sinners against even whatever we perceive of the good.)

God is still the One authoritatively saving us, either way (even in the case of the bronze serpent–God heals them, not the serpent!) But He expects people to cooperate with Him, subordinately, in that; just as He expects people to cooperate with Him, subordinately, in everything.


Something else worth thinking of, in terms of story contexts, but in conjunction with something once said by a notable universalist.

George MacDonald once wrote, that no one is saved who doesn’t yet prefer hell to his sins. In terms of this story, had the people submitted to the serpents as punishment for their idolatry, they would have been saved from their idolatry (even if not from the serpents per se. But saved from them, too, eventually, one way or another.)

That’s rather difficult, though (to say the least!) Facing up to their idolatry by literally facing up to an idol created by someone whom they knew would otherwise rather die than create an idol–who in a way has become sin for their sake–would be easier. So that was the method provided: Moses showed them that when they sin he has to do what he doesn’t at all want to do in order to save them, standing thus as an analogy to God.

Yet the notion of really accepting punishments in repentance, prior to salvation and restoration, sure runs hugely as a theme being taught to them by God throughout the OT. Which is probably connected to St. Paul’s teaching that we are called to share the death of Christ, as Christ voluntarily shares our deaths with us–the difference being that He resolves this in grace while we are supposed to resolve it in repentance. But the aim is the same both ways: to the sending away of sin and the fulfilling of all fair-togetherness. And if that sounds like baptismal language, and especially of Jesus’ own baptism compared to and in conjunction with our own, and moreover that St. Paul teaches we are baptized into the death of Christ–well, that’s on purpose. :mrgreen:

(Covered over by water in baptism? Hey: covered over in water as an image of death… what does that resemble in Jewish religious typography? Ohh… yeah: THE SWIRLING DEPTHS, i.e. the Abyss. In GosJohn we aren’t saved unless we are born of water and Spirit; in the Synoptics Jesus is coming to baptize us in Spirit and fire.)


But wouldn’t this go against the principle found in James 1:13, that God doesn’t tempt anyone with evil? If God instructed Moses to construct such an idol, then would it not be tempting Israel to sin?


I think it’s psychologically more aimed at requiring them either to face up (in several ways, even literally) to how they had already been sinning, or die.

By doing this, Moses was in a fashion crucifying himself–impaling himself up on that pole.

There’s a scene in the fourth season (or third, but I think fourth) of the television show The Unit, where one of the team had recently (in the previous episode) been tortured for information by someone who was shooting him up with ultra-rich heroin and then letting him go into worse and worse subsequent withdrawal. When he escapes, he secretly takes along a couple of remaining vials, because he’s afraid he’ll have to have it in order to do his job later. He doesn’t tell anyone because (rather foolishly) he doesn’t want to risk being thrown off the team altogether as a liability.

For various plot reasons, he’s called on to do a surveillance operation afterward (when the rest of the team is gone on a different mission)–which he’s also given other secret orders about–and he’s going through terrible withdrawal pains. So in order to get to the site, he decides to use one of the vials, and takes it out of the place he’s stashed them.

And his wife comes into the bathroom while he’s trying to shoot up (and failing).

She misunderstands. She thinks he just started the drug habit himself (the soldiers can’t tell their wives what they’ve been doing). But she tells him. “Is this what you need, soldier?” (She calls him that when she’s rebuking him in various ways.) “Okay then. Show me how to do it. Go on.” She squats down next to him. “Show me how it’s done. What do I have to do? Cook it in a spoon? What?”

He can’t bring himself to instruct her on how to do it; and after a few moments she collects the vials and flushes them. Then she starts berating him for getting hooked on drugs. (He breaks protocol and tells her it wasn’t his fault, he was tortured that way on a mission, and now he’s afraid he won’t be able to handle the new one. So she goes with him to help keep him steady enough to finish it.)

The point is that she knows that he knows that she would absolutely never involve herself with drugs because of how bad it is; and she and he both know that she was thereby demonstrating just how much he shouldn’t be doing them, by offering to sacrifice her own principles in helping him do the drugs. And she knows (or at least trusts) that he’ll get the message, even if she does in fact have to help him shoot up the drugs. But she has to be serious about going through with it, or her demonstration won’t work.

I take it that God is operating (with Moses’ cooperation) on a similar principle here. The people know they’re doing wrong, and they’ve got to face up to that and repent of it. One way to really drive that home would be for Moses, who would rather die than participate in idol-worship, to be instructed to do so by God in order to save their lives.

And of course the people aren’t instructed to bow down to the idol or actually worship it. They only have to look upon it: publicly, in front of the man they have betrayed by doing what they were doing before–whom they admire as their savior and leader, even if they complain about him.

Especially in a shame-and-honor culture, this would be a huge act of repentance for them to undertake: Moses has been instructed to do something shameful to himself, for their sake, because of the shameful thing that they’ve been doing–in order to save them.

Or, they can pridefully refuse to face up to how much they are hurting, not only themselves, but the one (and the One) who loves them most. It’s their choice–but they don’t have a choice about escaping the consequences of that choice.


So it’s sorta like the would-be runaway whose mother helps him pack his bags. Maybe even packs him a a gun, since there are many bad creeps out on the streets. And a warm blanket, it’s cold even over the steam vents, ya know. And mustn’t forget your new tennis shoes. You’re going to do a lot of walking. How about I drive you into the middle of the city and drop you off at the corner?, says mom. Thank God for reverse psychology.


Maybe more like the would-be runaway whose mother decides to go live out in the starving cold with him. But with more of an ethical censure regarding the action in question.

It might be reverse psychology, but I think it’s more about revelatory psychology. There are things I know I do that I wouldn’t be nearly so inclined to do (if at all), if people I love and look up highly to not only had to participate in them but also participate in being hurt by them.

Which is always true about any sin I do, in relation to God. Which I ought to know very well. But nevertheless–and if I’m being self-critical I can watch myself doing this, hopefully catching it at the moment, but at least in hindsight!–I pretty much always slide into forgetting that God is watching, that (due to my abuse of His grace, which He Himself even graciously allows) God is participating (by permission at least) in whatever sins I do, and that consequently (though this only happens because He allows it) this includes God participating in being hurt, with me, by the sins I do.

That doesn’t make God an evil person. It only means He loves even me, the sinner. It means I am being an evil person.

Which God, in love and in justice, toward me and toward anyone being hurt by my sin, is not always going to let me keep on doing. He’s going to get stricter about it, sooner or later, if I don’t start cooperating with Him instead.


Great truth in these words, Jason. This brings it full circle toward what Jesus was getting at about the Cross in John 3. His grace draws us toward Him, even we are repelled by the sight of our sins laid upon Him.