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.