Heading Home: Walking with Jesus to the Cross — Day Thirteen


Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Remember yesterday’s reading from John 3? Yeah, well this is the story that Jesus was referring to in his midnight discussion with Nicodemus. This is the story of the lifting up in the desert. This is the story of looking up to be saved. This is the story of salvation coming in surprising ways. This is the story that defies expectations and experience. This is the story that freaks me out.

So the people are whining again. What else is new? And don’t you just love the quote we’re given from that whine? “For there is NO food and no water, and we detest this MISERABLE FOOD.” So . . . which is it? No food or miserable food? Hmmm. . . sounds like some kids I’ve raised. V – e – r – y familiar kinda whine, don’t you think?

But here’s what freaks me out — God sent a bunch of snakes to nip their way through those whiners. Yee-ouch!! I do not like the idea of God sending snakes to anybody. Nope, I do not. ESPECIALLY not poisonous snakes. 

But here’s the point of that visitation, I think: it shook those people right out of their whining, big time! You gotta wonder if these people didn’t connect some dots that aren’t actually there — just like I do sometimes. Something dreadful happens and they see the error of their ways. And then they make the leap to thinking that their behavior caused that bad thing to happen, and then they make a further leap to say that God caused that bad thing to happen because of their bad behavior. Hmmmm. . . I’m not so sure about that. But . . .

That’s how the story has come down to us, and God has allowed it to come down in this way. So clearly, there is something for us to learn from it, exactly as it is told to us. Here’s one thing it tells me: it’s a good idea to be aware of God’s active presence in our lives, come hell or high water. For good or for ill, God doesn’t pack up and leave us. God cares enough to get our attention and then to set us on the path of healing. And here’s another thing — we have to stop and look at our behavior, say we’re sorry for it, and then ask for restoration, healing and a re-start.

Okay, maybe I’m not quite so freaked out about it all.

Lord God of snakes and people, teach me through your word, even through the parts that shock and puzzle me. Help me to search for lessons/answers/help/understanding. And help me to balance the questionable stuff against all the unbelievably beautiful and life-giving stuff and somehow, learn from all of it. Thank you.

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  1. Diana, I’d never made that connection before, about Moses lifting the image of the serpent to get the people to look up and be saved. And it is hard to understand why God does what He does in many parts of the Bible, but then again, He is beyond our full understanding, His ways being higher than ours.
    Guess we simply have to choose to have faith and trust Him.

    • Oh, yeah, that connection is there (and is often listed in some of the study Bibles, I think). One of my early sermons was about looking up and focused on the John 3 passage — it’s always been a powerful story in my life. And yes, we do have to choose to believe. But not without questions, wonderings, musings. God gave us minds and wills for a reason, I do believe, and we know from scripture that God never shies away from a good wrestle, right?

  2. Elaine Reed says

    Diana, I love your everyday language–and picking up on the no food– miserable food complaint.

    I am afraid if I had been one of that crowd I would have been complaining too–40 yrs.! But also, poor Moses. What could he do?

    I’m not sure that God specifically sent those snakes, or if Moses with God’s guidance , used nature around him to teach the people a lesson. We do seem to need tragedies to help us realize we are not in control of the world and God is not a magician at our beck and call to do whatever we want.
    Sometimes we have to live awhile to see that God is always with us and works out all things together for good.

    Thanks for your thoughts and thought provoking words.

    • Oh, I’d have been chief whiner, I’m sure! It’s not just for kids, that whining business, is it?? Interesting observation about how God teaches us through nature — or whatever is at hand. And yes, living longer does help give us much better hindsight, doesn’t it??

  3. Your comments about the Israelites complaints about food literally made me laugh out loud! I’d never noticed that distinction of ‘no food’ vs ‘miserable food’ before. And yes, they do sound very similar to complaints I hear at my house every day!
    Thank you for giving me a new lens to look at this reading (and most likely, others) through.

  4. Margie Bicknell says

    Poison snakes sent by God….boy, I must have skipped over that bit in Exodus. But when life gets our attention in a really icky way, and we fall on our faces….well, it’s a blessing to know that God is right there ready to lend us a hand to get up, figure out what we did wrong to get us in this pickle, and hopefully never meet those snakes again.
    Food complaints…oh yeah.