Numbers 21 and the Wilderness Journey: Salvation, Overcoming and Victory!
21:4–9, Initial salvation. The bronze serpent on the pole is a prophetic picture of salvation at the cross of Yeshua from the sting of death brought on by sin (John 3:14–15; 1 Cor 15:55–57). This is a picture of the believer’s initial salvation.
21:10–22:1, The wilderness trek. Here is a recounting of the Israelites’ wilderness trek before entering the Promised Land. For the Israelites, this was a time of testing, refining, building of faith, and learning obedience. This is a picture of the spiritual walk of the believer through the wilderness of this physical life.
21:14–35, The wilderness struggle. While crossing the wilderness, the Israelites had to fight and overcome the enemy—that is, those who would keep them from fulfilling their YHVH-ordained destiny to possess the land and inheritance he had promised them. First came the fighting and overcoming, followed by the victories. The life of the believer is one of spiritual struggle, as well, against the world, the flesh and the devil. (See Rom 7:14–25; 2 Cor 10:3–5; Eph 6:10–18.)
21:10, 14–18, Salvation in the wilderness. Here we read how Israel was refreshed with water from the rock. Isaiah speaks about the wells of salvation (Isa 12:3). There is a springing up of joy and praise (verse 17) that comes as victory is experienced, and as YHVH makes rivers to flow out of seemingly dry and barren situations (verse 18). We, too, are called to come to the rivers of salvation, the river of life and to become a river of life ourselves to all those with whom we come into contact (John 7:37–39). Yeshua is the source of that living water; he is the spiritual Rock and source of water that never runs dry (John 4:10, 13–14; 1 Cor 10:4).
Numbers 21:4–9, Fiery serpent. The plague of fiery serpents was a righteous judgment Elohim brought upon Israel for murmuring and unbelief. Israel had “sharpened their tongues like a serpent” (Ps 140:3) and “their throat [was] an open sepulcher; with their tongues have…used deceit; the poison of asps [was] under their lips” (Rom 3:13). All this was directed at Elohim and Moses. As a result of their sin, they reaped what they had sown. Elohim loosed fiery serpents upon the Israelites to bite and sting to death the unbelieving murmurers.
The wilderness Elohim led the Israelites through was full of fiery serpents and scorpions (Deut 8:15), yet this is the only account in the Torah of these creatures ever attacking Israel. YHVH had protected them to this point, but this one time he pulled back his hand of providential protection and grace allowing them to experience the due recompense of their sinful actions.
How often has our merciful Father withheld the just desserts of our faithless, rebellious and abominable action against him and graciously protected us from the full consequences of our sin? If we fail to hear his soft voice of correction, he will deal more harshly with us until our attention is gained (Ps 32:8–9). All he has to do is withdraw his hand of protection that restrains the judgments we all deserve for our sin and the “fiery serpents” that are all around us will likewise attack us.
Remember what happened to Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts is an example of this (Acts 5:1–11). Job experienced a similar situation as well.
Israel’s Murmuring. Israel complained for lack of food and water. In unbelief they concluded and confessed (literally prophesied upon themselves a curse) that they would die in the wilderness. Elohim gave them the fulfillment of their faithless delusions—serpents to sting them and leave them physiologically in a parched and burning condition. (The poison of these snakes actually leaves the victim burning with a fiery pain in his body and a desperately dry and thirsty condition [See Adam Clarke’s Commentary, vol. 1, p. 684]). This occurred with the quail also. They complained with their mouths and lusted for meat and Elohim gave them so much quail that it “came out of their nostrils” (Num 11:20). Many were struck dead in judgment.
What is the lesson of this story? That for which we lust or that which we fear will come upon us, for Elohim allows those very things to rise up, attack us and judge us. Why? So that the false gods of our hearts will be exposed and we will, as a result, see the error of our ways, repent and turn back to obedient faith to the one true Elohim. Few understand this method of operation of Elohim, but the Scriptures reveals this as one of the ways he deals with his people to help them to grow up spiritually.
Salvation. Israel repented and received salvation from the sting of death by looking upward toward the brass or bronze (bronze representing judgment) serpent on the pole. Of course, no less than Yeshua himself reveals to us that this serpent is a pictures himself dying on the tree as a sin offering and source of our salvation (John 3:14–15 and 12:32).
Even the Jewish sages admit that the serpent did not heal the afflicted Israelites, but looking upward unto heaven granted them salvation and healing. (See Wisdom 16:4–12.)
Parallels between the bronze serpent and Yeshua
Yeshua likened his death on the cross to the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness (John 3:14–15). Let’s explore the spiritual implications of the bronze serpent as it prophetically pointed to Yeshua the Messiah.
- Both the serpent and Messiah were lifted up on a pole.
- Israel was to look up to the brass serpent to be healed physically; sinners are to look up to Messiah to be saved.
- YHVH provided salvation from the sting of death from no other source but the serpent. Similarly, there is salvation in no other name but Yeshua (Acts 4:12).
- If the Israelites looked at bronze serpent they were healed and lived; if sinful man looks at Messiah he will live.
- Both the serpent and the cross are merely symbols of Elohim’s grace and mercy. They simply point one to YHVH in heaven who heals those who believe him and have faith in him.
A Type of the Devil. The Bible calls the devil a great red dragon or serpent (Rev 12:3) whose venom inflames men’s sinful passions through his fiery darts aimed at humans (Eph 6:16). Fiery serpent is the Hebrew word saraph the plural of which is seraphim, which is a type of an angelic, flaming spirit (Heb 1:7). Though physical snakes bit the Israelites, this is nevertheless a picture of Satan, the fallen angelic being who is now the serpent and enemy of both YHVH and man.
For Our Example. Israel experienced these things for our examples (1 Cor 10:1–12). What they went through and how they reacted to various situations is literally a mirror held up for our benefit for us to see ourselves as we really are, so that we will not repeat their mistakes. We owe them a debt of gratitude, for we are able to gain spiritually by their experience if we will lean from their mistakes by not repeating them.
Numbers 21:5, Our soul loathes this light bread.The Jewish sages teach that the ability to expound the Torah was granted primarily to those who ate the manna. That is why they were granted the opportunity to delve deeply into the meaning of the words and could draw out the deep meaning of the Words of Elohim (TheArtScroll Davis Edition Baal haTurim Chumash/Bamidbar, p. 1582). Who is the manna from heaven that has the words of life and truth (John 6:32–51, 63)? What did Yeshua say that believers must do with this manna (John 6:53–58)? Those who complain about YHVH’s manna cannot properly ingest it or appreciate it, whereas those who have a heart of gratitude and who relish YHVH’s Word will derive much benefit therefrom. How much do you love Yeshua—the Living Torah and the Written Torah? Many profess to love Yeshua, the Living Torah, but spend great energy attempting to prove that the Written Torah is no longer for us today. This is impossible to prove, for the Scriptures clearly teach that Yeshua was the Word of Elohim made flesh (John 1:1,14). Make no mistake about it: to destroy the Torah-Word of Elohim is to destroy Yeshua! How much spiritual revelation will those people receive who carve up and destroy portions of YHVH’s Word (both the Tanakh and the Testimony of Yeshua, which are an outgrowth of and founded upon the Tanakh) saying it is no longer for us today? What was YHVH’s response to those Israelites who murmured against the bread and water he provided for them? Did he not allow snakes (evil spirits; see Luke 10:19) to torment them until they were destroyed or finally repented? Let’s demonstrate that we have an attitude of gratitude for all of the Father’s Word (from Genesis to Revelation) by believing, loving and obeying that Word!
Numbers 21:6, YHVH sent fiery serpents.YHVH judged Israel for murmuring by sending fiery serpents among them. How often do we lash out with our tongues to kill, steal, destroy, and to sow discord among brethren (which YHVH hates and calls an abomination in Prov 6:16–19)? The mouths of the unrighteous are an open tomb spewing out death and destruction (Rom 3:13; Prov 18:21). Many times it is the little comments, the verbal innuendos, the sharp vocal tones, the little sarcasms, the cryptic comments, the terse criticisms, complaints and even non-verbal communications in passing that do the most damage to others and grieve the Spirit of Elohim in our lives and in our congregations. Think about this. Pray that your words may speak life, not death, to others. Pray that you would be so full of the love and the Spirit of Yeshua and that no destructive words would ever come from your mouth.
The fiery serpents are also a spiritual picture of what? (Note 1 Cor 15:51–57. Especially focus on verses 55 and 56.) What are the consequences or sting of sin and the fate of the wicked? (Review the following scriptures: Prov 8:36; 10:24, 29–31; 11:5–7, 18, 19, 27, 29; Isa 3:9, 11; 57:20–21; Rom 7:5; 1 Cor 6:9–11; Gal 5:19–21; Gal 6:7–8.)
Numbers 21:7, We have sinned, for we have spoken against YHVH.The Jewish sages teach that Israel was punished with serpents because they acted in the manner of the serpent who spoke slanderously against Elohim when deceiving Adam and Eve. Likewise, the Israelites spoke malicious slander against YHVH when they criticized the manna he had sent them.
Both incidents involved food, which is a great area of human weakness and one to which humans are subject to temptation (The ArtScroll Baal haTurim Chumash/Bamidbar, p. 1608). Can you see the parallels here? Who created Adam and Eve and gave them instructions concerning the tree of knowledge? Likewise, who gave them the manna in the wilderness and later identified himself as the spiritual manna in the Gospel of John (see John 6:51)? Satan spoke evil against YHVH-Yeshua (in his pre-incarnate state), and later incited Israel to speak against the manna (a type of Yeshua, the Bread of Life). Satan also tempted Yeshua over the issue of food and manna in Matthew 4. What are the implications here? Consider the relationship between physical and spiritual food, physical and spiritual food that is forbidden of YHVH versus that which is permitted, and how Satan uses the issue of food to try to turn us away from the path of righteousness and obedience to YHVH.
Samson Hirsch in his commentary on the fiery serpents notes that the serpents had been there all along dogging the Israelites, but had been held back by the gracious hand of YHVH such that the Israelites were unaware of the serpents’ presence (The Pentateuch/Numbers, p. 381). The sin of doubt, unbelief and malicious slander against YHVH and his anointed servant, Moses, caused YHVH to remove his protective hand of grace—as a judgment to bring Israel unto repentance—allowing the serpents, who had been there all along, access to the malcontents. The same situation occurred when Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Set-Apart Spirit and they were struck dead (Acts 5).
What are the implications here?
When we have so grieved the Spirit of YHVH and resisted the Ruach’s entreaties to walk in right relationship with and obedience to Elohim, so that he can bless us, does he not sometimes withhold his hand of grace and allow the evil one to attack us to bring us to repentance? Are you repeatedly dogged by (demonic?) attacks in a certain area of your life? Is YHVH calling you to repent? On the other hand, how many would-be attackers are lurking in the shadows of your life waiting for you to sin, or waiting for you to step out from under the blood of Yeshua and to put down the shield of faith by which the fiery darts of the Evil One against you are quenched (Eph 6:16)? How often do you think that the gracious and merciful hand of YHVH protects you from the attacks of the fiery serpents in your life? Probably more than you realize. Give him praise and rejoice.
Numbers 21:8–9, Moses made a serpent of brass. The serpent on the bronze pole is another prophetic picture of the redemptive work of Yeshua. What are the parallels? Why is the pole bronze? What is bronze a metaphor for in the Scriptures? (See Lev 26:19 and Deut. 28:23.) Why is it a snake and how does that picture Yeshua? Why a pole? (See John 3:14 and 12:32.)
Summary: Why the Biblical Metaphor of a Snake in a Tree for Yeshua?
The Word of Elohim from Genesis to Revelation is a mother lode, a rich tapestry and a well spring of interconnected poetic images, metaphors, symbols and truths of all sorts all pointing to Yeshua the Messiah—the Savior and Redeemer of mankind. From cover to cover, the Bible is the story of man’s redemption from his fallen state and his separation from YHVH Elohim because of sin. The snake in the tree is yet one more example of the glorious message of the good news that man can be redeemed, saved, delivered from the consequences and curse of his sin against his Creator.
But have you ever wondered why Scripture uses a snake, of all things—such an obvious symbol of satanic evil—as a symbol for our precious and beautiful Messiah Yeshua?
In Genesis chapter three, the Scriptures introduce us to the concept of a snake in a tree. The story is well known to all. A serpent—a biblical metaphor for Satan the devil—insinuates himself into the idyllic garden setting of Eden and introduces to the first humans the concept of sin and rebellion against Elohim, thus upsetting this paradisiac setting of peaceful relationship between heaven and earth.
After the “fall” of man, the biblical narrative then introduces to us that a subsequent and ongoing struggle would occur from that point forward between the snake and man. But the good news out of this sordid story was the fact a God-Man figure would eventually come on the scene who would defeat the snake, who would crush his head once and for all (Gen 3:15). This is first prophecy in Scripture, written some 1,500 years before the birth of Yeshua, that predicts the coming of the Messiah or Anointed One from heaven who would defeat Satan and deliver humans from this serpent’s clutches.
In the course of human history, the Messiah finally arrived on the scene, defeated the serpent on a cross shaped tree, and, after the fact, and in perfect 20-20 hindsight, the apostolic writer could write, “Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the [penalty of the] Torah-law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’)” (Gal 3:13).
So the Torah’s instruction to the rebellious and sin-cursed Israelites to look up to the bronze serpent hanging on a tree for healing and redemption is a double entendre that not only speaks of deliverance from the sting of sin which is death, but of Messiah who would be the agent through whom that deliverance and victory would come (1 Cor 15:55–56). Moreover, bronze is a biblical metaphor for judgment and there is also a connection between the bronze serpent and the bronze or brazen altar in the Tabernacle of Moses. It was upon this altar—a prophetic picture of the cross—that sin offerings were made and the children of Israel were redeemed from the consequences, curse or sting of sin which is death.
All of these connections that point to the message of the gospel are hidden in the Bible in plain sight for those who have eyes to see and for those who have a heart to diligently and passionately dig for them in the gold mine of the Word of Elohim. Combined, each of the strands of this rich tapestry all point to Elohim’s great love for those he created in his own image and to his desire to have an eternal familial relationship with them in the idyllic setting of paradise regained called the New Jerusalem from above.