Light from the Sidra


Numbers 19:1 - 22:1

The overwhelming impression we get from Chukkat is that sin is everywhere, affecting everything and everybody. We read of defilement from contact with a dead body. We read of sin in God’s greatest servant, Moses, when he failed to honour God before the people and so forfeited the right to enter the land of promise. We read of the death of Aaron, reminding us that even those in highest spiritual office have sinned and must die. Finally, we read of the people complaining (yet again) and, as a consequence, dying from snake bites.

Sin is everywhere; it affects us all. If Moses’ ill-tempered striking of the rock brought down the judgement of God on him, what hope is there for any of us? If the grumbling of the people rendered them worthy of death, who can escape the inevitable final judgement? Who does not stand guilty before Israel’s terrifyingly holy God?

But there is good news in the Sidra, too. Chukkat shows us that, although we are all guilty under the all-searching eye of the Most High, his mercy is freely available. The key to it all is the bronze serpent.

Because Israel complained against God, the camp became infested with poisonous snakes. The serpents were God’s instruments of judgement. But when the people confessed their sin to Moses the LORD provided a remedy for anyone who was bitten in the future - a bronze representation of a serpent placed on a pole so that all could see it. When any Israelite believed the word of God and looked at it, they were healed and did not die.

Was it magic? Of course not. Was it medicine? Obviously not. By instructing Moses to erect this strange work of art, the Almighty revealed to Israel an eternal principle for how he deals with sin, and how humans receive his forgiveness.

Have you ever seen a deadly snake caught? One way to do it is to use a long pole with a twin fork at the end. With the vee of the fork you pin the snake to the ground and then lift it in the air. The snake is rendered harmless. Then you kill it. The bronze serpent on the pole declared that God was able to make his people safe from his righteous judgement. This powerful visual aid declared to those who had been bitten by a serpent that God could nullify the effect of the venom which was at that moment working its deadly way into their system.

But what did God require of them? Faith. Nothing more. Nothing less. Judging by their previous track record some of the Israelites would have mocked the idea of salvation through faith in a bronze serpent, “I don’t need a bit of metal on a pole! I need a good doctor.” But the LORD required them to believe him; to have faith in his word and in his promise to heal and forgive.

But this raises an important question. The people were delivered from God’s judgement but, according to the Torah, sin must be punished. The Torah, particularly in the book of Leviticus teaches that atonement is made by the sacrifice of an innocent victim, and the bronze serpent was not a sin offering. The book of Numbers only gives us the bare details of what happened; the people had to wait for another 1,500 years for an explanation:

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John’s Gospel 3:15-16).

The bronze serpent was a picture, teaching us what would happen to one called “Son of Man” and “Son of God”, the Messiah. He, too, would be lifted up on a pole. He would die a shameful, excruciatingly painful death in full view of Israel. In his death he would suffer the fullness of the wrath of God against sin and by that death would render the judgement of God harmless to us.

Jesus knew that would happen to him. He predicted that he would be “lifted up”. And he was. It was for that reason he came into the world. And when the divine justice had been satisfied, the Almighty raised him from the dead. Just as God offered life for a look at the serpent in the wilderness, so he promises forgiveness and life to all who look to his Son. Just as he restored physical life to all who looked in faith to the bronze serpent, he bestows eternal life on all who repent and believe in Jesus.

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