Fiery Serpents?

Fiery Serpents?

Tuesday’s Column: Dale Mail

Herodotus casually mentions that there were snakes that would fly from Egypt every year from the Sinai wilderness (Herodotus 2.75-76). This may strike fear in the heart of any snake-fearing person, but it sure is interesting. Marco Polo would also write in his travel log about flying venomous “birds” as well as snakes of gigantic proportions as he explored Asia. 

The Bible records several strange serpents and one passage in particular is especially fascinating. 

In the book of Numbers there’s an account that’s made many readers scratch their heads as they wonder what these fiery serpents are (21:6-9) that God sent to plague the Israelites. 

The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people so that many people died in Israel. So the people came to moses and said “we have sinned because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us. And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses make a fiery serpent and set it on a standard, and it shall come about that everyone who is bitten when he looks at it he shall live. And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard and it came about that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked at the bronze serpent he lived.”

Some commentators have suggested that perhaps the strange description is of a particular kind of venomous snake. Others have made the observation that the Hebrew word for serpent here (Saraph) could be symbolic to indicate their color since it means “burning ones.” Interestingly enough there are bronze colored serpents around today in Australia that are incredibly poisonous. Perhaps there’s something to this based on the Lord’s instruction to Moses to fashion a serpent made of brass. Of course this description could also literally be taken to mean snakes which either breathed fire, or were somehow on fire. God was, after all, punishing a people who had complained of their miraculous meals of manna. 

Though the identity of these fiery serpents may always be a mystery, the lessons taught to us through this event are powerful. The connections John will make (Jn. 3.14-15) as well as the Hebrew writer (12.2) focus on the crucifixion and the concept of looking to Jesus for our salvation. 

The relationship between belief and action here are also telling. Those Israelites that believed were led by that same belief to look— then were healed. If we believe Jesus can and will heal us of our sins, then that belief must lead us to the water (Act 2.38, Mk. 16.16). 

Dale Pollard

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