Then the Lord told him, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to the top of a pole. Those who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” So Moses made a snake out of bronze and attached it to the top of a pole. Whenever those who were bitten looked at the bronze snake, they recovered! — Numbers 21:8-9
To the modern mind, serpents hardly seem to be appropriate symbols of healing. And yet to this day, a serpent on a pole is a symbol of the medical profession. Greek mythology tells the story of Aesculapius, a revered healer, who used snakes in his healing practice. Statues of this mythological character show him holding a staff entwined with a serpent. And even beyond Greece, serpent cults were one of the most common cults in the whole of the Middle East in ancient times.
What connection there is between the cult, mythology, and the biblical story of Moses and the serpents is not clear. As we shall see, however, Jesus took the story seriously, and so should we.
The Israelites had once again been disappointed and frustrated, so they reverted to blaming Moses, who himself had just been dealt the shattering blow that he would not be allowed into the Promised Land. The people complained about everything, including the food that God miraculously provided for them on a daily basis. So they were exposed to snakes, many were bitten, and not a few died.
The people recognized that their sinfulness had contributed to their predicament, so they repented and begged Moses to pray for them, which he did. Moses received word from the Lord: “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to the top of a pole. Those who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” (Numbers 21:8). The result was astounding. “Whenever those who were bitten looked at the bronze snake, they recovered!” (21:9). Those who looked at the pole in obedience to God’s Word and in dependence upon God’s promise were healed.
Apparently, Moses’ snake on a pole was preserved for future generations. In the time of Hezekiah, it became an object of idolatrous worship (2 Kings 18:4). The people had succumbed to the age-old problem of substituting an aid to worship in place of the one to be worshiped. They were venerating a bronze snake on a wooden pole instead of trusting the eternal God on the heavenly throne.
Centuries later, Jesus told Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so I, the Son of Man, must be lifted up on a pole, so that everyone who believes in me will have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Jesus was repeating the age-old principle of blessing. It is God who heals both body and soul in response to faith and obedience, in the context of His eternal plan. And he regularly uses both modern medicine and old fashioned preaching to do it!
For further study: Numbers 21:1-20
Content taken from The One Year Book of Devotions for Men by Stuart Briscoe. Copyright ©2000. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.