They detested the manna. That’s what Israel told God in Numbers 21:5. You remember they had been given the food in response to their grumbling (Exodus 16). After a while, they became bored with the blessing (Numbers 11), and then they reached the point of detesting it. As with all ungrateful people, they didn’t realize their response was an indictment of them rather than the manna.
So God sent them snakes—poisonous ones. They had complained about the bread from heaven so He gave them something from the wilderness. They took issue with the manna that was to preserve their lives so they experienced the bite of serpents that took the lives of some and left others in great agony and distress (Allen). They confessed their sin to Moses and asked him to pray for them and he did. (I’m continually amazed at the great compassion displayed by Moses. He is challenged at every turn and yet responds with amazing grace. He’s an example for leaders everywhere).
God mercifully answered Moses’ prayer—but His answer was unlike anything any of them had anticipated. He told Moses to fashion a snake out of bronze and put it up on a pole. Whoever looked at the snake would be healed.
Yahweh could have saved Israel any number of ways—one of the simplest being to just to say the word and it would be done. But He chose to heal them in a highly unique way.
That He did so encourages us to explore His choice in order to gain some insight into His ways. For example, looking at a snake on a pole certainly made Israel confront their sin. It would remind them of the bite they had suffered, which would remind them of the complaining that had brought it about. Complaining was something that had plagued them since they left Egypt. They lapsed into it whenever their circumstances became difficult. Looking at the snake was a painful reminder of what they had brought upon themselves. We’ve all known that feeling, haven’t we?
We also see God’s perfect sense of justice. Complaining is a spiritual toxin so He sent poisonous snakes to punish those who had engaged in it. The punishment fit the crime.
Finally there’s the truth that God saved them through something detestable. Snakes were cursed, unclean and unloved since the time of Genesis 3. That God used them to punish Israel is not surprising. That He chose to use one to save Israel is. The point in the text seems to be that whether it was detested manna or a detested snake, God could use it to work the nation’s salvation. Israel should learn to trust and praise rather than grumble and complain.
But it doesn’t stop there.
The snake wasn’t used merely to save Israel, it was used to pre-figure Jesus (John 3:14-15). God used a detestable snake to point people to His Son? He did! In the first century, the cross was a detestable way to die (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). It was in the same category as snakes. And God used the death of Jesus on a detested cross to provide the basis for the world to be reconciled to Him.
The message from Numbers 21 is that God is with us. He is in control. And He is good—right down to knowing exactly how to deal with the detested. As we journey through our wilderness, there are things we can find to detest as well. A lot of people put a lot of time and energy into doing just that. This episode teaches us that we are better off to focus on our Father. He is more powerful than whatever we detest, and He knows exactly how to use the detested for glory.