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. . . But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Then God sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. (Num 21:4-7)
It had been a long, hot, thirsty haul. The fact that it was their own fault they were where they were was easily forgotten. Despite God’s miraculous deliverance out of Egypt, His care, presence and provision, the Israelites had earlier chosen to fear human giants instead of the God who created the universe. They had ignored the truth spoken by God and were enduring the consequences: 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
Taking their frustration out on God and Moses was nothing new for them. They’d gone down this road several times. It was always “Why have you brought us out here, Moses?” They not only didn’t honor God for His deliverance in answer to their cries, and trust Him to bring them to the promised land, but left Him out of the equation altogether. They showed no fear of Almighty God, despising His provision of manna to sustain them on their journey.
When I picture Moses at this juncture, I see a man completely bald from years of tearing his hair out!
As rebellion always does, this brought fresh consequences. God sent snakes among the people, and many died. This was punishment, but it was much more than that. For those who lived, these snakes would be the ladders that brought them up from the pit they had dug for themselves.
What would have happened if God hadn’t sent the snakes? The venom in the people’s minds would have intensified and spread to the whole community. Given past performance, they would have gone their own way, and Moses would have given up in total exasperation. This second generation would never have reached the promised land; they had trouble coming to a conclusion by the right steps, instead of jumping to them. They regularly attacked their leadership under God; any leaders they chose from among their fractious lot would have soon been regretting the privilege. Left to themselves, they would have ruined everything.
The snakes were a pointed illustration of what happens when we allow impatience and anger to infect out attitudes and actions. We start biting each other and sinking our fangs in. The poison spreads and infects others, and they spread it in turn. The snakes were a sharp reminder of who was the real target of their complaints, and how wrong they were to despise who God is and what He provides. The serpent in the Garden of Eden played the same hand: “What God has given you isn’t enough; you should have more, you should make your own decisions.”
Because God sent the snakes, the people climbed the only ladder that could save them from themselves. By recognizing their sin, they stepped onto the first rung. On the second, they took responsibility for what they had done in wronging both God and Moses, on the third they repented, and on the fourth they asked Moses to intercede for them in prayer. By climbing this ladder, they were restored to continue on the way to God’s promise.
In other words, those who remained were blessed by the snakes. But what about those who died? We don’t know for sure how the dividing line fell, but knowing that God is a God of justice, who judges evil but is also merciful, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think those who died were the main instigators of the complaints and rebellion, who would have refused to repent.
We too are often blessed by snakes — those things that threaten us and aren’t something we would ever ask for. When adversity comes, let’s ask God to use these snakes as a ladder to bring us where we need to be — closer to Him.