When Snakes Lived in the Trees

Well, here we are, we are going to be a Numbers chapter 21. And I hope you are ready because I have been thinking about this for quite some time. And I need to get this out of my head. So Numbers chapter 21, we find a story that you’ve probably heard before, but you may not have spent a lot of time thinking about, I’m going to cover a total of five verses today, which is not my usual thing. And so I am going to take us to several other passages in the Scripture so that we can see exactly how beautiful this story is. But in Numbers chapter 21, we have a story that I remember from when I was in vacation Bible school, I have this distinct memory, of being responsible for putting all the little tiny serpents up onto the board, to bite the Israelites and feeling pretty great about it. And so we get to now take an opportunity to spend a significant amount of time looking at the story of the bronze serpent, are you there Numbers chapter 21. Okay, starting in verse four, says, From Mount Hor, they set out by way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. Now, let me just stop in this get situated in the story. So do you see how I said we only had five verses, and I only made it through one. So it is actually shaping up to be pretty typical. When we, when we’re in the book of Numbers, what we can know is that we are at the end and chapter numbers, Numbers, chapter 21, were at the end of the 40 years in the wilderness, okay. And so the people who are in view in this part of the story are the people who are the next generation that is going to go into the Promised Land. And so that’s where we find ourselves. And here they are actually, in view of the promised land. They have been camped at Kadesh Barnea for quite some time. And now there is a very short journey that would take them into the Promised Land, except that the people of Edom tell them that they must go around. And what will end up happening is that the journey into the promised land will end up taking much longer than they are expecting, and it will be filled with battles, and it will be filled with hardships. And guess what it will also be filled with grumbling. They set out by way to the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way they’re like children on a very long car trip saying, Are we there yet? That’s right. And you can’t blame them really. Except that I think we’re going to pretty hard. Verse five. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness for there is no food and no water, and we load this worthless? What? Food? Interesting. There is no food and no water, and we load this worthless food. See, guys, it sounds to me like there might actually be food. Oh, that’s right. We know there’s food. Why? Because for 40 years, God has fed them on manna from heaven. He has sustained them in a place that offered no sustenance by his miraculous power. And so the complaining that is happening here is hyperbolic. They don’t like the food that they have, what food do they want, they want the food that is back in Egypt. So even though they are 40 years removed from those who said that there were giants in the land, and did not trust in God’s provision, still we find them in the same place as those who came before them. Can God be trusted? There is no food and no water and we load this worthless food. Then the Lord said fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people so that many people of Israel died. Whoa, that’s weird. Hang on. And the people came to Moses and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you pray to the Lord that He will take away the serpents from us. So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole and everyone who is bitten when he sees it shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. It’s at this point that I need to tell you that I have absolutely no credibility with my immediate family on the subject of snakes. I grew up in Texas. I have lived there since I was three and a half years old. In Texas. There are four kinds of venomous snakes. There are copperheads there are coral snakes, there are rattlesnakes and there are cotton mouths. cotton mills are also known as Does anyone know water moccasins? It’s a water moccasin. And I know things as a child who grew up in Texas we used to go to the lake in the summers. Lakes in Texas are not places where you want to swim there where you dump a body they are opaque like you cannot see. And so we would sit on the end of the doc and dangle our feet into the water and watch the cotton mouth the the water moccasins slither by in the water and pick our feet up to let them go by I know the difference between a coral snake and a king snake they look exactly alike. Unless you know red on black friend to Jack red on yellow kills a fellow. That’s how you know based on their stripes. So I know some things about snakes. I have lived my whole life in a very sneaky place. There is a thing that takes place in Texas every year called The rattlesnake Roundup, and they go around and they scare all of the Rattlesnakes out of the nooks and crannies and they put them into a corral I am not kidding you. And then they fry them up and tell you that they taste like chicken. I know some things about snakes, guys. And every October my family goes and takes a vacation in the hill country, the Texas Hill Country. And there’s a lovely river that runs by the rivers about this deep in front of the cabin that we stay in. And so I sit in the river, my little chair with my book and my feet in the water and I read my book. And this was a long time ago, my kids were still fairly young. My son Matt was in middle school, and I’m sitting reading my book in the stream having the most wonderful day of all and the rest of the family is down the river doing whatever they wanted to do, leaving me to my quiet book. And as I’m sitting in the chair facing down river, I feel something nudged my leg and I lift up my feet and between my feet, comes a water moccasin. bumped right into the back of my leg. I’m freaking out, right? He swims over to the side, I jump up and I’m like, Oh my gosh, a water moccasin water moccasin. And here comes my son Matt. And he’s like what happened? And I go, a water moccasin just swam underneath my chair bumped me in the leg and swam over there. And he goes, whoa. And then he goes, How do you know it was a water moccasin? I am your mother. So I’m like, I know a water Montes and I’m like it’s in so then I point in the general direction and there is the watermark isn’t he sees it with his own eyes. Okay, it is an important part of the story. Because when the rest of the family come back one by one down the river and I tell them exactly what happened. What do you think each of them says to me? How did you know it was a water moccasin? Every single one of them a prophet in her own town has no honor. And not welcome did not back me up. That kid. I don’t usually call a child out by name on a simulcast. It’s going out to 30 billion people. But today is his day. And here we find ourselves in an Old Testament story that is slithering with serpents. And we should ask with the great theologian, Indiana Jones. Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? Why did it have to be snakes? It’s actually the right question to ask on two levels. Why did God sends snakes specifically? And what is the deal with a snake on a pole? Like that’s weird, right? You get that? So let’s see if we can answer those questions. Why does God send snakes specifically? Well, interestingly, Indiana Jones his famous line is spoken as he looks into an Egyptian tomb in Cairo. And snakes were common in ancient Egypt. There are 30 separate 37 different types of snakes that are noted in the papaya tree and if you’ve ever looked at hieroglyphics you see that there are snakes frequently figured into them. In the old papaya tree, there are descriptions of amulets that were made to protect children from snakebite. Seven venomous species at least are identified as having lived in ancient Egypt. In fact, Cleopatra if you’re familiar with her story, when she finds out that Mark Antony has been killed, the folklore is that she took a venomous ask and she clutched it to her chest and it struck her and she died. But here’s the thing with snake bites, the ones that do kill you, they don’t do so instantly, but slowly and painfully, and that will be an apt metaphor for our story.

And the placement of the serpent on the pole story is significant, because it is a grumbling book and to a time in the wilderness that opened with a grumbling book and you got to hear Pastor John talk about part of the opening, grumbling book in the talk that he gave this morning. And in the part that he talked about, they were grumbling, because they did not have water, and then God strikes the rock. But in the two chapters before that, we have sort of a another grouping that is part of that of grumbling. And it’s important to our understanding of what is going on here in Numbers, chapter 21. If you will turn to Exodus 15. And what you’ll see is you have the episode at Mara, and then you have when they go into the wilderness of scene, and at Mara, the water is bitter. And so God makes the water sweet, they throw a log in the water and it miraculously turns sweet, and then they immediately head into the wilderness have seen where they grumble that they don’t have food, and God reigns down Manna and quail on them, it is the beginning of their food that is going to sustain them through the entire 40 years. And so we can’t understand this closing, grumbling scene that we have in numbers 21 Until we relate it to this opening, grumbling scene that we see that begins in Exodus chapter 15. And look at verses 25 and 26. It says this, there the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. He said, If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands, and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you. Oh, my goodness, isn’t that fascinating? Here’s Stan’s Israel, fresh out of the 10 plagues, like they have, they have left Egypt in memorable history for them only a few weeks prior. And here they are in the wilderness, wondering if God will provide and one of the fears that God addresses here is, I will not do to you what I did to Egypt? Don’t you think that as you watch the 10 plagues play out even as the children of God, you’re wondering if God can do that to them? Won’t he also possibly do that to me? And what does God say? He says, if you will pay attention, if you will obey my commands, if you will keep all of my decrees I will not do to you, as I have done to Egypt, and what was the purpose of the plagues that were sent on Egypt? It was God’s divine judgment that all would know he was exactly who he said he was. So he says, If you do not disobey, I will not send the plagues upon you. And here we find them a generation later. And what has happened. God sends a plague of snakes, on his own people to recall them to their senses. A plague of snakes on his own people to recall them to their senses. But why snakes? He could have sent a plague of scorpions, or he could have sent a plague of like really nasty mice like he could have chosen anything. That was a joke guys, nasty mice. Picture it. Why is it snakes that he sends? Well, I told you that snakes were a big thing in Egypt. And what I think is going on here, if you remember in Exodus, chapter four, you know, Moses has his staff and he’s complaining to God that he is not the man to go in and get the job done. You remember that story? And what does God say? He says, What’s that in your hand? And I love that. God knows what it is right? And the staff is a symbol of Moses authority has divine authority from God and Gods it’s a Moses, his it was a staff and then what does God tell him to do? He says, throw it on the ground, and he throws it on the ground and what does it turn into a serpent? That’s right, it turns into a serpent and what does Moses do? He runs away, smart guy. And I don’t think anybody said to him, are you sure that was a water moccasin? So he runs away, and then God says Pick it up by the tail and when he picks it up by the tail, what happens it turns back into a staff and he says, You’re gonna go in you’re gonna do this before Pharaoh, but again, Why a snake? Why a snake? Do you know in the Old Testament, throughout the Old Testament Leviathan is mentioned? Ezekiel 29 Three listen to how Leviathan the great sea serpent is connected, so to speak, and say Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lies in the midst of his streams that says, My Nile is my own, I made it for myself, who is the great sea serpent it is, Pharaoh, Ezekiel 32, to Son of Man raise a lamentation over Pharaoh king of Egypt and say to him, you consider yourself a lion of the nations but you are like a dragon in the seas you burst forth in your rivers, troubled waters with your feet, and, and foul their rivers. Psalm 74/13 and 14th. You Lord divided the sea by your mind, you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters, you crushed the heads of Leviathan, you gave him his food for the creatures of the wilderness. Isaiah 27 one in that day, the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan that the fleeing serpents, Leviathan, the twisting serpent, and he will say that he will slay the dragon that is in the sea. In the Old Testament, in the Hebrew imagination, the serpent and Pharaoh are equivalents. The serpent and Pharaoh are equivalents. I know what you’re thinking you’re like, but I know the serpent story. The serpent story is in Genesis chapter three. And yes, we’re gonna get there in just a second. But think also about what happens with the Hebrew midwives in Exodus chapter one. They stand before Pharaoh, and they do not fear him instead, they fear Yawei. And in Genesis chapter three, which we will get to in just a moment, what did we see we see that God is going to place enmity between the woman and the serpent, right? And we actually see that playing out in the scene of the Hebrew midwives. Do you know why are you familiar at all with what a pharaoh wore when he was all dressed up for courts? What was he wearing on his head? A headdress that has what? Yeah, I see. You know, you had a cobra right in the middle of his headdress, and you know why that is that is Wadjet wa DJET, the protector Goddess of Pharaoh, and also the goddess who protects women in childbirth, according to Egyptian mythology. And so Pharaoh stands before the Hebrew midwives and tells them you will put to death every Hebrew male child wearing on his head, the protector of childbirth for women. He decrees infanticide, wearing the goddess of childbirth, and she is his protector. He himself is worshipped as a god. Pharaoh is the serpent. So when God sends a plague of serpents on his own people to recall them to their senses, the people who have said why can’t we just go back to Egypt where things are better? What is he doing? He’s saying, Do you remember your master in Egypt? Do you remember the hard toil? Do you want to be once again bitten? They are a metaphor as much as they are a literal source of death. In the Hebrew mind, the serpent and Pharaoh are closely equated. So why serpents to remind them of Egypt specifically. But note also specifically, how many parallels there are in this story to the story of Genesis. You have plentiful food that is provided in the Garden of Eden, that is rejected for forbidden food. You have a serpent who brings death. He says You will not surely die. And Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and they look around and what happens? Do they die? They do not. Why? Because the death that God promised was going to be slow and painful and absolutely certain. A solution is promised to the snake problem of Eden in the same way that a solution is given in the story of the serpent on a pole. And this was so interesting to me.

Because if you go back and look at artwork from like the Renaissance and before when this story of Adam and Eve is depicted, you’ll have Adam and Eve in the garden and then you’ll see the serpent and where is the serpent typically in those pictures? Is he on the ground? Or is he somewhere else. He’s in a tree, you’ve seen them too. And this is because some of our older thinkers about Scripture believed that when the serpent is cast down, and is told that on his on the belly, on his belly on the ground, he will crawl all the days of his life, that perhaps he was a tree dweller before the curse occurred.

Jen Wilken

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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