Exodus 20:4 says you shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. Would that mean God contradicted himself when he instructed Moses to make the Bronze Serpent? Or the Cherubim in the temple?
Since the second commandment of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:4 prohibits us from making an idol and Exodus 20:5 prohibits worshiping idols, our question is did Moses violate this command when he made the bronze serpent in Numbers 21:9? The answer will first describe the reason Moses made the bronze serpent and then what Jesus said about the bronze serpent.
The Bronze Serpent Moses Made
Numbers 21:1-6 describes the occasion when Moses made the bronze serpent.
Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and 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 loathe this miserable food.” The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. Numbers 21:4-6 (NASB)
Verses 1-6 tell us that the nation of Israel became impatient as they were traveling from Mount Hor around the land owned by the Edomites to the eastside of the Jordan River. Later they would enter the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan River opposite the city of Jericho. They were impatient because they did not have food and water. Therefore, they complained. In Hebrews 3:19 God tells us that the Israelites did not believe God. Due to their unbelief in God, they did not trust God to care for them. Both Exodus and Numbers share that they complained constantly due to their unbelief that God would care for them.
In response to their complaining, God sent fiery serpents to bite them and to punish them. The Hebrew word for fiery is sarap. It refers to an unusually venomous snake. As a result, the people recognized their sin and repented (Numbers 21:7).
Therefore, God responded by rescuing them once again and asked Moses to make a bronze snake.
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 will live.” Number 21:8 (NASB)
So, Moses made a bronze serpent or snake.
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 to the bronze serpent, he lived. Number 21:9 (NASB)
The first important fact for us to notice is that God commanded Moses to make the bronze serpent. The Hebrew word that is translated as bronze is nehoset. It refers to copper or bronze metal – not gold. Moses made a bronze serpent or snake at the command of God. Therefore, the bronze serpent was not an idol. It cannot be an idol since God directed Moses to create it. Notice that those who looked on the bronze serpent lived. Otherwise, they died. They lived because they placed their trust in God’s command to look at the bronze serpent. They obeyed God and looked. Their trust was in the Almighty God of Israel – not in the inanimate bronze serpent. The next reference in the Old Testament to Moses’ serpent or snake is 2 Kings 18:4.
Jesus Comment About The Bronze Serpent
The last reference to Moses’ serpent or snake occurs in the New Testament in John 3:14. Jesus spoke the following words,
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. John 3:14-15 (NASB)
If we compare Jesus’ statement here to Moses command to the people in Numbers 21:9, we learn there is a tremendous parallel. Any Israelite who wanted to live had to look on the serpent and Jesus’ point was that anyone who looked on Him (Jesus) would also live. However, those who looked on the bronze serpent did not die a physical death, but those who look on Christ will die a physical death but not a spiritual death.
The bronze serpent in the Old Testament was a type of Christ. It looked forward to Christ’s suffering on the cross for our sins. The bronze serpent had significant symbolic meaning! The bite that people experienced from these ultra-poisonous serpents corresponds to sin. The serpent hanging up high corresponds to Christ on the cross. Dr. J. Vernon McGee makes this meaningful comment.
We read here that this serpent of brass was made, and those who looked to it lived. Those who did not look to it – died. It is just that simple today. Either you are looking to Christ as your Savior because you are a sinner, or you are not doing it. If you are not doing it, I don’t care how many times you have been baptized, how many ceremonies you have been through, how many churches you have joined, or who your father and mother happened to be, you are a lost, hell-doomed sinner. You must look to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is just as simple as that. And by the way, it is just as complicated as that. What a problem people have today. They would rather look to themselves and to their own good works, trusting that somehow their own good works might save them. It is a problem for people to admit they are sinners and to look to Christ and trust Him.
1. J. Vernon McGee. Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee. Thomas Neslon Publishers. 1982. vol. 1, p. 21.
Suggested Links:What is an idol? What is a graven image?
Was “the Serpent” the only animal that talked in the Garden of Eden?
Why did Eve believe the serpent’s lies and eat the apple?
Is Satan a serpent, dragon, devil or a cherubim? — The Evil One