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Numbers 21:4-9

Context
Fiery Serpents

21:4 Then they traveled from Mount Hor by the road to the Red Sea, 1  to go around the land of Edom, but the people 2  became impatient along the way. 21:5 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 bread or water, and we 3  detest this worthless 4  food.”

21:6 So the Lord sent poisonous 5  snakes 6  among the people, and they bit the people; many people of Israel died. 21:7 Then 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 would take away 7  the snakes from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

21:8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and set it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks 8  at it, he will live.” 21:9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, so that if a snake had bitten someone, when he looked at the bronze snake he lived. 9 

1 tn The “Red Sea” is the general designation for the bodies of water on either side of the Sinai peninsula, even though they are technically gulfs from the Red Sea.

2 tn Heb “the soul of the people,” expressing the innermost being of the people as they became frustrated.

3 tn Heb “our souls.”

4 tn The Israelites’ opinion about the manna was clear enough – “worthless.” The word used is קְלֹקֵל (qÿloqel, “good for nothing, worthless, miserable”).

5 tn Heb “fiery.”

6 tn The designation of the serpents/ snakes is נְחָשִׁים (nÿkhashim), which is similar to the word for “bronze” (נְחֹשֶׁת, nÿkhoshet). This has led some scholars to describe the serpents as bronze in color. The description of them as fiery indicates they were poisonous. Perhaps the snake in question is a species of adder.

7 tn The verb is the Hiphil jussive with a vav (ו) consecutive from the verb סוּר (sur); after the imperative this form may be subordinated to become a purpose clause.

8 tn The word order is slightly different in Hebrew: “and it shall be anyone who is bitten when he looks at it he shall live.”

9 sn The image of the snake was to be a symbol of the curse that the Israelites were experiencing; by lifting the snake up on a pole Moses was indicating that the curse would be drawn away from the people – if they looked to it, which was a sign of faith. This symbol was later stored in the temple, until it became an object of worship and had to be removed (2 Kgs 18:4). Jesus, of course, alluded to it and used it as an illustration of his own mission. He would become the curse, and be lifted up, so that people who looked by faith to him would live (John 3:14). For further material, see D. J. Wiseman, “Flying Serpents,” TynBul 23 (1972): 108-10; and K. R. Joines, “The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult,” JBL 87 (1968): 245-56.



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