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We are told that after children of Israel had sinned God sent serpents to bit them to death

NUMBERS 21:6 NASB

Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.

Later after repentance it seems the serpents continued to bite the Israelites in so much that Moses was instructed to make a bronze serpent for healing purposes

Numbers 21:8-8=9 NASB

Then the Lord said to Moses, “[j]Make a fiery serpent, and put it on a flag pole; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, and looks at it, will live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and put it on the flag pole; and it came about, that if a serpent bit someone, and he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

Since these serpents are said to have been sent by God wouldn't it have been easier to take them away rather than instructing Moses to make a bronze serpent.

Why did God choose healing instead of taking away the serpents?

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  • 6
    The whole incident is a figure, a picture, which is instructive to every further generation. The question 'How did God choose ?' is speculative. But the question 'What should we learn ?' would be informative.
    – Nigel J
    Aug 18, 2022 at 8:27
  • "God sent serpents to bit them" -> "God sent serpents to bite them". Not enough rep here for a 1-character edit.
    – FreeMan
    Aug 19, 2022 at 16:11

7 Answers 7

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This is a very large topic and gets right to the heart of the gospel.

Bronze is a figure denoting judgement, both God's judgement (the brazen altar for offerings and sacrifice) and self-judgement (the bronze laver for cleansing). To simply remove the snakes would be to remove all judgement. Rather, the judgement is lifted up that the sinner might agree with God and repent and be healed.

That which was killing the Israelites was lifted up and when they looked, with understanding and agreement that it was just and also with faith and hope in the promise of God's forgiveness, they were healed.

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. - John 3:14-15

That which is killing us has been lifted up: the Word of God put to death in flesh by the wickedness of man. When a sinner looks, with understanding and agreement that it is they and not Jesus who deserves to die and also with faith and hope in God's promise of forgiveness and life, they are healed. The sinner is crucified with Christ and the Word of God comes alive in the new born heart.

Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.  And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die. - John 12:31-33

Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe not on me; Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged. - John 16:7-11

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A lesson in the Bible that shows us God's consistency in choosing not to take away the source of particular judgments is in the last book of the Bible. This sheds light on the Numbers 21:6-9 episode due to parallels as well as differences.

The Revelation account shows God pouring out from heaven various plagues upon an increasingly godless, faithless world. Chapter 9 starts to detail three woes sent from heaven to earth. Note these observations in this book:

"Why such things sent from God? Only if so be that men would acknowledge the truth in heaven and earth, before God and man, and come to repentance in time, or ever the certainty of an infinitely worse and eternal judgment should be brought to pass at the sounding of the last trump.

Such events were initiated in heaven by the Lamb of God, who broke the seventh seal, and called forth the seven angels, commanding them to be given seven trumpets... what is the effect upon the inhabiters of the earth, upon the world, of such a true gospel, accompanied by the sounding of such trumpets, increasingly warning mankind of the looming judgment to come?

(Rev. 9:20-21) And the rest of the men [namely, of the remaining two thirds on the earth] which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see nor hear, nor walk; Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts." The Revelation of Jesus Christ, pp 236-8, John Metcalfe

The parallels with Numbers 21 are rebellion against God, judgments against them being sent by God, the need to repent of their sin that brought these plagues, and faith to look up to see the heavenly source plus to put faith in God so as to repent and be spared.

The differences with Numbers 21 are a global situation instead of a national one, and people not in covenant relationship with God also being judged.

Perhaps the most significant point is how both accounts require people to look up in faith to the One this is all about - Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

In Numbers 21, nobody is to worship this brazen serpent on a pole; they are to look up to it as God's means of deliverance from the plague. In other words, instead of expecting God to take away the plague, they accept that they deserve the plague (confession) and trust in God's apparently strange way of counteracting the consequences of their sin (by faith). Only after they do that are they healed.

It's the same with the modern counterpart, in our world today where plagues are increasingly afflicting mankind. God consistently judges sin and punishes the people who refuse to acknowledge him - in Revelation, on a global scale. The call is heavenly, as in Revelation 14:6-7:

"And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice, 'Fear God and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of water."

But are the nations looking up? Do they even think there could be a heavenly messenger calling them to hear the gospel of Christ? If they but looked up instead of being fixated on the ground where they experience plagues whilst seeking earthly pleasures, they could see Christ lifted up, as was that serpent on the pole in Moses' day. John 3:14-15; 12:31-33; 16:7-11.

It was the same John who wrote those verses showing the crucified and risen Lamb of God to be the fulfillment of the brass snake in Moses' day who also wrote the Revelation about the global fulfillment in our day, with an invisible serpent exposed as leading them into idolatrous worship. In both situations, those who would be healed by God don't suppose God should just take away the cause of their sufferings; they learn the lessons of their own sin, their need to turn from idolatry, to repent and put faith in the one lifted up high.

In both cases the requirement is to repentantly look up in faith, believing in God's unique means of deliverance. That's what transforms situations of suffering into healing. That's what deals with death and gives life.

Numbers 21 points to John 3:14-15; 12:31-33; 16:7-11 - and that, in turn, points us to Revelation 9 for those who look to the uplifted Christ are granted to eat of the Tree of Life in the Paradise of God - Revelation 22:2-4.

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The incident was a means of teaching the Israelites to live by faith - looking at the bronze serpent provided healing. Benson explains it thus:

When he looketh — This method of cure was prescribed, that it might appear to be God’s own work, and not the effect of nature or art: and that it might be an eminent type of our salvation by Christ. The serpent signified Christ, who was in the likeness of sinful flesh, though without sin, as this brazen serpent had the outward shape, but not the inward poison of the other serpents: the pole resembled the cross upon which Christ was lifted up for our salvation: and looking up to it designed our believing in Christ. He lived — He was delivered from death, and cured of his disease.

This idea is made explicit by Jesus in John 3:14, 15 -

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.

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    Benson has not included the further allegory - that because of behaviour God sent serpents to bite them, the reality of the allegory being as He did to the first of humanity, they not partaking of the Tree of Life, He allowed the Serpent access.
    – Nigel J
    Aug 18, 2022 at 11:52
  • @NigelJ - many thanks for this. Good point. However, it is not germane here for two reasons: (1) it is not relevant to the question about why the snakes were not banished (2) it is not explicit in the NT.
    – Dottard
    Aug 18, 2022 at 12:08
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Deuteronomy 8:15 NIV read:

He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock.

The snakes were always there, they did not suddenly appear to bite the Israelites. It was divine protection along the way, until they sinned, and the Lord withdrew His suppression to the snakes.

So why did the Lord chose healing instead of taking away the serpents?

It was because the punishment was still ongoing to those who did not repent. To those who repented, would be healed by looking at the bronze snake.

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Jesus Christ makes reference to this particular incident in John 3:13-15:

13 Moreover, no man has ascended into heaven but the one who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone believing in him may have everlasting life.

At first, the comparison of "the serpent" to "the Son of man" seems odd. In the topic of "Copper Serpent" in the Insight on the Scriptures, gives us a clearer understanding:

Like the copper serpent that Moses placed on a pole in the wilderness, the Son of God was impaled or fastened on a stake, thus appearing to many as an evildoer and a sinner, like a snake, being in the position of one cursed. (De 21:22, 23; Ga 3:13; 1Pe 2:24) In the wilderness a person who had been bitten by one of the poisonous serpents that Jehovah sent among the Israelites evidently had to gaze at the copper serpent in faith. Similarly, to gain everlasting life through Christ, it is necessary to exercise faith in him.

In the same paragraph, we see the reason why Jehovah God had Moses make the copper/bronze serpent. The Israelites need to "gaze at the copper serpent in faith" just as they had to "exercise faith" in Jesus as the Messiah.

A similar situation can be seen with the woman that had the flow of blood. (Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48) In Mark's account, the woman had gone to "many physicians and had spent all her resources, and . . . had become worse." (v 26) And in all three accounts, she reached out to touch Jesus' garment. So the woman had taken physical actions to achieve her cure. But Jesus' words explain exactly what healed her:

your faith has made you well.

She had evidently heard about Jesus and the miracles he had been performing. Based on these accounts, likely being a devout Israelitess, and knowing that the Messiah was imminent, she built her faith in Jesus and the authority given him by their heavenly father, Jehovah God.

So the choice of using a physical object as opposed to just removing the biting serpents was a way for the Israelites to exercise their faith in Jehovah's saving acts.

[All scripture quotations from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Study Edition)]

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I agree with the other answers already given, that God could have taken away the serpents, but instead chose to teach the Israelites a divine lesson about Him.

I wanted to give a perspective from the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, which references and discusses this incident a few times. One of which is in the book of Alma, chapter 33, verses 19-22 (link):

19 Behold, he [meaning Christ] was spoken of by Moses; yea, and behold a type was raised up in the wilderness, that whosoever would look upon it might live. And many did look and live.

20 But few understood the meaning of those things, and this because of the hardness of their hearts. But there were many who were so hardened that they would not look, therefore they perished. Now the reason they would not look is because they did not believe that it would heal them.

21 O my brethren, if ye could be healed by merely casting about your eyes that ye might be healed, would ye not behold quickly, or would ye rather harden your hearts in unbelief, and be slothful, that ye would not cast about your eyes, that ye might perish?

22 If so, wo shall come upon you; but if not so, then cast about your eyes and begin to believe in the Son of God, that he will come to redeem his people, and that he shall suffer and die to atone for their sins; and that he shall rise again from the dead, which shall bring to pass the resurrection, that all men shall stand before him, to be judged at the last and judgment day, according to their works.

Asking why God chose healing is the other side of the question why God did not take away the serpents. Why did God not take away the serpents? It was so the Israelites could develop faith in Him. God had not forgotten them or the promises made to their fathers Abraham and Jacob, that He would rescue, redeem, and save their descendants, but over hundreds of years in Egypt the Israelites had forgotten their God. Now that they were out of Egypt, and nominally God's chosen people, now they needed to trust in Him. This is just one instance in which God provided a way to develop their faith.

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    Aug 18, 2022 at 17:03
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Some Jewish perspectives and explanations of this:

  1. It was meant to make them look up to G-d:

Did the serpent kill, or did the serpent preserve life? Rather, when the Jewish people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed, but if not, they rotted from their snakebites.

  (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 29a)

  If G-d had just healed them without an object being made, that lesson would have been lost.

  1. It was meant to impress on them how badly they had acted by speaking against Moses. Unlike their insult of G-d, which He could forgive with no further ado, it had to be demonstrated to them that Moses would have to perform an action for them to be forgiven for that part of their sin.

  (R. Bachya ben Asher, commentary to Numbers 21:8)

  1. It demonstrated that G-d heals with something that, according to natural law, ought to make things worse. (Other Biblical examples: the waters of Marah and of Jericho were sweetened with, respectively, oleander (a poisonous plant) and salt.) Medical science of that time held, for example, that a person bitten by a rabid dog would be fearful of drinking water (hydrophobia) because he'd imagine the image of a dog in the water. By the same token, a snakebite victim ought to have his or her symptoms exacerbated by seeing an image of a snake, and yet here that was the method by which G-d cured them.

  (Nachmanides, commentary to Numbers 21:9)

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