Numbers 21. If you’re visiting with us, we are working our way through this often neglected part of Scripture, connecting biblical dots along the way. This morning we are confronted with a pair of scandals, a sign of the serpent as a means of salvation, healing, and a seeming injustice in dealing with the enemies of God. As we look to the reading God’s Word, if you join me in prayer. Father Almighty, indeed, you are the God of all mercy. And you promised never to break your covenant with us. And amid all the changing words of our generation, we ask that you would speak your eternal words that do not change, that we would respond then to your gracious promise of faithful and obedient lives. In this we ask and pray through our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen. Chapter 21, beginning in verse 1, when the Caneanite, the King of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Artharram, he fought against Israel and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow to the Lord and said, If you’ll indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction.
And the Lord heated the voice of Israel and gave over the Caneanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Horma. From Mount Horm they set out by the way to the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 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 loathed this worthless food. Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, we have sinned. For we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray the Lord that he 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 has 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 was to look at the bronze serpent and live.
The word of the Lord, please be seated. That cultures change over time and may vary according to location is no surprise to anyone. What was valued in one generation is abhorred in another. Getting a giant scar across your face from a saber dual isn’t the male mark of beauty that it once was. In the Western world, the thought of an arranged marriage sends a shudder down the spine of people. But if you’re from India, it’s not really a big deal. Different times and places have a struggle with certain parts of the Bible that cuts against their cultural grain. Older commentators, they don’t really skip a beat when it comes to looking at Israel in its warfare and how it dealt with the surrounding countries. But judgment upon an entire group of people that resulted in the death of every man, woman, and child, it troubles our time and place. That question, I’m sure you’ve been asked, how is that not just genocide? And added to that, our chapter has this strange making of a snake to look upon for healing. The question certainly in the back of the mind is, how is that not just idolatry?
How are we to see the symbol of the serpent as a means of healing for Israel? What are we to think of the destruction of an entire city or people? Well, the good news is that the Bible gives us a framework for which we can answer these hard questions. God’s love and justice are not in opposition to one another, and we are to keep both of these truths together. Looking then in greater detail at these pair of scandals, looking first at the vipers in verses 4 to 9, you see in verse 4 that Israel sets out to go around the land of Eden because they were denied passage. And so honoring the relationship with Eden, they go around. And no doubt this delay was over a very harsh environment and made some of the people grumpy. 40 years of bad habits resurfaced, and we see that the people became impatient and they spoke against God and Moses. Familiar words to us by chapter 21, Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There’s no food, no water, and we loathed this worthless food. There’s water, there’s food. They’re just not in abundance and they’re tired of manna.
And this time the response of the Lord is different. Nothing is said, but a punishment is given. The Lord sent fiery serpents among them and bit the people, and many of the people died. That description of fiery can mean the color of the snakes. It might mean the effects of the bite, the burning that takes place, or even maybe a type of species that they referred to. But ancient and modern histories give us many accounts of the danger of venomous snakes in this very region. It wasn’t an unusual thing. The famed Lawrence of Arabia, in his traveling through a similar part of Arabia in 1917, in his diary, he wrote this. He said, In ordinary times, so the Arabs tell me, snakes were little worse here than in other places. But this year, the valley seemed creeping with horned vipers, puff adders, cobers, black snakes. By night, movement was dangerous, and at least we found it necessary to walk with sticks beating the bushes on each side as we went, stepping warily through on bare feet. At last, they got so on our nerves that the boldest of us feared to touch the ground. So another traveling person through a similar region.
But notice Israel’s response to this great problem. God allowed this to take place as a punishment for them. The people acknowledged their sin and they repented, which is new. A new generation coming up, learning new ways, departing from their ancestors. The people came to Moses and said, We have sinned. We have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that he take away these serpents from us. And Moses prayed and the Lord says to him, Moses in verse 8, Make a fiery serpent, set it on a pole. Everyone has bitten when he sees it shall live. Now in the Gospel of John 3, Jesus compares the action of his being lifted up on the cross to the bronze snake being lifted up on the pole. Because of this, we have a ready category for the snake on a pole. Put that aside for a moment. How would you have thought this sounded 2,000 years before Jesus? You’re coming out of Egypt and all the things that have taken place, all the prohibitions against idolatry. There’s so much of this that sounds scandalous. Moses has a snake made of bronze or copper. That’s unexpected.
A snake is a symbol of evil. It’s a symbol of death for Israel. It sure seems like making an idol. In fact, actually, several hundred years later, we read in 2 Kings 18, that King Hezeqqqaya, it said, He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made. For up to that time, the Israelites had been burning incense to it. But this is exactly what Moses did. We read that in verse 9, A bronze or copper snake is made, it’s set on a pole, and if someone is bit, they look towards the snake and they’re healed. How do we account for this? Now, they’re not worshiping it. That’s forbidden to them. But it’s still unusual. Calvin commented on this. He said nothing would at first sight appear more unreasonable than that a brazen serpent should be made. But this apparent absurdity was far better suited to render the Grace of God conspicuous than as if he’d been anything natural in the remedy. He went on to say that this remedy is discordant. It’s out of step with human reason as almost be a subject for laughter. What do they have to do? They have to look upon the image of the very thing that was harming them.
They had to look to God’s unlikely preservation. A rebellious people had to step out in faith and obedience to get God’s remedy. It was simple and it was humbling. It’s no accident that Jesus uses this symbol for himself. He became the sign of death. Cursed is anyone who is hung on a tree. What is it that we are called to do? We’re called to look on the one who is pierced for our iniquities, to receive what God has done for us without earning any of it. It’s simple, it’s humbling. That is the scandal of grace. The other scandal is God’s violence and judgment. You recall back in Chapter 14, the 10 spy fiasco and the rebellion of Israel, the people tried to undo God’s punishment, and they went and they attacked the Caneanites at Hormel, the same place, and they were defeated because God was not with them. Now the next generation comes to the very place and a different outcome. In verses 1 to 3, Israel wins. Then we see in verses 21 to 35, Israel tries diplomacy again with people they’re trying to pasture the land, and they’re attacked without provocation by the Kingdoms of the Amorites, Boshan.
And there in verse 35, speaking of Og and Boshan, it said, Israel struck him down together with his sons, his whole army, leaving no survivors, and they took possession of his land. And this is to be a precursor to Israel going into the promised land, conquering under Joshua. But what we see, backing up the verses 1 to 3, is similar what we find in other parts of the conquest. It was an unprovoked attack, to be sure, but there’s something to it that really hits a nerve. Israel vowed, verse 2, To God, to the Lord, and said, If you will indeed give this people to My hand, I will devote their city to destruction. And that’s what the Lord did. And they devoted them and their cities to destruction in a place called Hormel, which is the Hebrew word for destruction. Now, this didn’t happen in all the battles, but there were a handful that this occurred. And what that meant is devotion to destruction as every man, woman, child, and animal were put to death. It’s hard not to think, genocide. That’s the scandal of our time and place. It seems so harsh and barbaric.
What are we to make of it? Several things to note. First, for a limited time, Israel was a nation with God as her head of state. The Lord had acted through Israel in a direct way that he did not with other peoples. The time was limited and it’s long over. It was the Lord’s judgment, not Israel’s. They were an instrument. God was the one who brought the judgment. This holy war was limited and came after sustained patience by the Lord. In Genesis 15, the Lord spoke to Abraham and he said, I’m going to send your people into Egypt for 400 years. T his is what he says in verse 15, And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. There’s 400 years of patience that God is giving to this people for repentance, and none is coming. In Leviticus 18, it speaks of the great sins of child sacrifice, burning your children, other egregious sins of the Caneanites. And there the Lord said in verse 24, He said, Do not make yourself unclean by any of these things. For by all these things, the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land has become unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land has vomiting out its inhabitants.
It’s speaking of a great sin issue. So much so that even in Deuteronomy 7, speaking of all these different peoples in Canan, the Lord says, You shall make no covenant with any of them. Show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters their sons, sons their your daughters to your sons, for they will turn away from following me to serve other gods. To be clear, there are no innocent parties here. And that includes Israel herself. Deuteronomy 9, the Lord reminds them, he says, It’s not because of your righteousness or brightness of your heart that I’m giving you this land to possess, but because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you. It’s judgment on sin. There are no innocent people. The second thing to keep in mind is the Bible is theocentric. It’s God centered. We constantly center everything around ourselves. We just do. From our vantage point, we consider it a great tragedy when a one year old dies. It is a great tragedy. The person who lives to be 100, we see as well, they have lived a full and rich life.
That death is a tragedy, too. In light of eternity, our lives are but the front step to going into the house, a distance that you hardly notice. Think about running into the house, planting your foot on the step and going in. It’s a fraction of a second. Whether it’s the front of your foot or all of your foot, that distance is only a few inches. We don’t even notice it. But that few inches in this life is a really long time. But in light of what God is doing, in light of eternity, it’s very small. And the Bible is inviting us to see with a different perspective. It’s letting us know that all of us will one day stand before the Lord, that He has numbered our days. That perspective changes everything. No one is getting away with anything. There is yet a judgment to come, and the length of life you live in this time pales in comparison to what’s ahead of us. That brings in the third issue, which is the larger problem is God’s judgment. I’m sure you’ve heard things like this, too. I believe in a God of love, not of judgment.
I could never worship a God who did those things or let anyone go into hell. This particular view of love and justice is not held by most of the world through most of history. It’s interesting that all the talk of cultural imperialism appropriating other cultures wrongly, why is this not considered then Western cultural imperialism? Because it comes out of modern Western thought. Why does that one get to be the one that’s dominant over everything else? The other issue is the Bible consistently and everywhere speaks both of God’s love and his justice. Jesus spoke more of hell than any other person in the Bible. Why? Because he came to save us. Save us from what? Save us from the justice of God that awaits all sinners. He stands in our place. We simply have to look to Him. Israel’s interest in to the promised land is a foreshadowing of what is coming for all of God’s people. In the same way, the Lord judging certain nations for their sin is also a foreshadowing of what is to come for all people. For those who cring at this, what do you have left? If you want to remove God from the picture, remove God, remove his justice, what are you left with?
How has that improved anything? I hear some who say, Well, the ethic that we should be living by is do no harm to others. It sounds so lofty. But what if what I like is hurting you? You’re like, Well, I don’t like that. Well, your lofty phrase is harming my way of life. It’s robbing me of my joy. Well, you shouldn’t be allowed to hurt me. That would be wrong. Why? Great white sharks eat little whales all the time. It’s their nature. You’re a seal, I’m a shark. Just my nature. Who are you to deny me? If this is all there is in this life, let the strong take advantage of the weak. Tell me to look to nature? Sure. It’s violent and brutal. I’ve seen documentaries, too. How do you get to wrong? How do you get to justice by taking God out of the picture? The Bible consistently tells us that God will put all rights in the end to correction. God is angry at injustice. From creation writer Miroslaw Wolf. He comes from creation in the time, modern writer, and he grew up through the ethnic cleansing of Ugoslavia, Bosnia, and her took of Eitan, and those things.
The terrible things that happened were a part of his life firsthand. He writes this in his wonderful book, Exclusion and Embrace. He said, If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end to violence, that God would not be worthy of worship. The only means of prohibiting all recourse to violence by ourselves is to insist violence is only legitimate when it comes from God. He says, My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many, but it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a sun scourched land, soaked in the blood of innocence, it will invariably die with other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. C. S. Lewis, speaking of the issue of hell and his problem of pain, he said there are only two kinds of people, those that say, thy will be done, ‘ to God, or those to whom God in the end says, thy will be done. ‘ All that are in hell, choose it. Without that self choice, it would not be hell.
No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. If you want to turn your back on God and live a self centered life, don’t complain if that’s what God gives you. No one is compelled. You get what you want in the end. You are not compelled. That is the scandal of God’s love. Bow the knee, receive his mercy, allow him to change your heart. Look to the one that he has given, but you can choose not to. There’s life in one, there’s death in the other, and you can make that choice. Miroslaw goes on to say, speaking of the Apocalypse and the end of time, he said Christians are not to take up their swords and gather under the banner of the rider on the white horse, but to take up their crosses and follow the crucified Messiah. That’s what we have been called to do. You see, the cross is the scandal of all scandals. On the cross, God’s justice and mercy kiss. Jesus is made a sin offering, a curse that is lifted up. What are we to do? We are to simply look to Him. That’s what we’re given.
It’s not become super enlightened, figure it all out, try to live your life in such a way that it’s near perfection to do all these things to beat your body, to do these incredible tasks that none of us can do. It’s simply looked to Jesus because God chose to harm him, his son, rather than us. And suddenly the question of justice now turns itself. He bore the weight of our sin. He bore the penalty of our injustice. Justice is not done away with it’s highlighted in Jesus. What do you do to tell someone who’s experienced great sin? If there is no God, then I take justice in my own hands. Without God’s justice, we’re locked into perpetual cycles of violence and retaliation. Someone who has a family members that were murdered or raped, you just say, Well, just be nice. Live and let live. Let it go. Nonviolent platitudes have no concern for real justice. None. When you’re facing those kinds of atrocities, those types of situations, a n uly, gooey marsh, God is love is not going to suffice unless you’re living in the comfort of a suburban home free from sunscorched earth and blood soaked soil.
The Bible addresses this. It speaks to it. The deepest longings of the human heart. We don’t have to run from this. We face it head on. We bring people and say, Well, give me your answer to this. It’s anemic and weak, but I’ll give you the one who’s infinitely strong, who allowed himself to be broken for us. That’s the picture of love that we want. That’s the picture of who Jesus is. As Jesus is describing this in John 3 of being lifted up, we get one of the most well known verses, for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever would believe in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. You choose hell you do so on your own, because every provision has been made for you by a loving and kind God who is going to bear the weight of your injustice, of your sin. That is what biblical love looks like. That is the scandal of the cross. That scandal goes out and says, Come to me, whoever wills. My burden is light. My yoke is easy, and I will give you life and life in abundance.
Brothers and sisters, that’s the good news of Jesus. That’s the good news that a world that is locked in cycles of perpetual violence and injustice needs to hear. Not illegal love, but that love that lays itself down in this way to break the back of injustice and violence. Pray with me. Father, there is so much that we do not see or fully understand. We thank you for your mercy, for your goodness. We thank you, Father, that you have not counted our sins against us because of your Son whom you have lifted up, whom you made to be a curse for us, a sign of death. From that death, you have brought life. We bless you for life in him. Father, we pray that you would continue to transform us. Lord, teach us what it means to take up our cross and to follow our crucified Messiah. Because this does not come easy for us. We bless you and we bring glory to your name. Almighty God, all of this we pray and ask in the mighty name of our risen savior, Jesus. Amen. Please stand together as we sing.
Disclaimer: Automated Sermon Transcription