In Numbers 21, reference is made to a book, Wars of the Lord. Of course, you will not find that book in your Bible, only this quote, and only here. There are other books cited in the Old Testament that we do not have: The Book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13), the Book of the Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41), the books of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel/Judah and the books of Nathan the Prophet and Gad the Seer. I point this out because sometimes we tend to think that Bible books just “appeared,” or were dictated to human writers. But references like these point us to the need, even of inspired men, to do research and be familiar with the literature of their day.
The story of the bronze (or copper) snake is important. Jesus refers to the story in talking about his own death (John 3:14). It is the last time recorded that Israel grumbles about her food. As I’ve mentioned before, God does not appear to resent complaining. He urges us to bring our concerns to Him. But this isn’t just complaining. It goes to the heart of how the people feel about God. Their comments are, in fact, insulting, and that crosses the line.
But what is the significance of the snake?
Snakes were symbols of uncleanness, of sin, and Israel was forbidden to have anything to do with any animal that crawled on the ground (Leviticus 11:41-42). In order to receive healing, they would have to acknowledge their sin by looking to a symbol of sin. In doing so, they turned from rebellion to obedience and God healed them. Jesus said: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Christ on a cross became the symbol of sin, and everyone who would be saved must acknowledge personal sinfulness (no one else can look for you) and trust in God’s means to save.
For forty years, Israel wandered in the desert – a period covered between Numbers 14 and 21. It was near Hormah that Israel rebelled against God and refused to enter the promised land. And now, back at Hormah, Israel’s fortunes begin to turn. The victory over the King of Arad is but the beginning of a new age for a new Israel.