Poisonous Snakes

Poisonous Snakes February 27, 2023

God sometimes allows – or even sends – “poisonous snakes” into our lives. What can we learn from these difficult circumstances?


Numbers, chapters 21-23; Mark, chapters 6-7

Numbers 21:4-9 (NLT):

Then the people of Israel set out from Mount Hor, taking the road to the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom. But the people grew impatient with the long journey, and they began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!”

So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died. Then the people came to Moses and cried out, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” So Moses prayed for the people.

Then the Lord told him, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” So Moses made a snake out of bronze and attached it to a pole. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!


They began to speak against God and Moses.  This was not the first time that the Israelites had complained on their journey out of Egypt; in fact, complaining was a regular part of this story. They complained when Pharaoh’s army followed them, about having no water, and about having no food. Then when God gave them manna to eat, they complained about not having meat.  But this passage makes it clear that this time, it was not just Moses, nor their circumstances: they began to speak against God and Moses.

Where do complaints come from?  They come from a belief that things should be different – that we are entitled to something better. That may seem to be a natural reaction, but the fact is that this sense of entitlement is at the heart of rebellion against God. To complain about God is to challenge God’s very nature – his goodness, his mercy, and his love. Rather than accepting that we do not know the whole story, we complain about what God is doing (or not doing), convinced that we deserve better.

Poisonous snakes

So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died.”  How do we respond to that? Some might think that God overreacted, while others may believe that “they got what they deserved.”  Neither of those responses truly honor God.  God is not a vindictive deity, waiting for the opportunity to strike people down for their insolence.  The key to the story is not in the snakes, but in the reaction of the people: We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.

Whenever something happens that we don’t like, or don’t understand, our first reaction should not be to accuse God, but to ask: How might God be working in the midst of this? Because God’s primary concern is always our spiritual well-being and growth, rather than our physical comfort or pleasure, we should always consider that painful circumstances are opportunities for us to experience God’s strength, encouragement, or correction.

“Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes”

The people acknowledged their sin in rebelling against God, and they asked Moses to pray for them:  Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.  This last part of the passage teaches us two important lessons.  First, the people told Moses how to pray for them, but there is no indication that Moses actually prayed that way.  The text simple tells us that Moses prayed for the people.  Asking Moses to pray a certain way (or telling him how to pray) is just another form of rebellion against his leadership, and ultimately against God himself. They didn’t ask Moses to pray for them in general; they didn’t ask him to pray that God would forgive them. Instead, they told him to pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.

A Snake on a Pole

That brings us to the second lesson: God didn’t take the snakes away.  Instead, God provided a remedy for snakebite – a bronze snake on a pole.  If they were bitten, they could look to the bronze snake and live. I believe there are two important reasons for this. First, if God had simply taken the snakes away, they could have quickly fallen back into their old pattern of grumbling and complaining. The presence of the snakes served as a reminder of the consequences of sinful behavior.

Second, this reminds us that God does not promise to “fix” everything that we don’t like.  He does not remove every source of pain (just ask Paul about his “thorn in the flesh”). God doesn’t promise us comfort. Instead, he reminds us that with every trial and temptation there is a way of escape.  Sometimes, he removes the problem (like Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea).  At other times, he gives us a “bronze snake on a pole” – a remedy to remind us that the attacks and challenges will not kill us.


And sometimes, the “way out” is through the ultimate deliverance – our transition from this world to the next.  We have placed such a high value on this life and its pleasures that we may hold too tightly to it.  God doesn’t give us the choice to “check out” whenever we think our time is done, but he does remind us that this life pales in comparison to what he has prepared for us. As Paul said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Perhaps God is reminding us to shift our prayer focus – away from praying for specific outcomes, and toward praying for insight on how he is at work, and how we can join him.


Father, thank you for reminding us that painful circumstances and correction come often serve to turn our attention back to you.  As you work in our lives today, help us to recognize your purposes and to cooperate in them. We may think that we know how you should work; remind us that your ways are not our ways. Help us to stay focused on your goodness, your mercy, and your covenant faithfulness to us, so we can trust you more.  Amen.

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