My old friend Johnson sent me this question all the way from India (I have rephrased it slightly).

“Why did God ask Moses to make a bronze snake in Numbers 21:8? In Exodus 20 he gave ten commandments and Exodus 34:17 warned them against making idols. Was God asking Moses to make an idol? Later we see Israel worshiping the bronze snake. King Hezekiah only got round to destroying it in 2 Kings 18:4.”

Let’s look at the passage in question:

“The people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.
The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people.
The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”
So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole.
Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” (Numbers 21:4–9 NIV11)

Now let’s think about what this means.

1. God does command his people to not make, amongst other things, images of animals: ““You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God,” (Exodus 20:3–5 NIV11). This is not an arbitrary command, but, as the context reveals, one connected with the dangers of his people turning such physical representations into something to be worshipped instead of himself.

2. “Do not make any idols.” (Exodus 34:17 NIV11). This command is given with the recent incident of the worshipping of the golden calf in the background (Exodus 32:4-5). The problem there was not that the people of Israel had made something out of metal, but that they worshipped it as the representation of Yahweh. As the Tyndale commentary says about this passage: “to worship a statue while calling it YHWH is not to worship YHWH.”* The bronze snake is not worshipped. Therefore it is not an idol. It is a source of God’s power for healing given by God to his people.

3. It is very sad that the Israelites forgot the purpose of the bronze a snake and turned it into an idol. Hezekiah took drastic action in destroying it. Whether this was the best solution or not, at least it prevented the Israelites from worshipping it as an idol: “He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan. )” (2 Kings 18:4 NIV11)

In summary
The whole incident is surprising and somewhat confusing. Why a snake? Snakes are universally feared and despised – especially by Israelites, considering the serpent’s role in Eden. Why made of bronze? It must have taken Moses quite a while to make it while the plague was still raging. Why not something quick made of wood? Why the instruction to look at it? What about the inherent dangers of it becoming an idol that could be worshipped?

We can only speculate about God’s reasoning. However, perhaps this is an illustration of God calling his people back to trust in him. In the context of Numbers 21 they have demonstrated a lack of faith and trust. Sometimes the way God works is by calling us to act in ways which don’t seem humanly logical. Consider Peter in Acts 10 and 11 as he receives the vision of the animals which God has now called clean and the commission to preach the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius. I imagine Moses and Peter may have felt similarly about the strange requests God was giving them.

I hope this makes sense, Johnson, and answers your questions. If not, let me know. Please continue to send me questions about the Bible, worship, quiet times and anything else you would like me to consider.

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“Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.” (Psalms 100:2 NIV11)

God bless, Malcolm

PS: You might also be interested in my book: “An elephant’s swimming pool”, a devotional look at the Gospel of John

*Cole, R. Alan. Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary. TOTC 2. IVP/Accordance electronic edition, version 2.3. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973.