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The Bronze Serpent


When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he fought against Israel and took some of them captive. 2Then Israel made a vow to the L ord and said, “If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns.” 3The L ord listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah.

4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The 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 detest this miserable food.” 6Then the L ord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the L ord and against you; pray to the L ord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the L ord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

The Journey to Moab

10 The Israelites set out, and camped in Oboth. 11They set out from Oboth, and camped at Iye-abarim, in the wilderness bordering Moab toward the sunrise. 12From there they set out, and camped in the Wadi Zered. 13From there they set out, and camped on the other side of the Arnon, in the wilderness that extends from the boundary of the Amorites; for the Arnon is the boundary of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. 14Wherefore it is said in the Book of the Wars of the L ord,

“Waheb in Suphah and the wadis.

The Arnon 15and the slopes of the wadis

that extend to the seat of Ar,

and lie along the border of Moab.”

16 From there they continued to Beer; that is the well of which the L ord said to Moses, “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.” 17Then Israel sang this song:

“Spring up, O well!—Sing to it!—


the well that the leaders sank,

that the nobles of the people dug,

with the scepter, with the staff.”

From the wilderness to Mattanah, 19from Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamoth, 20and from Bamoth to the valley lying in the region of Moab by the top of Pisgah that overlooks the wasteland.

King Sihon Defeated

21 Then Israel sent messengers to King Sihon of the Amorites, saying, 22“Let me pass through your land; we will not turn aside into field or vineyard; we will not drink the water of any well; we will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” 23But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel to the wilderness; he came to Jahaz, and fought against Israel. 24Israel put him to the sword, and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as to the Ammonites; for the boundary of the Ammonites was strong. 25Israel took all these towns, and Israel settled in all the towns of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages. 26For Heshbon was the city of King Sihon of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and captured all his land as far as the Arnon. 27Therefore the ballad singers say,

“Come to Heshbon, let it be built;

let the city of Sihon be established.


For fire came out from Heshbon,

flame from the city of Sihon.

It devoured Ar of Moab,

and swallowed up the heights of the Arnon.


Woe to you, O Moab!

You are undone, O people of Chemosh!

He has made his sons fugitives,

and his daughters captives,

to an Amorite king, Sihon.


So their posterity perished

from Heshbon to Dibon,

and we laid waste until fire spread to Medeba.”

31 Thus Israel settled in the land of the Amorites. 32Moses sent to spy out Jazer; and they captured its villages, and dispossessed the Amorites who were there.

King Og Defeated

33 Then they turned and went up the road to Bashan; and King Og of Bashan came out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. 34But the L ord said to Moses, “Do not be afraid of him; for I have given him into your hand, with all his people, and all his land. You shall do to him as you did to King Sihon of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon.” 35So they killed him, his sons, and all his people, until there was no survivor left; and they took possession of his land.

4. And they journeyed from mount Hor. This also is narrated in their praise, that they bore the weariness of a long and circuitous march, when they were already worn down by their wanderings for forty years. Moses, therefore, tells us that, since God had forbidden them to pass the borders of Edom, they went by another way; but immediately afterwards he adds, that they basely rebelled, without being provoked to do so by any new cause. They had before been rebellious under the pressure of hunger or thirst, or some other inconvenience; but now, when there were no grounds for doing so, they malignantly exasperate themselves against God. Some understand that they were afflicted in mind because of the way, 117117     Heb. בדרך Lat, in via. A.V. “because of the way.” “In often noteth the cause of a thing; as, ‘the Lord’s soul was grieved in (that is, for, or because of) the misery of Israel,’ Judges 10:16; or, according to the like phrase in Zechariah 11:8, their soul ‘loatheth the way,’ both for the longsomeness of it, and for the many wants and troubles they found therein.” — Ainsworth in loco. so that the ב, beth, indicates the cause of their grief and trouble. It might, indeed, be the case that their passage through the mountains was steep and difficult; but a pleasant region was almost in sight, gently to attract them onward. Again, they falsely complain of want of water, in which respect God had already applied a remedy. Nothing, then, could be more unfair than odiously to recall to memory a past evil, in which they had experienced the special aid of God. But their depravity is more thoroughly laid open in their loathing of the manna, as a food affording but little nutriment, or contemptible.

The verb 118118     A. V., “discouraged;” margin, “or, grieved; Heb. shortened.” קצר, To shorten, to cut short, to cut off, and hence to reap. S.M. says, “Their spirit was shortened, i.e., became impatient; being a species of antithesis to longanimity, or long forbearing.” — W. קצר, katzar, is used first, which signifies to constrain; thus some explain it, that they were rendered anxious by distress. But since the same word is used for to shorten, others translate it that their minds were broken down with weariness, so as to faint by the way. In any case, a voluntary bitterness is indicated, whereby they were possessed, so that their alacrity in advancing altogether failed them. The verb 119119     A. V., “loatheth.” קצה is likewise to cut off, but is said by the lexicographers to borrow a meaning in this instance from קוף to loathe, and be weary of. It would be simpler to say that קצה is the praet. 3d. pers. of קוף, and that a feminine verb is required by the subs. נפשנוW , קצה, katzah, which Jerome renders sickens, is not used simply for disgust, but signifies that weariness which excruciates or agonizes the mind.

They call the manna “light” food; as much as to say that it inflates rather than satisfies or nourishes; or, as I deem more probable, the word קלקל, kelokel, is used metaphorically for vile, or contemptible, and valueless.

5. And the people spake against God and against Moses. Either because they murmured against God in the person of Moses, or else because their impiety broke forth to such a furious extent, that they openly blasphemed against God; and this latter opinion is most in accordance with the words, because by their use of the plural number they accuse two parties together. 120120     Addition in Fr., “sinon qu’ils s’addressent aussi a Aaron;” unless they also address Aaron. But, inasmuch as Moses had nothing separate from God, no one could enter into a contest with him without warring also against God Himself. Here, however, as I have said, their insolence proceeded still further, so as not only to rail against the minister, but to vomit forth also their wicked blasphemy against God Himself, as if He had injured them most grossly by their deliverance.

6. And the Lord sent fiery serpents. Their ingratitude was justly and profitably chastised by this punishment; for they were practically taught that it was only through God’s paternal care that they had been previously free from innumerable evils, and that He was possessed of manifold forms of punishment, whereby to take vengeance on the wicked.

Although deserts are full of many poisonous animals, still it is probable that these serpents suddenly arose, and were created for this special purpose; as if God, in His determination to correct the people’s pride, should call into being new enemies to trouble them. For they were made to feel how great their folly was to rebel against God, when they were not able to cope with the serpents. This, then, was an admirable plan for humbling them, contemptuously to bring these serpents into the field against them, and thus to convince them of their weakness. Consequently, they both confess their guilt and acknowledge that there was no other remedy for them except to obtain pardon from God. These two things, as we are aware, are necessary in order to appease God, first, that the sinner should be dissatisfied with himself and self-condemned; and, secondly, that he should seek to be reconciled to God. The people seem faithfully to fulfill both of these conditions, when they of their own accord acknowledge their guilt, and humbly have recourse to God’s mercy. It is through the influence of terror that they implore the prayers of Moses, since they count themselves unworthy of favor, unless an advocate (patronus) should intercede for them. This would, indeed, be erroneous, that those who are conscience-struck should invite an intercessor to stand between them and God, unless they, too, should unite their own prayers with his; for nothing is more contrary to faith than such a state of alarm as prevents us from calling upon God. Still the kindness of Moses, and his accustomed gentleness is perceived by this, that he is so readily disposed to listen to these wicked ones; and God also, on His part, shews that the prayer of a righteous man is not unavailing, when He heals the wound He had inflicted. 121121     Addition in Fr., “si tost;” so speedily.

8. Make thee a fiery serpent. Nothing would, at first sight, appear more unreasonable than that a brazen serpent should be made, the sight of which should extirpate the deadly poison; but this apparent absurdity was far better suited to render the grace of God conspicuous than as if there had been anything natural in the remedy. If the serpents had been immediately removed, they would have deemed it to be an accidental occurrence, and that the evil had vanished by natural means. If, in the aid afforded, anything had been applied, bearing an affinity to fit and appropriate remedies, then also the power and goodness of God would have been thrown into the shade. In order, therefore, that they might perceive themselves to be rescued from death by the mere grace of God alone, a mode of preservation was chosen so discordant with human reason, as to be almost a subject for laughter. At the same time it had the effect of trying the obedience of the people, to prescribe a mode of seeking preservation, whichbrought all their senses into subjection and captivity. It was a foolish thing to turn the eyes to a serpent of brass, to prevent the ill effects of a poisonous bite; for what, according to man’s judgment, could a lifeless statue, lifted up on high, profit? But it is the peculiar virtue of faith, that we should willingly be fools, in order that we may learn to be wise only from the mouth of God. This afterwards more clearly appeared in the substance of this type: for, when Christ compares Himself to this serpent which Moses lifted up in the wilderness, (John 3:14,) it was not a mere common similitude which He employs, but He teaches us, that what had been shewn forth in this dark shadow, was completed in Himself. And, surely, unless the brazen serpent had been a symbol of spiritual grace, it would not have been laid up like a precious treasure, and diligently preserved for many ages in God’s sanctuary. The analogy, also, is very perfect; since Christ, in order to rescue us from death, put on our flesh, not, indeed, subject to sin, but representing “the likeness of sinful flesh,” as Paul says. (Romans 8:3.) hence follows, what I have above adverted to, that since “the world by wisdom knew not God,” He was manifested in the foolishness of the cross. (1 Corinthians 1:21.) If, then, we desire to obtain salvation, let us not be ashamed to seek it from the curse of Christ, which was typified in the image of the serpent.

Its lifting up is poorly and incorrectly, in my opinion, explained by some, as foreshadowing the crucifixion, 122122     C. here is opposed to the great body of the commentators, although he has with him “some of reverent account in the Church,” as Attersoll calls them. Perhaps it may be admissible to include, with Lampe, both views: “Exaltatio serpentis hujus in pertica primo quidem designat exaltationem in cruce, ita tamen ut pertica simul possit emblema gerere praeconii Evangelici, per quod Christus crucifixus mundo innotuit.”—In Johan. 3:14. whereas it ought rather to be referred to the preaching of the Gospel: for Moses was commanded to set up the serpent on high, that it might be conspicuous on every side. And the word נס nes, is used both for a standard, and the mast of a ship, or any other high pole: which is in accordance with the prophecy of Isaiah, where he says that Christ should be “for an ensign” to all nations, (Isaiah 11:10) which we know to have been the case, by the spreading of the doctrine of the Gospel through the whole world, with which the look of faith corresponds. For, just as no healing was conveyed from the serpent to any who did not turn their eyes towards it, when set up on high, so the look of faith only causes the death of Christ to bring salvation to us. Although, therefore, God would give relief to their actual distress, it is still unquestionable that He even then admonished all believers that the venomous bites of the devil could only be cured by their directing their minds and senses by faith on Christ.

The brazen serpent is, furthermore, a proof to us how inclined to superstition the human race is, since posterity worshipped it as an idol, until it was reduced to powder by the holy king Hezekiah. (1 Kings 18:4.)

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