The Bronze Serpent


by Fr. Joe Lawrence

Numbers 21:4-9

So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. Numbers 21:9

Biblical “typology” is the practice of reading a passage of the Bible, often from the Old Testament, that is about one thing and realizing that it is also about something else. To take a clear example: Genesis 22 is about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, on mountain named Moriah. But for Christians this passage is also about the God’s willingness to give his only Son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for us and our salvation on another mountain named Golgotha. The sacrifice of Isaac is a “type,” a rough sketch, of the later and greater reality of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. I find that my heart never fails to grow strangely warm when I catch a glimpse of my Savior, Jesus Christ, playing on the words of the Old Testament.

I caught another sight of him in Numbers 21:4-9, an admittedly unusual passage of Holy Scripture.

As the story goes, Moses is leading the people in a roundabout way through the desert, and the people once again grow impatient and start grumbling. From their perspective, the chips are down, they’re on the verge of dehydration and starvation, they’ve lost all confidence in Moses’ ability to lead, and worst of all, God has let them down. So, they complain against Moses, and against God, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” This kindles God’s wrath, and he afflicts them with deadly, venomous snakes. Under the heavy hand of God’s judgment the people repent:  “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” Moses prays, and he is told to make a bronze snake and hoist it up on a pole so that anyone who was bitten can look upon it and live. As the people looked upon the very symbol of their affliction (i.e. a snake) they found healing. By looking at the curse, the curse was reversed. The many snakes killed with their venom, but the one snake that was lifted up took that venom away and gave life.

I’m not alone in seeing Jesus Christ in this passage. Jesus himself says it, too. He told Nicodemus one night, “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). The snake that Moses hoisted up for the people to look upon and be saved, this is a “type” of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. Jesus himself says this!

Here is what St. Augustine says:

“What is the serpent lifted up? The Lord’s death on the cross. For as a death came by the serpent, it was now figured by the image of the serpent. The serpent’s bite was deadly, the Lord’s death is life-giving. A serpent is gazed on that the serpent may have no power. What is this? A death is gazed on, that death may have no power.”

A snake was lifted up to destroy the power of the snakes; Jesus was lifted up on the cross to die, and by his death he destroyed the power of death. By looking at the curse (the death of Christ), the curse is reversed.

This is precisely what we come to do in Holy Week. To gather and set our eyes upon the cross of Jesus Christ, by which he conquered the power of death. For “the Son of Man must be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Once again, I’ve caught a glimpse of my Savior, and my heart is strangely warmed.

Fr. Joe ministers at Trinity Anglican Church


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