The story of Balaam is entertaining and fascinating. But it’s the fiery serpents and the bronze snake that gets me. Israel complained about their situation and spoke against God and Moses (big surprise). This is one of the rare occasions when their complaint and anger is directed against God himself. Though their words against Moses are still but veiled rebellion against God. This time God takes action against his people. He sends “fiery” snakes with deadly venom. Possibly, these were saw-scale vipers (also called carpet vipers), found in the Middle East even today. This snake is reddish in color, known to leap 2-3 feet off the ground to attack, packs a powerful bite, and injects a deadly venom which causes internal bleeding and organ failure! As the snakes attack and kill, the people realize their error and acknowledge their sin against God. Moses is instructed to craft a snake, the likeness of their punishment, out of bronze (or maybe copper) and raise it on a staff for the infected to see. When they turn to gaze upon the metal snake they are healed from the sting of the real vipers.
We could talk for hours about the presence and history of snakes in folk-lore and pagan religions. Bronze snakes from ages gone are found across the Middle East and Africa. Egypt and some Canaanite religions included snakes and snake gods. In 1 Kings we learn that some Israelites continued to fashion and worship bronze snakes – a side cult carried on from this day. Flying snakes permeate ancient art, folk-lore and religions. Even more, the word used in the Hebrew, seraphim, is also used in other places associated with angelic beings. This would all be interesting to study further.
What I find truly fascinating is Jesus’ allusion to this account. He said just as the snake was lifted up in the desert, in the same way he must be lifted up (John 3:14). What a fascinating comparison! As Israel was struck by snakes, they looked up to a snake for salvation. Their healing came in one that was raised on a staff. Just as mankind is stricken by the consequence of sin, our salvation comes in looking upon sin on the cross. Our salvation is found in believing in the image, the ugliness, the darkness of sin and death.