Numbers 21:4–9 (NRSV)
Verse 4From 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. Verse 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." Verse 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. Verse 7The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. Verse 8And the Lord said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." Verse 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.
This scripture gives a snapshot of divine love in the face of human sin. The people whom God liberated from captivity in Egypt have grown impatient on their journey to the promised land and doubt whether God can be trusted. God, nonetheless, remains committed to the people and responds to both their complaints and their repentance. Instead of removing the poisonous serpents that bite the Israelites as a consequence of their sin, God heals them when they look at a bronze serpent raised up on a pole—a remedy that requires them to continually trust God for salvation.
John 3:14–21 recalls this image, indicating that Jesus raised up on the cross is God’s ultimate way to save people by drawing them into a relationship of trust with a loving God. We can be honest with Jesus about our sin and struggles because he has entered into us and works in us to bring new life.
Faithful God, thank you that your love sustains us on the long journey of faith. Help us to trust your saving presence and provision, even in the midst of our darkest hours. Amen.