“And when king Arad the Canaanite, which dwelt in the south, heard tell that Israel came by the way of the spies; then he fought against Israel, and took some of them prisoners.” (Numbers 21:1)
Israel had refused to go into the land because of the spies’ report. When God told them they would spend the next forty years in the wilderness because of their lack of faith, they tried to go into the land anyway, and were attacked by the Amalekites and Canaanites. The description in Numbers 14 did not mention any prisoners being taken although it almost always happens in a battle. It galvanized Israel.
“And Israel vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.
And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities: and he called the name of the place Hormah.” (Numbers 21:2-3)
After their victory over the Cananites, Israel had requested permission to cross Edom’s land and been refused. They were forced to go back south along the Gulf of Aqaba, through the land of Midian to avoid conflict with the Edomites.
“And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.” (Numbers 21:4-5)
Romans 14:23 declares, “…for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” Israel had refused to trust God and go into the land of Canaan. Now they refused to take the responsibility for the consequences of that sin, blaming Moses and God for the problems. Once again the repeat the same old complaints that there is no food or water and they are sick of having to always eat manna.
Albert Einstein is credited with saying “Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” Unfortunately, it seems most people are stupid enough to do the same thing repeatedly, and Israel was no exception. Sure enough, it produced the same results.
“And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.” (Numbers 21:6-7)
In Numbers 11, when they complained, God had sent a fire that killed many of them, then when they complained again, he gave them so much quail they couldn’t eat it all before it spoiled and thousands died as a result. This time God sent poisonous snake among them that caused many of them to die. We have no way of knowing what kind of snakes these were, but the poison produced by pit vipers such as the rattlesnake consist of a protein that dissolves and digests the proteins of other animals, literally digesting them while still alive. People who have been bitten describe the pain as feeling like their limb was on fire, and it is probable this is what is meant by the fiery serpents.
Having seen the swarms of frogs, lice, and other plagues in Egypt, Israel recognized God’s hand in this and acknowledged that they had sinned against both God and Moses, and asked for prayer.
“And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” (Numbers 21:8-9)
God did not take away the snakes, nor did he heal everyone instantly. Instead he provided a means whereby any one could be healed if they would take positive action. All that was required was that they look at the brass snake Moses put up on the pole, but if they chose not to look, they would still die. Life or death depended on their action.
In John 3:14-18, Jesus referred to this incident as portraying what man needed to receive salvation. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
While they might believe that he would save them, failure to act on the belief would result in death. The same is true of salvation. James 2:17-18 states, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.” Romans 10:9-10 describes the action needed for salvation. “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” We demonstrate our belief by confessing our need for a savior and our belief in his promise. Failure to do so leaves us condemned as John 3:18 warns. “But he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Like the person who had been bitten by the snake, he is going to die if he doesn’t take action, but it is his choice.