The Brazen Serpent High on a Pole (Sunday Before the Cross)

When people think of snakes and the Bible, the first thing they may recall is the serpent in the Book of Genesis. There this creature is described as “more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1). It personifies the Tempter who causes Eve and then her husband to fall.

In response to the temptation of Eve, God punishes the serpent: “Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:13). The snake or serpent then becomes the image of all that is evil.

Throughout the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms we find many negative references to snakes. Thus the prophet Micah compares the enemies of Judea to snakes who conceal themselves and then emerge when it is time to strike: “They shall lick the dust like a serpent; they shall crawl from their holes like snakes of the earth” (Micah 7:17). Not a very flattering image for anyone who likes snakes.

Why, then, do we find the Lord Jesus comparing Himself to a snake: “…as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up”? What is so different about this snake that makes it a fitting image for the Son of Man?

The Serpent in the Wilderness

The reference to Moses lifting up a serpent takes us back to the story of the Israelites’ exodus from captivity in Egypt. In the Book of Numbers we read that the Israelites made their way through the wilderness of Sinai into the Promised Land but were not welcomed by the local inhabitants. They were under God’s protection and were given the manna for their daily food but they were not satisfied. Many felt that they were better off as slaves in Egypt.

“Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the 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 our soul loathes this worthless bread.’ So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.”

The “fiery serpents” refers to a species of poisonous snakes whose bite inflames the affected area. The Israelites seem to have stumbled upon an area where such snakes were common. The Israelites interpreted the serpent or snake as a sign of evil: of fatal punishment to God’s People who doubted His care for them.

“Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, ‘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.’ So Moses prayed for the people.

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a brazen serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived” (Numbers 21:4-9).

The Israelites appear to have taken the bronze serpent with them and enshrined it as a memorial to their deliverance in the wilderness, much as they preserved a jar of manna in the Tabernacle. According to Jewish tradition, the bronze serpent was too much like an idol; hundreds of years later it seems that some of the Israelites were venerating it as their deliverer rather than God. King Hezekiah of Judah, who reigned from 715 to 686 BC, destroyed the bronze serpent for just that reason: “He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image [to Asherah, a Canaanite goddess] and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:4).

The Bronze Serpent as a “Type”

The Lord is quoted in John’s Gospel as describing the bronze serpent incident as a type of Himself. A type is a person or event from an earlier era which pre-figures Christ, His Church, the holy mysteries or any aspect of the New Covenant. The sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22, Hebrews 11:17-19), the deliverance of Jonah (Book of Jonah, Matthew 12:39-40), the Israelites’ departure from Egypt (Hosea 11:1, Mattthew 2:15), the water from the rock (Exodus 17:1-7, 1 Coranthinians 10:1-4) are all types cited in the New Testament itself as fulfilled in Christ. In our worship Passover, the celebration of the Exodus, is a type of the New Passover, the resurrection. The Feast of Weeks, 50 days after Passover, is a type of Pentecost, 50 days after the New Passover.

In John the words “lifted up” are used twice to describe the type and its fulfillment. The type in this case is not the bronze serpent, which had no power in itself, but the act of displaying it in the sight of the Israelites. This type is fulfilled when Christ is “lifted up,” put on display at His crucifixion.

In John’s Gospel the account of Christ’s passion repeatedly shows Christ “lifted up” before the gaze of those around Him. After he had Jesus beaten and crowned with thorns, “Pilate then went out again, and said to them, ‘Behold, I am bringing Him out to you, that you may know that I find no fault in Him.’ Then Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the Man!’ When the chief priests and officers saw Him, they cried out, saying, ‘Crucify Him, crucify Him!’” (John 19:4-6).

After Jesus dies, the soldiers come to hasten the death of those crucified that day. They broke the legs of the criminals crucified with Him. Seeing that He was already dead, they merely pierced His side. John notes that “All these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, ‘Not one of His bones shall be broken.’ And again another Scripture says, ‘They shall look on Him whom they pierced’” (John 19:36-37). The type is fulfilled as Jesus is lifted up, beheld and looked upon.

In the Old Testament the Israelites who looked on it with faith in God’s purposes for them received healing of the venom caused by their sin. In the same way those who fix their attention on Christ receive healing for the sickness caused by the sin of the world.

Two Further “Liftings”

On September 14 the Church remembers two other occasions when Christ was “lifted up”: the Exaltations of the Holy Cross. The feast recalls the finding of the cross in the fourth century by St Helena and the recapture of the cross from Persian invaders by Emperor Heraclius in the seventh century. A highlight of the feast is the lifting up of the cross in blessing over the world while “Lord, have mercy” is repeatedly sung. We are invited to fix our attention on Christ who was lifted upon the cross for us.

The cross, like the Eucharist, is an antitype of Christ. While a type is something in the past that is fulfilled in the future, an antitype is something in the present that connects us to the climactic events of our salvation. As we look upon the cross lifted up on this feast we see, as the Israelites did before us, both our sin which brought about Christ’s suffering and His victory which brings about our healing.

Prefiguring you, the most precious Cross, Moses lifted a brazen serpent up high on a pole to oppose the fiery serpents, as it is written. By you we are delivered from the deception of the spiritual serpents.

Canon of the Forefeast