4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 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 we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And 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. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 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 21:4-9 (ESV)
“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.”
I think this is one of the funniest passages in scripture. They can’t seem to make up their mind and get the story straight. Is it that there isn’t any food, or is it that you just don’t like this food. The Israelites remind me of picky little children at the table.
Here God has brought them out of Egypt. Miracle after miracle has sustained them on the way. They have been freed from slavery and yet they would rather be slaves if they could just have their fleshpots and cucumbers again, and leeks! Don’t forget the leeks! Oh they ate so much better then than they do now with this manna, this heavenly bread that falls from the sky every morning covering the ground like dew the perfect breading for frying the quail that flutter into the evening camp.
But they complain, so God gives them something to complain about. They sin, and God delivers the consequences. Fiery serpents invade the camp. God the Father disciplines his children.
Oh, its easy to pick on them. But are they any different than us. Have we really come so far as that we can point and laugh at these brothers and sisters of ours in the faith who had to wander the desert for those forty years? A whole generation of them that yes, they would die in the desert that the next generation could enter the promised land. Might we too not have grown tired of manna?
I dare say we would, we have. I mean there are all sorts of parallels here between this manna, and the worship of us pilgrims here on earth who are sustained on the journey through this desert of death by the bread from heaven which is Jesus Christ given for you in the Lord’s Supper. It doesn’t always keep our attention.
But more than that, we who were slaves to sin, who have been freed by the forgiveness of Christ constantly struggle with sin in many other ways too.
At times I hear it in objections to things like deathbed conversions. It makes me stop and ponder. “You mean that guy just got to go ahead and do all that?” The litany of sins can go on for sometime, drunkenness, whore mongering, drugs, abandonment, divorce are the typical culprits. “and they repent of that on their deathbed and it is all good?!!” I sure hope so. If not we are all doomed.
But it sort of misses the point. People who live in that way, do not live with the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. We think, perhaps, that it all looks like a good time, these people who live for themselves. I think were often for a loss to even begin to comprehend how broken and vain their lives are as they strive after the wind looking for happiness. And our own jealousy, as it often is, of those flesh pots and cucumbers, says that we would rather be slaves to the pleasures of this world, the emptiness if we thought we could get away with it. Yes, that is the Serpents bite. The sin within us, the voice that keeps calling us back to Egypt.
So sometimes God lets them bite. Oh, make no mistake, our camp is filled with the treacherous worms, demons, the powers of the prince of the air, tempting us at every turn. When Jesus speaks of his followers picking up serpents and not being bitten, not succumbing to them, it isn’t just the literal manifestations of that happening like Paul on Malta that he talks about, but the spiritual realities of our relationship to the viper’s brood that surrounds us. It isn’t an invitation for us to put God to the test while vacationing in the Ozarks. But there are times when these serpents bite, as they did the Israelites in the desert.
There are times when we find ourselves tempted, when perhaps we find ourselves having fallen. There are times when the bite has been so bad we wonder if God could ever redeem us. When jealousy of another’s sin has led us back to the flesh pots of Egypt, or to complain against God and the church for this or for that. Then we have our own Bronze serpent. Look to him, Jesus Christ lifted up, there on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. Your sins. There yes, he has forgiven every last one. There is the cure for the serpent’s bite, there is the answer to the viper’s brood.