Snakes on a Pole
By Larry Short
If I asked you to brainstorm a list of biblical metaphors for Christ from the animal kingdom, some would probably come quickly to mind: lion and lamb among them. And now, of course, you can add the crimson worm to that list. But there is another symbol for Christ in the Old Testament which seems even more counter-intuitive, and it’s found in Numbers 21.
Because of their bitter complaining and sin, verse 6 says that “God sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people, and many Israelites died.” The people came to Moses and confessed they had sinned, and begged him to save them from the snakes. So Moses prayed, and the Lord told him: “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
This seems counterintuitive because we (rightly) associate snakes with sin. Personally snakes don’t bother me that much (perhaps that means I’m too cozy with sin?), but for my wife it’s a different story. If she is driving her car down the road and sees a harmless grass snake, she will try to run it over … then back up the car and run it over again to make sure she’s finished it off.
This vehemence against a relatively sad little creature has to be the result of some sort of archetypal memory from that Garden of Eden incident, I tell myself.
But the snake certainly did get a bad start in the Garden, as the creature who (inhabited by Satan) led Eve and Adam astray. And was cursed as a result. Well, Genesis says that creature was a serpent … which may be different than a snake … but it’s probably a fine distinction.
The uncanny thing is that it is clear that the bronze snake upon a pole was indeed intended to represent sin. The snakes were, after all, what was killing them. Just as it is our sin that is so poisonous to us.
So, why did God direct Moses to use the image of a bronze snake, upon a pole, to cure the problem of the venomous snakes? This seems a contradiction. Look upon a snake, so you can be saved from snakes.
Some light is shed on the mystery in the New Testament, specifically in John 3:14 and following:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Jesus places himself willingly in the position of that snake on a pole. He who knew no sin, became sin for us. He was “lifted up on a pole” (crucified on the Cross), that we might look upon Him and, believing, live.
It’s also interesting to know that this caduceus of Moses, the bronze snake upon a pole, was apparently revered and kept safe in Israel for something like 700 or 800 years. It wasn’t until Hezekiah’s day, when the pole became an object of idolatrous worship (with Jews burning incense to it, instead of to God) that it was intentionally destroyed by this passionate king of Judah (2 Kings 18).
We do have a tendency to worship graven images, don’t we? Even visual depictions of Christ can create a distraction. I think this is one reason why God has been very strategic about not leaving us with any physical object to focus our adoration upon. (One reason I am skeptical about the so-called “Shroud of Turin.”)
It’s also interesting to me that our modern-day medical symbol, the caduceus, is comprised of two snakes wrapped around a pole. (Though most recent historical research into the meaning behind this symbol has reached the conclusion that it was a case of mistaken identity.)
The truth is, we have all of us, each and every one, been bitten by the snake of sin. And there is but one cure: to fix our gaze upon the Son of Man, lifted high upon the Cross, bearing our sins in His own body. This was the crucifixion Scripture says occurred “before the foundations of the earth.” Praise God for providing the cure for my fatal disease, in the form of His crucified Son!