The Israelites in the Wilderness
Focal Passage: Numbers 21:4-9
Background Text: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:9-15
Purpose Statement: To confess our often self-centered approach to our relationship with God
Key Verse: “So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many Israelites died” (Numbers 21:6).
Admit it: As cute and cuddly as they are, babies are also self-centered. They believe they should always have their own way: fed and held when they want, diapers changed immediately on demand, full attention all the time. Often, we sit in awe of the miraculous and marvelous new creations of God that they are.
Self-centeredness is a human condition. Nearly every day, most all of us take into account our own needs, wants, and sense of being and often as not place these at the center of our lives and our world. We can forgive this sense of self-centeredness in babies, children, and teenagers since it is part of human growth and development.
But as adults, we are often self-centered when we are sick or have significant issues that arise in our lives. We think of ourselves first when we feel pain or are having trouble dealing with changes. We can think of a thousand different reasons and acts of self-centeredness that we have experienced or observed in others. This is human nature.
However, when self-centeredness becomes our default attitude, we are in danger. We are in danger of losing the best part of our lives when we make everything else a servant of our needs, because we miss the experience of the beauty of things in and of themselves. When I need you to serve me, and I see you only in that light, I never see you as who you are.
Unfortunately, the children of Israel had that tendency throughout their wandering in the wilderness. This lesson leads us to look at their self-centeredness and God’s interesting reaction to it. Their story can remind us of our own self-centered tendencies in our relationship with God.
In the verses just before today’s Focal Passage, we find an important story. The Israelites had wandered into the northern Negev desert, in what today is southern Israel. At that time, it was ruled by a Canaanite king. Israel was not a warrior nation, and the king of Arad fought with them and took some Israelites into captivity. Israel prayed to God to give them the power to defeat the king, and in return they would destroy the city. It happened as they prayed, and they experienced another victory over a foreign force (Numbers 21:1-3).
When our son Adam was in elementary school, he played on a good soccer team. They managed to pretty well whip most of the other fourth-grade teams. The inherent danger of being so good, unfortunately, was that they believed they deserved to win every game. Instead of showing good sportsmanship, they grew boastful and arrogant. Every goal they scored became an opportunity to belittle the other team. It was no longer fun to watch them play.
Their coach, embarrassed and frustrated, arranged for them to play a game against another team from a neighboring town. We quickly understood the coach’s mind. Our team held their own for a good four minutes, and then the other team began to play with their own disciplined, incredibly good skills. By the time the half was over, it had become a huge rout. More significantly, when the other team scored over and over against us, they had no reaction; they just went back in formation, ready to score again. It was a marvelously humbling experience for the team and for all of us.
The Israelites had won a few different battles, and after this most recent victory over the Canaanites, we can imagine that they were feeling proud and perhaps a little haughty. Then they started complaining to Moses and to God about their living conditions.
“Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert,” they challenged God and Moses (verse 5). Granted, they were in the wilderness, but their basic needs were being met, even by the miraculous gift of daily manna God gave them for their sustenance. In their haughty self-centeredness, they rejected what God had given them: “We detest this miserable bread!” (verse 5). How arrogant, rude, and self-centered could they be to complain after God had brought them out of slavery!
What would we have done in their circumstances? Would we have demanded a change in our living conditions? Would we think so highly and completely of ourselves that we would impugn the gifts of God? What about in our actual circumstances? Have we ever been guilty of similar attitudes toward God’s provisions?
Self-centeredness means that we draw the baseline of what is acceptable for us at such a high level that we demand the world––and God––to shape up and see to our needs, and do so pronto. Self-centeredness creates a hunger in our hearts not for peace but to feed what cannot be satisfied. As a result, the self-centered person is the most miserable being on earth.
Think about a time when you were self-centered. What happened to your inner balance? What about your heart?
Can you think of a time when, as soon as words came out of your mouth, you wished you could quickly gather them back from the atmosphere and stuff them back down your throat?
At the age of 13, I had lots of activities and friends and accomplishments of all sorts. I never even noticed the transformation growing inside of me from being delighted with the good parts of my life to demanding that the rest of my life get in line with those other parts. Everything, slowly but surely, became things that pleased me or displeased me. It was all about me, the Center of the Known Universe.
One day when I came home from school, I encountered the smell of navy bean soup. I hated navy bean soup. Mom was in the kitchen, and I stomped in and began to berate her for “making such garbage” for dinner.
You can most likely surmise that this was not the appropriate thing for me to say on a number of levels! Mom looked at me for a good minute or so, and then she put down the spoon and walked out of the kitchen. My big, important, self-centered world crumbled. I wished that she had knocked me on the forehead with the spoon, but she just left. I had taken her feelings, thrown them on the floor, and stepped on them—this woman who had often gone without so that the seven of us children could have more. I saw beyond myself, and I saw myself, and it wasn’t pretty or even acceptable.
Yes, I apologized, and, yes, we made up; but I never forgot the experience of placing myself above a person who loved me. Even today, I remember it with pain.
So, the Israelites didn’t like their manna—their navy bean soup—or apparently anything else God had provided to sustain them in the wilderness. They were so full of themselves that they treated God like their own servant.
Verse 6 is powerfully understated: “So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.” Isn’t it fascinating that the same creature who participated in the fall from Eden now wantonly moved through the nation of Israel and killed many of them? God didn’t say a word to the people. God’s response to their condemnation was powerful, however. What can we think about God’s reaction?
Honestly, it was harsh and scary. We tend not to think of God acting this way. Let’s set aside the idea that God was just angry and decided to let them have it. Nothing in the Scripture text speaks to how God felt at this point. But what God did was a witness to great power.
Just as God rained down the plagues on Egypt for their denial of that power and authority, so it was even with the children of Israel when God unleashed the snakes on them. When they complained to Moses, all Moses could do was be frustrated and put out by their demands and behavior. When they complained to God, we can see that the response was indeed not what they expected!
Could it also be that God wanted to make a definite point? Notice that God didn’t rain fire and lightning down on the Israelites didn’t turn their water to blood, or give them boils. God simply let loose the creatures of the wilderness. Poisonous snakes would have been prevalent in that region. Even today, vipers are numerous and deadly.
Could it be that God intended with this action to answer Israel’s complaint that they had been brought up to be killed in the wilderness? It’s as if God meant to prove that, indeed, God didn’t have to kill them. There were plenty of things, such as poisonous vipers, to kill and injure the Israelites in this place. Rather than bring them up from Egypt to kill them, it was the other way around. God was the one who had protected them, even in the land of snakes and scorpions and other things that so easily kill.
When God heard Israel’s selfish complaints and condemnation, God seems to have said (and I’m paraphrasing, of course), “Say what? You don’t know what I have done for you, and you complain about the bread I have given you to sustain your life? Go ahead and deal with some snakes for a while, and then we can talk.”
In a sense, God punished the people in a harsh way. But in another sense, God simply allowed them to experience life without the divine presence so they could experience the danger and fatal consequences of acting self-centered before the God who controls bread and snakes.
What have you experienced when you demanded that God meet your needs according to your specifications? How does God sustain your life?
Repentance and Healing
It’s easy, isn’t it, for us to say we are sorry about minor or simple offenses against other people, such as bumping against them or interrupting them in conversation. “Sorry” becomes simply part of good manners, and we ask to be excused from the penalty of inappropriate behavior. Most often, they will say, “That’s all right” or “No problem.”
But when it comes to a major episode of offense, often, it’s incredibly hard for the offender to ask for forgiveness. And it can be equally hard for those who have been hurt to wholly extend forgiveness to those who have offended them. I’ve often said that the most delicious position someone can be in is holding other people’s wrongs against them, standing righteously wounded as a true victim. The trouble is, when we refuse to release others from their imprisonment of wrong, we too are frozen in time and unable to move forward.
It’s hard to forgive, because we have to give away what is ours: our sense of being wronged and our sense of being innocent. However, it is only in repentance and the offering of forgiveness that true healing can begin to occur and our lives once again become more whole.
So, the people of Israel knew they had blown it. With snakes slithering around killing their family members, the people went to Moses. Notice they didn’t go directly to God the way they did when they decided to condemn and fault God for their inconvenience. The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the LORD and you. Pray to the LORD so that he will send the snakes away from us” (Numbers 21:7).
As before, God did not address the people directly for their behavior. Instead, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.’ Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole” (verses 8-9). Whoever was bitten by a snake “could look at the bronze snake and live,” God told Moses (verse 9).
We need to realize what God did with this command to Moses. Is there anywhere else in the Bible where, if someone looks at a piece of bronze on a stick, they are healed? Not that I can think of. Could it be that the symbol of the bronze snake is better understood as a call to the people to repent and renew their faith? Would they have faith enough to simply look at a bronze snake on a stick and so be healed? That’s what happened. The snake was a focal point for the people to trust in God once again.
Did they believe God would care for them, see to their needs, and even heal them from venomous snake bites? If they did, then they could go to God humbled and ready to receive, not out of self-centeredness, but with gratitude for God’s grace and provision.
The fact is, we, like they, need God. Their story challenges us to examine our relationship with God and repent of the times and ways we have been self-centered in that relationship. It warns us to avoid becoming haughty about what we think we deserve or complaining about how we have not gotten what we think should be coming to us. It reminds us to respond in gratitude for God’s forgiveness toward us and extend to others the forgiveness we have received.
For what do you seek God’s forgiveness today? To whom do you need to extend forgiveness?
God of the wilderness, protect me and lead me to life as I humbly serve you; in Jesus’ name. Amen.