Tuesday of Week 5 of Lent – First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9

Today, we see the Israelites on their long journey through the desert to the Promised Land. They are quite near their final goal. In their way stood the territory of Edom. In spite of requests to pass through without causing any trouble, they are turned down.

Moses, however, was determined not to engage Edom in battle, and the people became impatient with him and also with God for the direction in which they were being taken. They were full of confidence, having just won a victory over Arad, a territory lying between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. They forgot that their victory over Arad had been granted by the Lord in response to a solemn pledge to put a curse on the towns they attacked. But now they had forgotten what they had done with God’s help and were ready to rebel again.

As they make their way to the Sea of Suph, that is, towards the Gulf of Aqaba (at the southern tip of modern Israel) and skirt around Edom, they begin grumbling against God and Moses. They are finding life hard and wish they had never left the slavery of Egypt, which now seems better than what they are presently going through.

The focus of their complaints today is especially against the manna, the food that God provided them six days a week:

Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.

Their impatience leads them to blaspheme against Yahweh, to reject Moses and despise the ‘bread from heaven’ (the manna). This was more serious than it might appear. By rejecting the food God was sending to them in abundance, they were rejecting God himself.

Their complaints about the tastelessness of the food represents a kind of tastelessness of their own, their ingratitude to God who fed them in the desert and prevented them from dying of hunger. Thanksgiving to God for his blessings to us is often one of the prayers we make least often.

It is then that God sends a plague of poisonous serpents which kill many people. In Hebrew, they are called ‘fiery serpents’ (saraph), from the burning effect of their poisonous bite (the word seraphim comes from the same root.

The people see this as a punishment from God for their grumbling:

We have sinned by speaking against the Lord…

They beg Moses to intercede with God on their behalf. God tells Moses to mount a bronze serpent on a pole, and says that anyone who is bitten and looks at it will live. And so it happened.

The significance of this reading is clearly in its being a foreshadowing of Christ on the cross. Later on Jesus will say,

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15)

The serpent only healed people of the bite of a snake. Later, we are told in the Second Book of the Kings that Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent which Moses had made because it had become an object of idolatry.

The life that Jesus gives from the cross is of a totally different kind. And that is what we prepare to celebrate as we come to the end of the Lenten season.

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