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B'Midbar/Numbers 21:6 And the L-rd sent the burning snakes against the people and they bit the people and many people from Israel died.
The narrative has rushed through nearly forty years since last week's parasha. Miryam and Aharon have died and the Children of Israel are now on their way back towards the Promised Land, ready for the next generation to enter and take possession under the leadership of Joshua, the son of Nun. But, as so often happened in the wilderness, the people started complaining and moaning about the food, or lack of food, or lack of water - no, this time it was the food. The people were fed up with manna every day. This is the response:HaShem sends poisonous snakes against the people and many die. Isn't this a bit drastic?
Samson RaphaelHirsch starts on the first word in the verse: , which is the Pi'el 3ms form of the root , to send. Hirsch explains that " in the Qal stem means 'to send', to put something in motion towards a goal. But in Pi'el predominately has the meaning of letting something go, to leave it to its natural way, not to hold it back. Here too, it is not that G-d sent serpents, but that He let them go, He did not keep them back. They had always been there in the wilderness - "the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions" (D'varim 8:15, ESV), but hitherto they had been kept back by G-d's careful protecting power. Now G-d withdraws this restraining power and the serpents of the wilderness follow their natural traits to which the people succumbed." Targum Onkelos changes , "and he sent" to , "and he incited", implying that the serpents had to be provoked or worked up to bite the people - which HaShem did.
Just exactly what are these serpents? The Hebrew word is a mp noun, the plural of , for which there is no known or obvious root, meaning simply 'serpent'. The second word in the pair, , is the Qal participle of the root , to burn or consume, and is perhaps best known for the name given to the heavenly being surrounding the throne of HaShem in Isaiah's famous vision: "Above Him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew ... Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar" (Isaiah 6:2,7, ESV). Together, literally, we have "the serpents, the burning ones."Rashi suggests that they are called "burning snakes" because they burn a person with the venom of their fangs. Jacob Milgrom points out that among the early translations, the Septuagint offers 'deadly', while Targum Onkelos prefers 'shouting' or 'screaming' (Jastrow), referring to the serpent's poisonous bite. The next word in the verse, , is the Pi'el 3mp from of the root , to bite. Hirsch suggests that the Pi'el stem has the sense here of being iterative; the snakes repeatedly bit the people.
Why would HaShem send serpents to bite the people? What sort of punishment was that? The early sages explained that it was a direct response to the complaints of the Israelites: "Because the serpent (B'resheet 3:1 ff), who was the first to speak slander, had been cursed, and they did not learn a lesson from him. The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore, said: 'Let the serpent, who was the first to introduce slander, come and punish those who speak slander.' This accords with the text, 'a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall' (Ecclesiastes 10:8, ESV)", by which they meant the wall of teeth and lips that guards the tongue (B'Midbar Rabbah 19:22).Ibn Ezra comments somewhat dryly that, "The Israelites tried to 'bite' G-d and Moshe and got bitten in return."
The Bible records other instances of HaShem using real or metaphorical serpents as agents of punishment. Jeremiah, for example, speaking against the authorities in Jerusalem, brings G-d's word that "'I am sending among you serpents, adders that cannot be charmed, and they shall bite you,' declares the L-RD" (Jeremiah 8:17, ESV), while Amos - speaking G-d's judgement against the people of Samaria and the northern kingdom of Israel - claims that no-one will escape from G-d: "If they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, from there I will search them out and take them; and if they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them" (Amos 9:3, ESV). The serpent, connecting again to the early B'resheet narrative, is also used to refer to Satan: "the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan" (Revelation 20:2, ESV), who will be thrown into the lake of fire.
The next mention of serpents comes up in the gospels, where we find Yeshua speaking with the seventy two disciples that He had sent out before Him into the towns and villages of the Galil to announce the gospel, the good news of the proximity of the kingdom: "Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you" (Luke 10:19, ESV). Here, the disciples are told that they have authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, here being used as a symbol for the power of the enemy, without getting hurt. The old enmity between the seed of woman and the serpent is being settled in the favour of mankind, when given authority by Yeshua. At the end of Mark's gospel, Yeshua extends that authority to His followers, to all those who believe in Him: "And these signs will accompany those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover" (Mark 16:17-18, ESV). Once again, the disciples are given authority over the serpents so that they are immune from being bitten as Rav Sha'ul demonstrated this during the shipwreck on Malta, when "Sha'ul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand ... He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm" (Acts 28:3,5, ESV).
Writing to the congregations in Corinth, Rav Sha'ul used the experience of the wilderness generation in our text as an example of the way the early church was to behave, "We must not put Messiah to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer" (1 Corinthians 10:9-10, ESV). They must not grumble and moan, allowing themselves to get drawn into negative conversations criticising G-d and - in effect - testing Him. Just as the little snakes bit the Israelites in the wilderness so that many died, Sha'ul warns, if the congregation descends into arguments, complaints and strife, then many of them will die - the congregation will die as the venom of those attitudes, the hurt and hatred that they stir up, seeps through the body of Messiah.
The same warning applies to us today. We have been given authority - as followers of Yeshua, just like the first disciples - to tread on the serpents, to shake them off and to defeat all the power of the enemy. But we have to do it; we have to actualise Yeshua's promise in our lives and in our congregations. Firstly, we must not allow ourselves to drift into complaining and moaning. Don't like the music? Don't like the prayers or the sermon? Then go and talk it through with someone in authority; don't grumble and moan to the person next to you. Perhaps you don't like it because the Spirit is challenging you and making you feel uncomfortable in order to bring about change in your life. Talking it through with the right person can help you sort out what is going on and whether it's just you or the L-rd trying to get your attention. If, after talking, you are convinced that it's not for you, then perhaps it's time - with grace, permission and in an orderly way - to find a new congregation to join. But just sitting and complaining is spreading little snakes that will bite you and everyone else with whom you share your complaints.
Secondly, we must not allow others around us to drift into complaining and moaning. You don't have to receive it and you don't have to allow it to happen in your area of influence. If someone starts to complain or moan in an unrighteous way, then you need to exercise the authority that Yeshua has given you and tell them to stop, to go and talk to someone - probably in leadership - whose job it is to handle this sort of thing and help them find out what is going on and then to work through it with them. Otherwise, they are spreading little snakes that will bite you, themselves and ultimately the whole congregation. Certainly people need to talk, and everyone has a bad day now and again, but don't receive unnecessary or inappropriate complaints - shake them off into the fire or tread them underfoot. That will bring healing and neutralise deadly poison.
Further Study: Psalm 78:12-19; Psalm 91:9-13; Matthew 13:36-43
Application: Are you constantly being bitten by little snakes, slowly dying as their venom enters your system? Look around you and work out whose snakes they are. It is time to throw them off into the fire and walk in the victory that Yeshua has won for us.
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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