Numbers 21:1–9: Arad destroyed; the bronze snake
We read, in 20:14–21, that the Edomites had threatened Israel with war. The Israelites probably seem like an easy target, to the surrounding nations, because the king of Arad also decides, in this section, to attack the Israelites, and capture some of them. (I’m assuming for slaves.)
However, the king of Arad doesn’t take into account that the LORD is with these people. The Israelites make a vow to Him: If He delivers the people of Arad—the Aradites?—into their hands, they will completely “destroy” their cities. The footnote for verse 2 indicates that the word “destroy” “refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the LORD, often by totally destroying them.” (You’ll see this term quite a bit in the Old Testament, although I probably won’t make mention of the definition every time.)
The LORD agrees, and, with His help, they completely destroy all of the towns of Arad. The Israelites then name the place Hormah (which means “destruction”).
After this, they continue on their way—carefully avoiding Edom—and the people begin to grow impatient. They start to complain to Moses and to God:
[the people] spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” (verse 5)
In this case, however, there is no argument, and no warning, there is only swift response: The LORD sends venomous snakes among the Israelites, and many of the people die from the snake bites. The people immediately repent, and ask Moses to ask the LORD to take the snakes away, so he prays to the LORD.
God instructs Moses to “make a snake” (verse 8), and put it up on a pole. Anyone who looks at the snake will be saved—they won’t die from the snake bites. So Moses crafts a snake out of bronze, and puts it on a pole, and anyone who looks at it is safe; when any of the Israelites is bitten by a snake, he can simply look at the bronze snake, and be saved from death.
The first thing that strikes me about this chapter is how quickly the Israelites can fall into rebellion, even after a resounding victory over the nation of Arad.
The second thing is that God has, once again, saved the Israelites in such a way that it would be obvious that He had saved them. He could have simply made the snakes go away, or made it so that anyone who was bitten just didn’t die. But instead, he has Moses create this miraculous bronze snake, and the Israelites are saved by looking at it. There would be no mistaking that this was a miracle; it was obviously the LORD’s doing, and not some natural occurrence.
Unfortunately, all is not well that ends well. The Israelites apparently keep the bronze snake, as a reminder of what God has done, but we’ll see in the book of 2 Kings that later generations will begin to worship it, as a false idol. (See 2 Kings 18:1–4.)