Returning to Jesus making reference to Moses and the serpent (John 3:14), it is in connection with this that Jesus first makes mention of believing in Him and having eternal life (3:15). Jesus, who would appear to be referring to Himself as the Son of Man, compares His own coming time of being lifted up to that of the serpent in the wilderness. Because of that, it is very much worthwhile to pay a visit to that story. Not only is it worthwhile, but it seems to be highly necessary, as it would be well-nigh impossible to grasp what Jesus is communicating about Himself and about the eternal life that is on offer through allegiance to Him, without a basic understanding of that story.
Even though Jesus mentions the story of Moses and the serpent to somebody that He refers to as a “teacher of Israel” (3:10), one can be quite confident that this was another one of those stories with which the whole of the people of Israel were quite familiar, and which they probably told quite often. This should not be terribly surprising, as it is a story of which there is a general knowledge even in this day, as it is quite the dramatic tale. Of course, it is often thought of as a story of rebellion and judgment and merciful healing, making it all the more memorable. Assuredly, Israel remembered the story as well. However, because it is ensconced within the narrative of Israel’s Egyptian exodus, it undoubtedly meant a great deal more to them.
In the twenty-first chapter of Numbers one is able to find the story of the “fiery serpents” and read “Then they,” meaning Israel, “traveled from Mount Hor by the road to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom, but the people became impatient along the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, for there is no bread or water, and we detest this worthless food’.” (21:4-5)
Here is where the rebellion portion of the story is to be found. The rebellion was against both their God and Moses. It occurred in the midst of their exodus-related “wanderings” in the wilderness. They had promises from their God and they had repeatedly seen mighty displays of His power, yet they are said to be complaining. This, of course, is while they have the promise of a land of their own which had been long since promised to Abraham; and their exodus out of Egypt, with its attendant movement towards that promised land, was taken to be the realization of the very sign that had been promised to Abraham. Still, they are shown to have doubted.
Consequently, “the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit the people; many people of Israel died” (21:6). This is the judgment, and it fell because the people were questioning the covenant faithfulness of their God that had already done so much to reveal to them His mighty hand. “Then,” it can be read, “the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that He would take away the snakes from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people” (21:7).
This should put the modern reader in mind of the famous words of 2 Chronicles 7:14. Now, these words had not yet been spoken or written at the time of the serpent incident, as they were connected to Solomon and the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, but just as they are familiar to the modern reader, they would have been quite familiar to Israel and to the Pharisee Nicodemus at the time of Jesus. The promise said to be made to and through Solomon was “if My people, who belong to Me, humble themselves, pray, seek to please Me, and repudiate their sinful practices, then I will respond from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land.” This is what can be seen from the people of Israel when they were being afflicted by the serpents, which demonstrates that the promise that the Creator God made to Solomon was already well-rooted in Israel’s history.