It will come as little surprise, but numerous studies (e.g. YouGov and Gallup) examining fears in the general population reveal that a fear of snakes regularly tops the list. In one of these studies, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they had some fear of snakes. A study in Britain indicated that the percentage of people with a fear of snakes increases by age group (I am happy to report this same study showed a decrease in fear of spiders with age). I won’t journey into speculations about why that might be the case, but it helps us understand why the snake is used in Scripture as a symbol of evil.
One of the most interesting episodes involving snakes in the Bible is the encounter in the wilderness by the people of Israel (Numbers 21:4-9). The people of Israel are complaining about their situation, so God sends poisonous serpents who bite and kill many people. In their despair they turn to Moses for a solution. God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze snake which he is to place on a wooden pole so that it can be lifted up where people may see it. Anyone who had been bitten by a snake could look on the bronze snake and would not die. Several things come to my mind as applications of this short story.
It first should be recognized that God is a God of calamity. Some have supposed that God is an omni-beneficent being who should be establishing a utopia for his beloved creation. That is human wishful thinking and is not borne out in Scripture. God has ultimate benefits in mind for us humans, but our personal comfort and convenience are not high on the list of His priorities. He is much more interested in developing our character, and no character trait or virtue can be developed without some level of tribulation.
While the snake is used by God for the purpose of disciplining the nation of Israel, it is interesting that is also what he uses to rescue them. In God’s sovereignty, the very thing we think of as evil, God can use to accomplish his purposes. In the story of Joseph, we see this played out as God uses the evil acted out on Joseph by his brothers to bring about their rescue from famine. Joseph clearly sees this and declares, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20)
It is easy for us to look at the trouble we are encountering in the world today and assume that God is not at work, that he has somehow forgotten us, or even that he isn’t even there. But time after time in Scripture we see how God uses horrible circumstances to bring about his purposes – what is best for his people. Understanding this, the apostle Paul tells us, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
The ultimate expression of this dynamic in history – what is foreshadowed by the raising of the bronze serpent on the pole – is the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus who was raised up on a cross to pay the price for the sins of the world. The story of the bronze serpent is an indicator to us that God has had a plan all along which has been unfolding throughout history. In fact, it was even predicted at the fall of man that the serpent would be destroyed: while the serpent would “bruise the heel” of the offspring of Adam and Eve (Jesus), that same offspring would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15)
So, what ever became of this bronze serpent? Apparently, it was preserved for a long time because it appears again in the story of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:1-4). Hezekiah is regarded as one of the good kings of Judah who strongly moves against the idolatry in the nation. He removes all the Asherah poles and altars to Baal, and he destroys the bronze serpent of Moses. The very good thing which had been used to bring healing had become an idol, so it was time to get rid of it.
This is a good reminder for us to keep our eyes laser focused on God alone. We need to ask ourselves whether we have taken certain things that God has done in our lives and turned them into idols. Perhaps it is the way we have come to worship, or the success we found in a particular ministry. Is our devotion to things which have brought about good keeping us from moving on to the next thing God has for us to do? Are you ready to destroy some serpents?