5 September 2022

The bronze snake: 'There's no law that can give life – only grace'

Bible study by Major Nigel Bovey

Major Nigel Bovey says there’s no need to settle for replica faith.

Key text

‘SNAKE!’ yells my daughter, grabbing me by the arm. Adrenaline bolts into the soles of my feet. We freeze. I look down. There, a half-step away – half-hidden from carefree Dartmoor explorers – it waits: snake-eyed, zigzagged and forked-tongued. Viper!

‘Stamp your feet!’ I order. As one, four booted feet pound the peat, forcing our intruding companion into beating a hasty retreat.

In all the years that my daughter and I have wandered through the Dartmoor wilderness, this is our closest encounter with Britain’s only venomous snake. A similar encounter is the subject of this week’s study passage.

The story so far: The children of Israel have escaped Egyptian captivity but the journey towards the promised pastures of freedom is not going well. For every spiritual step forward, there is a retreat.

Through the covenant of the Ten Commandments, God gifts them a golden opportunity (see Exodus 20) but they worship a golden calf (see Exodus 32). Spies observe the Promised Land but the people rebel (see Numbers 13 and 14). Korah stages a coup (see Numbers 16). Moses disobeys God (see Numbers 20).

As often happens when things aren’t going well, the congregation overlook their own shortcomings and blame the leader. They grow impatient, speak against God and start to drip poison about Moses – ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?’ (vv4 and 5).

Pause and reflect

  • How easy is it to blame others, including those in leadership roles, for things that are partly or wholly your fault?

God has heard enough. He sends ‘venomous snakes among them’ (v6) and many of the people die. Being confronted by death brings the children of Israel to a new perspective. They acknowledge their sin and plead with Moses to ask God to remove the snakes.

Pause and reflect

  • In the light of the brevity of life and the eternity beyond death, how important is your displeasure with the spiritual direction – or lack of it – in your corps?

God’s solution is more interactive than the simple removal of the snakes.

A cross status with a serpent wrapped around it on a mountain side

Number 21:8

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’

Read the passage

God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake and mount it on a pole. Anyone who is subsequently bitten and looks at the replica reptile will live.

Pause and reflect

  • What toxic influences – and influencers – do you need to distance yourself from?

Given God’s wrath at the worship of the golden calf and the requirement of the second commandment not to ‘make for yourself an image in the form of anything in Heaven above or on the Earth’ (Exodus 20:4), it might seem strange that God should commission the bronze snake.

Perhaps, though, it is an indication that the Law can only go so far. When a person breaks a law, the passing of a new law cannot undo what has happened.

Lawbreaking might incur a death sentence, but there is no law that can give life. This is something only grace can do. In the wilderness, God responds to the penitence of his people with grace. In our wilder messes, God tempers his righteous justice by his gracious mercy.

This is the point Jesus makes when he is challenged about healing a man on the Sabbath. It is not the Law or rule-keeping that could change this man’s life; it is the mercy of God (see Matthew 12:1–14).

Such a miraculous sign piques the interest of Nicodemus. In conversation with this leading Pharisee about a new birth, Jesus directly connects himself with God’s life-saving strategy. Jesus tells him: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him’ (John 3:14 and 15).

Those who admit the toxicity of the sin that infuses them, turn to Jesus and believe in him will live. That’s the good news – the sting, the sentence, of death removed.

A danger remains, however: the replica can become a replacement.

The children of Israel are so impressed by the life-saving power of the bronze serpent that they start to worship it. This adoration becomes a long-standing tradition.

The Israelites are in the wilderness prior to the Battle of Jericho (1400BC). It is not until the 600s BC that King Hezekiah ‘broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it’ (2 Kings 18:4).

For 800 years, the Israelites idolised a replica. They should have been worshipping the real God – dare we do the same?

Bible study by

Nigel Bovey

Major Nigel Bovey

Retired, Exmouth

Let's pray

Father, we cannot imagine the depth of your love and grace. We are so thankful that you do not ask us to, but want us simply to accept it and know that we stand forgiven in your presence.


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