The Bronze Serpent

How did the serpent on the pole heal the people?

Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Image: Via Wikimedia Commons, by Fidelio Bruni, Russian Painter, 1840)

Chukat

Regular Shabbat Readings

Read / Listen to these Portions

  • Chukat (חוקת | Statute)
  • Torah: Numbers 19:1-22:1
  • Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33
  • Gospel: John 19:38-42

Note: The regular readings are often interrupted with special readings on Jewish holidays, special Sabbaths, and Rosh Chodesh. Refer to the annual Torah Portion schedule for these special portions.

Portion Outline

  • Torah
    • Numbers 19:1 | Ceremony of the Red Heifer
    • Numbers 20:1 | The Waters of Meribah
    • Numbers 20:14 | Passage through Edom Refused
    • Numbers 20:22 | The Death of Aaron
    • Numbers 21:1 | The Bronze Serpent
    • Numbers 21:10 | The Journey to Moab
    • Numbers 21:21 | King Sihon Defeated
    • Numbers 21:33 | King Og Defeated
  • Prophets
    • Jdg 11:1 | Jephthah
    • Jdg 11:29 | Jephthah's Vow

Portion Summary

Chukat is the thirty-ninth reading from the Torah. The word chukat (חוקת) means "statute." The name is derived from the second verse of the reading: "This is the statute of the law which the LORD has commanded" (Numbers 19:2). Chukat presents the mysterious laws of the red-heifer ceremony for purification after contact with human death. This reading also contains the story of Moses striking the rock, the stories of the deaths of Aaron and Miriam and the wars with the Amorites. The portion concludes with the host of Israel encamping on the edge of the Promised Land.


The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. (Numbers 21:6)

The problem with complaining is that God is listening. He hears our words and weighs our hearts. As the Israelites complained about the daily provision of manna, God heard their words and sent a punishment of poisonous snakes. Why did God use snakes to punish Israel?

Rashi explains that God chose snakes for two reasons. The serpent in the Garden of Eden was punished for speaking words of slander against God. God sent the serpent, who was punished for speaking slander, to punish those who were guilty of speaking slander. The second reason was that the serpent had been cursed to eat dust all the days of its life. God sent the serpent, who was punished by being given a diet of dust, to punish those who complained about their food.

When we allow ourselves to slip into self-pity and we give expression to a critical spirit, we are already victims of the evil one. He is a professional slanderer, the accuser of the brethren and the origin of rebellion against God. He was the very first to express discontentment with the lot in life God had assigned to him. When we show ingratitude toward God and complain about His ways, we are speaking the serpent's native tongue. His venom is already poisoning our hearts.

The solution to the problem is repentance. The Israelites went to Moses and said, "We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us" (Numbers 21:7). Their words encapsulate the gospel message. Yeshua is our Moses. The serpent is the devil. We are the sinners. If we want to be healed and delivered from the serpent, we need to repent, confess our sins and seek forgiveness through Yeshua.

As soon as the Israelites asked Moses for forgiveness, he interceded on their behalf. Rashi points to this as an example for how we should also be quick to forgive others. He says, “From this we learn that a person who is asked for forgiveness should not be so cruel as to withhold forgiveness.” Disciples worthy of Yeshua will be quick to extend forgiveness even to those who have spoken derisively against them or humiliated them.

Moses interceded, and the LORD instructed him to make a bronze serpent. He was to set it atop a pole. When those who were suffering the effects of the venom looked at the serpent, they were cured. “If a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived” (Numbers 21:9).

How did the serpent on the pole heal the people? The sages explain that it was faith in God and obedience to His command that resulted in miraculous healing, not any magical property of the bronze serpent:

Did the bronze serpent kill or give life? [Of course not.] Rather, when the people of Israel lifted up their eyes [toward heaven] and submitted to their Father in heaven, they were healed. If not, however, they would pine away. (m.Rosh HaShanah 3:8)

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