From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 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 food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
The wilderness is a cruel place. It strips you of illusion and makes you confront your human weakness. So out in the wilderness the people of Israel get impatient and angry with God and Moses. They may have escaped from slavery in Egypt, but now they face a disheartening and circuitous journey on their way to the Promised Land. This brings discomfort, hunger and thirst. Heavenly Manna, the gift of God, has become just detestable “miserable food”. Still worse, in this part of the desert, they face venomous reptiles, perhaps lizards or scorpions. Barelegged and sandaled, they are especially vulnerable to bites.
But this scourge drives the people to repent. Aware of their sin, they cry out for Moses to help and heal them. As instructed by the Lord, Moses erects a bronze serpent on a pole and lifts it up so that those who look on it may be healed.
This lifted image becomes a focus for the people’s intercession. They gaze upon it and are healed. But more important for us, this lifted image is a type, a prefiguring of the crucified Christ lifted up on the cross.
Lent is our journey of penitence in the wilderness. As we go, let us gaze upon him and be saved.
Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3.14).