People are predictable. They’ve been acting the same way since the beginning, focused on their own problems and overlooking their many blessings.
The Israelites began another leg of their endless journey. This time, they left mount Hor, and following the Red Sea, and circled around the land of Edom. The collective attitude of the people was discouragement. How much longer would they possibly be expected to keep this up?
Natural men have a tendency to become prideful and forgetful. Though they had been at this wandering business for a long time, they were being fed daily Manna from heaven. They had in their presence the words of God, and the prophet Moses to teach them. They had seen the cloud by day and fire by night accompanying them.
Yet they became comfortable with these circumstances, and looked for things to grumble about. They began complaining against Moses. Unsatisfied, they escalated their complaints against God directly. “Why have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! We are tired of eating wafers that taste like honey and miraculously fall from heaven every day but the Sabbath for every meal!” (Well, maybe they didn’t say it exactly that way, but they should have and then they would have recognized how ridiculous they sounded).
The Lord had warned them that He is a jealous God, and He decided to remind them Who was in charge of this camp. Fiery serpents were sent among the people. This infestation of snakes is not an event to gloss over lightly. “Much” of the people of Israel died from their fiery bite.
The tribulation was enough to humble the people. In their repentant state, the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee.” They then implored Moses to “pray unto the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us.”
Moses heard their despite pleas, accepted their contrition, and went before the Lord to pray in behalf of the people.
The Lord’s unexpected answer to His servant was “Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.”
Moses did as directed, and made out of brass a symbol of the very creature which had caused so much death and devastation. He lifted it on a pole, and announced to the people that if a serpent had bitten them, they must look at the brazen statue.
True to the Lord’s promise, everyone who lifted up their eyes and looked, lived. Those who did not, perished. (See Old Testament | Numbers 21:4-9)
Naturally, this miracle became a talking-point for the nation of Israel and the religion of God’s covenant people.
Just as Christians today remember Christmas and Easter, sometimes they remember the great event and apply the correct and meaningful thought behind the tradition; though often they give it superficial treatment. Those sacred opportunities are lost in the sight of evergreen trees and chocolate bunnies.
Pause for a moment. Imagine if you had been bitten by a mosquito and infected with the West Nile Virus. Your body is sick, and you have no more hope to live. Then, the leader of the church suggests that you look at a drawing of a mosquito and God will heal you instantly. Just a one-second glance is all it will take. Would you be so consumed with hatred for the creature which is killing you that you would refuse to view the picture? Would you think the act so simple and ill-logical that it cannot possibly be true, no matter how much you might trust the source of the promise? Or would you expend your energy to go and get a view of the object?
I’ve never been in quite the comparable situation myself, but I have received instructions from my church leader many times of small or simple habits to follow which will improve my life. I’ve heard the advice and brushed it aside. I either thought I was already doing a good enough job with the topic, that I didn’t really have time in my schedule to implement one more good thing, or that maybe the speaker was referring to something which other people listening needed to know and do, rather than me.
I’ve got bits of pride in my character.
But back to the story.
The serpent statue was kept for many years, and was surely valued by the people as a tangible reminder of their history. However, some people lost the true significance and began burning incense to the statue, worshiping the object as an idol. Righteous king Hoshea ordered the statue to be destroyed, ending this practice of idol worship and helping restore the true significance in the hearts of the people (See Old Testament | 2 Kings 18:1-7).
Some Israelites, like Nephi, taught the correct significance of this event as pertaining to the coming of the promised Savior. Said Nephi:
And as the Lord God liveth that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt, and gave unto Moses power that he should heal the nations after they had been bitten by the poisonous serpents, if they would cast their eyes unto the serpent which he did raise up before them, and also gave him power that he should smite the rock and the water should come forth; yea, behold I say unto you, that as these things are true, and as the Lord God liveth, there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ, of which I have spoken, whereby man can be saved. (The Book of Mormon | Second Book of Nephi 25: 20)
Another man named Nephi (who lived about 500 years after the previous Nephi) declared:
And as [Moses] lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall [the Son of God] be lifted up who should come. And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal. (The Book of Mormon | Helaman 8:14-15)
The story, whether understood correctly or not, remained prominent enough in the minds of the people that Jesus used it in His teaching. Said He to the Pharisees named Nicodemus:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (New Testament | John 3:14-15)
To another group, He later declared His purpose this way:
I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me. And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father. (The Book of Mormon | 3 Nephi 27:13-14)
Could Jesus have more plainly spoken and revealed His purpose? Just as had been done physically for the ancient Israelites, the people now were to look to Him to be healed spiritually and live eternally.
Anciently, the people had to make a faith-filled choice and put forth a physical effort to go view the brass serpent. This implies that they were remorseful, humble, and sincere, or they wouldn’t have left their beds. Similarly, with choosing to look to Jesus there is a choice and an effort involved. That effort is to exercise faith and have a contrite (remorseful and repentant) heart. From there, Jesus can heal us, and in turn point us to look toward His Father.
Or we can choose to go our own way, as many have been doing from the beginning. Focused on their own problems and overlooking our many blessings.