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Analysis of Exegesis of Numbers 21: 4-9

“If it does not kill you, it will make you well” (Barlett and Brown Thaylor, 2008, 101). This well-known statement that is used now as a saying is given in the presentation of the exegetical perspective of the analyzed pericope. It has its roots in the Scripture, mainly in the analyzed periscope. The analyzed passage from the Scripture, Numbers 21: 4-9, presents the final rebellion of the Israelites provoked by hard conditions imposed on them during their wanderings in the wilderness. The people led by Moses are complaining about their hardships saying that they are deprived of food and water and detest the food they are given (Num 21: 5). As the Israelites have shown their loss of fate, the Lord punishes them by sending venomous snakes and their bites cause the deaths of numerous people (Num 21: 6). Having understood that they have sinned, the people beg Moses to pray for them and the Lord asks Moses to build a brazen serpent that would cure those bitten who look at it (Num 21: 8). It happened so and when cured, the Israelites set forward. Thus, the task of the present paper is to provide an exegesis of the pericope as the crucial point of the Israelites’ wandering, to give the interpretation of “it” from the saying mentioned at the beginning of the paper and to draw a parallel between the analyzed paragraph and John 3: 14-21.

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The interpretation of the passage requires its analysis of a larger scale that is in comparison with the acts of rebellion that can be observed earlier in the Scripture. Such passages are called “murmuring” passages and the analyzed one can be considered a concluding one after Exodus 16:1-3, Num 11: 1-2, 4-6, 14:1-3. In the first passage, the cause of murmuring against the Lord is hunger as it is clearly stated in Exodus 16: 3: “for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill the whole assembly with hunger”. In the second passage, the reason for the people’s complaints is not mentioned, it seems that “the people began to complain as soon as they begin their journey” (Coogan, 2007, 202) however, the consequence of God’s wrath is given: people were burnt by the fire that the Lord sent onto them and as soon they realized their wrong behavior, “the fire was quenched” (Num 11: 2). In the next passage, which appears only one verse further, there is the first grudge concerning manna, the Lord’s gift. In the passage from Numbers 14, the idea of returning to Egypt is voiced that stands for the people’s growing exhaustion and rebellious mood. These passages can be considered as a ladder that shows accumulating despair and gradual loss of faith. However, the final passage, the one that is analyzed in this paper, is cumulative, it shows the height of physical and mental suffering of the Israelites and this passage is the climax of their physical and spiritual wanderings. The main difference of this passage from the earlier complaints is that “this time it is in open defiance of the Lord Himself” as the highest point of despair and loss of faith (Milgrom, 1989, 173).

In the second place, it is necessary to tackle the geographical context of the passage for it is clearly stated in Num 21:4. The appearance of the people in the wilderness can be considered the direct fulfillment of the earlier statement: “To morrow turn you, and get you into the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea” (Num 14: 25) and the consequence of Numbers 20: 14-21 from which we come to know that the king of Edom did not let the Israelites pass through his land (Levin, 2000, 86). Supporting the idea of the same author, let us state that the identification of the route of the Israelites symbolizes their incapacity of penetrating Canaan directly due to realistic and ideological reasons (Levin, 2000, 86).

In the third place, it is necessary to tackle textual and translation problems that can be found in several different translations of the Scripture are compared. The idiom quasar nepes stands for “the mood became impatient” (Levin, 2000, 86). KJV and World English Bible offer “the soul of the people became much discouraged” (Hebrew Tanach and Greek Textus Receptus Bible, unpaged). It can be supposed that the meaning of the word “discouraged” is milder than the original “impatient” while in Douay-Rheims even more mild word is used, “to be weary”. This shows that the translations lack the original impatient mood that is embodied with the help of the idiom quasar needs. Besides, Levin also mentions Hebrew “qeloquel” that is translated as “light, swift, of lesser importance, or quality”, he attributes the meaning “spoilt, rotten” to this notion, explaining that manna was literarily spoilt as it was left ungathered. However, none of the translations suggests a similar meaning; all of them offer the attribute “light” that seems to lose its original implication. How can “light” be interpreted if it is used to denote “bread” (manna). It can symbolize it’s coming from Heaven or its being not nourishing. Finally, a very interesting case of translation difficulty is with Num 21: 8. The Hebrew text says “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard” (Milgrom, 1989, 174). Seraph can be synonymic with “serpent”, while saraf means “burn”. Thus, it can be stated that Hebrew text mentions only the request of the Lord to make a statue of a serpent while the translations seem to use both words: “a fiery serpent” as in KJV, World English Bible, and Webster’s Bible Translation (Hebrew Tanach and Greek Textus Receptus Bible, unpaged). Douay-Rheims can be considered the most inexact as it uses the word combination “brazen serpent”.

It is also possible to analyze the pericope from the point of view of its form since the form of the passage makes a great contribution to its meaning (Stuart, 2001, 17). As for its structure, the pericope “makes a coherent whole” (Budd, 1984, 233). It can even be stated that there is a certain kind of detachment of this passage from the surrounding text. It starts with the identification of the setting (Mount Hor, the Red Sea, the sea dividing Egypt and Arabia (Strong, 1995, 1160)) as it usually happens in the stories from imaginative literature. The subsequent verses present the development of action with its climax, the Lord’s order to build a figure of a serpent. The denouement is the effect of the brass serpent and the healing of the people. This structural coherence promotes the importance of the passage; it is the most violent rebellion and the final persuasion of the mercy of the Lord.

It is interesting and necessary to observe the use of words, grammar, and figures of speech in the passage. As for grammar, Levin (2000, 90) mentions a sequence of tenses in the phrase “So it will be that anyone who is bitten gazes upon it”. The use of the grammar of the statement is applied to summarize what happens and it shows the endless power of the Lord. As for the figures of speech in the text, the Israelites claim that they have nothing to eat and at the same time they refused to eat manna granted to them. The antithesis shows the emotional exhaustion and rebellious mood of the people. Besides, the use of the words “God” at the beginning of the passage and “the Lord” in the verses that show the recovery of fate is also symbolic, as “God” shows people’s irritation while “the Lord” is a sign of humble obedience.

The image of a serpent deserves special consideration as it is a multifunctional image in the text. At first, serpents are the killers, they are the punishment sent by the Lord but the serpent also becomes a savior when the people’s faith is recovered. The changing role of a serpent symbolizes “spiritual homeopathy” (Buttrick, 1953, 243). Besides, the choice of snakes as the punishment seems to be symbolic: the serpent tempted Adam and Eve and the punishment was the direct consequence of their tempting (Stubbs, 2009, 168). Thus, the serpent itself is the symbol of sin (Stubbs, 2009, 168). This fact even intensifies the importance of a serpent as a symbol of the power of the Lord who can turn the curse into the treatment if people have faith in him. In this relation, the case of a brazen serpent can be called a parable which is suitable to resort in a sermon, at school, during a pilgrimage. On the whole, the passage from Numbers can be resorted to in case if faith needs healing.

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To illustrate a canonical shape of the passage, it is necessary to draw a parallel with John 3: 14-21 that has a direct allusion to the analyzed passage: “And as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, even so, must the Son of man be lifted” (John 3: 14). Thus, Moses’ experience in the wilderness can be treated as “a type pointing to a spiritual event in the future, namely, the redemptive work of Jesus” (Barlett and Brown Taylor, 2008, 98). Jesus, lifted on the cross, just as the brazen serpent lifted by Moses, will grant people salvation in case if their attitude is the same, in case, if they demonstrate obedience and trust to God.

The significance of the passage in teaching and preaching can be explained by its direct connection with John 3: 14-21 that was mentioned above and due to its direct connection with idolatry. Though the passage can be mistakenly interpreted as the beginning of a cult, it is necessary to show that Moses “did not institute a snake cult … but an object to meet the needs of a specific crisis” (Budd, 1984, 235). The brazen snake is the symbol of death and the symbol of new life. It manifests the key idea of Christianity: the route to healing and salvation is paved with pain and suffering and the only way to salvation is through genuine faith and obedience to God.

The analyzed commentaries offer symbolic meaning of the analyzed passage that accounts for its genre, the parable. The structure of the story that presents it as a separate unity within the text accounts for its significance and its being the crucial point of the Israelites’ wondering in the desert. The faith that has faded away is recovered in the passage and the mechanism of recovery is depicted with the help of the image of a serpent. One of the main advantages of the passage is its direct connection with the future crucifixion of Jesus, it is its precursor, and it reveals the proper reaction to the event. “It” is the second part of the introductory statement of the present paper stands for the faith; its strength can cure and turn death into life.


Barlett, David L., and Barbara Brown Taylor. 2008. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 98-103.

Budd, Phillip J. 1984. Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 5 – Numbers. Waco: Word Books, Publisher, pp. 232-235.

Buttrick, George A. 1953. The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 2. New York: Abington Press, pp. 242-243.

Coogan, Michael D. 2007. The Oxford Annotated Bible, Augmented Third Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 202, 216-217.

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Levine, Baruch A. 2000. The Anchor Bible: Numbers 21-36. New York: Doubleday, pp. 85-90.

Milgrom, Jacob. 1989. The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publications, pp. 172-175.

Hebrew Tanach and Greek Textus Receptus Bible. – Numbers 21. Web.

Stuart, Douglas. 2001. Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 5-65.

Stubbs, David L. 2009. Numbers. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, pp. 165-172.

Strong, James. 1995. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.

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