This is the final murmuring story in the wilderness, and everything has escalated. The narrator tells us clearly that the rebellion is against both God and Moses. Worse, now the people "despise" the manna as "worthless food"--that is, they reject the very grace of God. No wonder, then, that death is the result; they have refused God's gift of life. God sends poisonous snakes, called in Hebrew "fiery" serpents, perhaps because of the pain caused by their bites. (Some later interpreters have wondered whether these snakes may have been the guinea worms that have continued to plague people in that part of the world.) The snakes provoke repentance and an appeal for Moses to pray to God on their behalf. The account illustrates the power of intercessory prayer in the theology behind these stories. Moses' prayer prevails upon God to set aside the punishment, even though the people had brought it on themselves by rejecting the promise and preferring a life of slavery.
Anthropologists of religion would call the use of the bronze serpent an example of homeopathic or sympathetic magic--that is, the notion that like cures like, or like ushers in like. When rain dancers pour water on the ground to invoke a similar response by the deity, they are using homeopathic magic. The story in Numbers is willing to use this risky method of healing (risky, because magic is forbidden in the Old Testament) because, in the Bible, God generally heals through means understood at the time (an example of God's inherent tendency toward incarnation). The story is spared being understood as magic, however, because the healing brought by the bronze serpent is not automatic. The individual sufferer must look at the serpent--seen here, no doubt, as an act of faith in God's promise of healing. And, of course, the individual would be one of those who have already repented of their sin in v. 7. Jesus uses the story in a similar way in John's Gospel. Just as God lifted up the serpent to give life to Israel, so God will lift up Jesus. Salvation through Jesus, too, will not come automatically, but is embraced by faith, so that "whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15).
4 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. 5The 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. 6Then the Lord sent poisonous* serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The 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. 8And 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. 9So 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.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org