They say we can learn from our mistakes. For Israel wandering in the wilderness, this seems to have been a difficult thing to do. They grumble, are punished by the Lord, Moses intercedes for them; they grumble, are punished by the Lord, Moses intercedes for them. It is painful to read. But here, there is a difference:
The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died. The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the Lord and you. Pray to the Lord so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live.
There are several different things going on in this story that didn’t happen before now. First, Israel criticizes the Lord for what was happening to them, not just Moses. Second, Israel recognized its sin and they were the ones who repented without having to be prompted to do so by Moses. And third, Moses really did not intercede for them. He prayed, but that was all. This is easy to explain, though. After Moses was forbidden to enter the Promised Land because he took credit for one of God’s miracles, he never really intercedes again. He takes a census, allots the land, sets festival times, and decides individual cases; but he no longer stands in the gap for the people. It is as if his will to fight for them is gone.
For the first time, though, Israel has decided that the Lord is behind what happens to them. They grumble, just as they always have. Old habits are hard to break, and this instance is no different. But then the amazing happens–The Israelites recognize their sin and repent. They come to Moses in a repentant way to seek the Lord’s forgiveness and relief from this plague. Moses prays and is instructed to make a serpent to put on a pole.
This is the fourth difference in this passage. The plague is not immediately abated. This time God has an image of what is causing the plague to be set in the midst of the people. If they truly have faith in the Lord, they will look at the image of their suffering and be healed. This is a way to see if the repentance is real and whether or not the people are going to trust the Lord from now onward.
This is also a fabulous foreshadowing of what God himself will do in the incarnation. Jesus Christ will be lifted up on a cross, the image of suffering, sin, and death. For the last 2000 years, whoever looks to him in faith, believing that God will deliver that one from the plague of sin and death with which we are afflicted, God will provide healing and relief. Just as real repentance led to the end of the plague of snakes in Israel’s camp, real repentance can lead to the end of the plague of sin and death in the world.
God hears prayers and he accepts real repentance.