Saturday 19th June 2021 9th Tamuz 5781
PARASHAT CHUKAT Alan Gilman
Numbers 19:1 – 22:1; Judges 11:1 – 11:33; John 19:38-42
And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (B’midbar/Numbers 21:8-9)
I have always wondered about this story. It begins with the people of Israel yet again venting their frustration with their ongoing challenging situation. We read, “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And 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 loathe this worthless food” (B’midbar/Numbers 21:4-5).
As I have said before, I don’t criticize them for their mishandling such situations. Nothing I have ever gone through comes close to Israel’s years in the wilderness. They shouldn’t have taken out their frustration on God and Moses, but I personally can’t fault them for doing so. I have to be careful, however, not to let my empathy for the people’s suffering get in the way of whatever lesson I need to learn from this affair.
The result of their faithless behavior was God’s sending among them “fiery serpents,” most likely very painful poisonous snakes. It didn’t take too long for the people to admit to their erroneous ways and plead with Moses to pray on their behalf for relief. God’s solution was unique in Israel’s history. He directed Moses to construct a bronze serpent on a pole. If anyone who was bitten looked at the bronze serpent, they would be healed.
That such an item would be sanctioned by God for such a purpose is very strange given the strong prohibition against idols. In fact, this item eventually did become an idol (for more on that, see the TorahBytes message,