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The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:6-9)

Someone recently told me that this was symbolic, and that the serpent is a symbol for sin, and that this was foreshadowing Jesus becoming sin for us and being lifted up and crucified so that we would live.

My question is, how do we know that this is the right interpretation, and not just an interesting idea that someone had?

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John 3:14-15 is the only passage I can think of off the top of my head, but that doesn't prove the "serpent = sin = Jesus is sin" interpretation. See here for a Q&A that was just started about when allegorization is appropriate. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 18 '12 at 3:38
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@MonikaMichael The questions are very similar, but I'm going to argue that this is not a duplicate. The other question asks for an interpretation of John 3:14 by asking how the snake foreshadows Jesus, and the accepted answer contains allegorization. This question is almost like a follow-up to the other, and is more about how we know we are interpreting the elements correctly. This question is closer to a question about the hermeneutics of those Christians who make claims like those found in the accepted answer to the other question. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 18 '12 at 6:28

4 Answers 4

The snake that Moses raised up, symbolized the snakes that God sent into the Israelite camp as punishment for Israel's sin.

Numbers 21:6
The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.”

So snake == punishment. And as the Israelites looked up at the snake they were saved.

In the same way Jesus was lifted taking on the punishment for our sin and all those that believe in him will be saved. As Jas3.1 points out, Jesus actually draws the connection.

John 3:14
And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up

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From John 3:14 we know it was a foreshadowing of Christ, but I think the desire for absolute certainty concerning any foreshadowing image or shadow of Messiah party misunderstands the concept of a shadow. A shadow is by definition an obscure and fuzzy outline of a real object. This is why we will find invariably numerous perspectives on any given shadow. With Christ having been revealed  we can cheat a bit and take the answer back to the clue but this does not always give us absolute clarity on the circumference on the shadow. 

Specifically, your question contains a great answer because Christ was made sin for us. Another answer given that a serpent represents punishment is also good, for Christ was punished for us. From my own preference I would just say that the serpent represents the curse of sin brought on by the Devil, as Christ bore the curse of sin, hell, death, punishment, etc. He was like a brass snake held up to heal us of the 'curse'. Yet I may find that I still prefer how someone else phrases it, further confirming the situation. We are all speaking about the same fuzzy shadow of Christ's work on the cross. There is no perfect magic wording to describe what is a little unclear but many good answers approximate the cast shape.

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Mike had some good points on this topic in his answer here as well: christianity.stackexchange.com/q/8535/1548 –  Jas 3.1 Jul 20 '12 at 17:24

Answer: Throughout the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites, God was constantly teaching them things about Himself and about their own sinfulness. He brought them into the wilderness, to the same mountain where He revealed Himself to Moses, so that He could instruct them in what He required of them. Shortly after the amazing events at Mt. Sinai, God brought them to the border of the Promised Land, but when the people heard the reports from the spies, their faith failed. They said that God could not overcome the giants in the land. As a result of this unbelief, God sent them into the wilderness to wander until that generation died out (Numbers 14:28-34).

In Numbers 21, the people again got discouraged, and in their unbelief they murmured against Moses for bringing them into the wilderness. They had already forgotten that it was their own sin that caused them to be there, and they tried to blame Moses for it. As a judgment against the people for their sin, God sent poisonous serpents into the camp, and people began to die. This showed the people that they were the ones in sin, and they came to Moses to confess that sin and ask for God's mercy. When Moses prayed for the people, God instructed him to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole so the people could be healed (Numbers 21:5-7).

God was teaching the people something about faith. It is totally illogical to think that looking at a bronze image could heal anyone from snakebite, but that is exactly what God told them to do. It took an act of faith in God's plan for anyone to be healed, and the serpent on the stick was a reminder of their sin which brought about their suffering. There is no connection between this serpent and the serpent which Satan spoke through in the Garden of Eden. This serpent was symbolic of the serpents God used to chastise the people for their unbelief.

A couple of additional lessons are taught in the Bible regarding this bronze serpent. The people did get healed when they looked at the serpent, and the image was kept for many years. Many years later, when the Israelites were in the Promised Land, the serpent became an object of worship (2 Kings 18:4). This shows how easy it is for us to take the things of God and twist them into idolatry. We must never worship the tools or the people God chooses to use, but always bring the honor and glory to God alone.

The next reference we find in the Bible to this serpent is in John 3:14. Jesus indicated that this bronze serpent was a foreshadowing of Him. The serpent, a symbol of sin and judgment, was lifted up from the earth and put on a tree, which was a symbol of a curse (Galatians 3:13). The serpent lifted up and cursed symbolized Jesus, who takes away sin from everyone who would look to Him in faith, just like the Israelites had to look to the upraised symbol in the wilderness. Paul is reminding the Galatians that Jesus became a curse for us, although He was blameless and sinless—the spotless Lamb of God. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Read more: http://www.gotquestions.org/bronze-serpent.html#ixzz3PqvLpUOl

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Moses had to make the image of the fiery snake in bronze and put it on a standard and raise it up. My thoughts from the chapter in John are that the standard was possibly in the shape of a cross with the snake draped over it. The snake represents both Jesus the Christ and the sin he has taken on himself for us. When we look to the Christ on the cross we are saved from sin and death just as those who were in the wilderness, looked at the image Moses had raised on the standard and were themselves saved from death for their sins.

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Welcome to the site. We are glad you decided to participate. This answer needs more support. It needs sources and citations, if necessary, to support what you are saying. Otherwise, it just looks like your opinion. Please edit more to it to make a truly academic answer. Thank you. References: Guidelines for writing effective answers and What is a well-sourced, dispassionate answer? –  fredsbend Oct 7 '14 at 18:54

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