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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

2 Answers 2

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

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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