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Cover image: “Moses And The Brazen Serpent” by Peter Paul Rubens
Numbers 11-14; 21:1-9
Purpose of the Wilderness Journey
As the Children of Israel trudged across the Sinai desert, they were acting out an archetypical pattern that is repeated again and again in scripture. This is sometimes called the Exodus pattern or the type of the wilderness journey. Though entire books have been written on this type, in its bare bones form it goes like this: A covenant people live in a city or land that represents the world. This is a world crass and unrighteous, materialistic and wicked, that has turned away from God. In order to spare the righteous and count them as his own peculiar treasure, the Lord calls them out of the world before it is about to be destroyed. It is both his blessed way of saving and schooling them.
His goal is to take them to a promised land where he can make them his “peculiar treasure,” but in order to obtain this new land, a wilderness journey is required. The journey is difficult and tedious, putting even their survival on the line and driving each member at one time or another to the very limits of his physical or emotional endurance. Availability of food is in question; water is scarce and only delivered through miraculous means. Yet what happens on this journey is straightforward. The Lord has taken his people out of the world, now he must take the world out of his people.
The wilderness journey is meant to test their mettle, sift their souls, clarify for them just who God is and how completely dependent they are upon him. On the journey there is ample opportunity to forget God or distrust his promises. With the sun baring down and no water in sight, can you really member that you are in the hands of the Living Water?
Moses and his people, of course, were in Egypt (the world); their goal was Canaan (the promised land), and their wilderness journey would exact everything of them that one would expect. Could they come to know God well enough to trust his word, to trust that he was able to deliver just as he claimed no matter what appearances or circumstances suggested? These are the issues that are again explored in the chapters for this lesson. We see Nephi and his family self-consiously acting out the same pattern and acknowledging that. Nephi recognizes this parallel when he said things like, “Let us be strong like unto Moses.”(1)
Yet in the wilderness, it is tough to be that strong, because what bears down are the most personal discomforts and fears. God has to test the Israelites’ regard for him and his word.
As Numbers 11 begins, the Israelites have that most common of grumbles, a complaint about the food. “But now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all, besides this manna before our eyes.”(2)The whine is clear, and especially reprehensible because it is about manna, God’s gift to them, something that is perfectly sufficient for their needs. But they want more.
What do we know of manna? Josephus tells us:
But presently after this first supply of food, he sent them a second; for as Moses was lifting up his hands in prayer, a dew fell down; and Moses, when he found it stick to his hands, supposed this was also come for food from God to them. He tasted it; and perceiving that the people knew not what it was, and thought it snowed, and that it was what usually fell at that time of the year, he informed them that this dew did not fall from heaven after the manner they imagined, but came for their preservation and sustenance.
So he tasted it, and gave them some of it, that they might be satisfied about what he told them. They also imitated their conductor, and were pleased with the food, for it was like honey in sweetness and pleasant taste, but like in its body to bdellium, one of the sweet spices, and in bigness equal to coriander seed. And very earnest they were in gathering it; but they were enjoined to gather it equally—-the measure of an omer for each one every day, because this food should not come in too small a quantity, lest the weaker might not be able to get their share, by reason of the overbearing of the strong in collecting it.
However, these strong men, when they had gathered more than the measure appointed for them, had no more than others, but only tired themselves more in gathering it, for they found no more than an omer apiece; and the advantage they got by what was superfluous was none at all, it corrupting, both by the worms breeding in it, and by its bitterness. So divine and wonderful a food was this! It also supplied the want of other sorts of food to those that fed on it…So the Hebrews were very joyful at what was sent them from heaven. Now they made use of this food for forty years, or as long as they were in the wilderness.(3)
Being fed directly from heaven is a reminder to the people of their dependence on God, something they would remember when they actually obtained the promised land of Canaan. For even there, they received rain, and therefore harvests, because of God’s goodness to them. They were beggars before him as we all are, but the demonstration of their need was explicit and daily. King Benjamin reminds us “In the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, created you, and has kept and preserved you . . . from day to day, by lending you breath, . . . even supporting you from one moment to another. . . . And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?”(4)
Yet this wasn’t enough, and because they lusted for flesh and longed for the bounties of Egypt, they received their desires “even a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you.”(5) How often we don’t want what we think we want.
The Israelites would learn that murmuring is a canker, a spreading place of rot that destroys spirituality for at its heart, it is a denial of God’s goodness, his blessings, and his watchfulness. It is a caving to uncertainty instead of an expression of faith. It is an admittance that you never knew him, or if you have, you have failed to remember what you learned.
The weight of responsibility in leading a complaining, obdurate people became so heavy to Moses that he took his problem to the Lord. His was not only to see to the temporal needs of an army of people crossing the desert, but to see to their spiritual growth as well. His role was to minister and transform-a heavy job. The Lord tells him, “Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel…and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee.”(6)
It was true for the Israelites, as it is today. Learning to be a covenant people is an exercise in leadership training. In reality, the plan of salvation is a long seminar in leadership training. God wants us to be like him-a leader who can see to our smallest need while passing on the grandest vision. Those who God calls he qualifies-and so membership in the kingdom then and now also brings the enormous privilege of learning how to assess problems, see needs, create solutions and programs.
It is noteworthy and important that God gives us each a role to play in his work “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”(7) Surely, he is capable of doing his work without us, but he passes out opportunity broadly, allowing us to serve and lead and teach. Not only is this a demonstration of a faith in us (more so than we sometimes show for him), but an opportunity to for us to uncover strengths. We are part of something transcendent, invited to play a role in something so much bigger than we are.
What’s more, while God has a prophet like Moses, on the earth, he never asks that we follow him blindly. He asks that we follow him based on knowledge and revelation. We are given the Spirit revealing that what he tells us is true. Blind followers can be easily knocked off course. Those with corroborating revelation stand solid.
When Joshua was concerned because the spirit rested upon two of the elders in the camp, Moses quieted him, “Enviest thou for my sake? Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”(8) This is the possibility of the gift of the Holy Ghost in the kingdom of God. All can receive witnesses. All are acted upon.
Vying for Position
When Moses said that he wished “all the Lord’s people” could be prophets, however, that stands in stark contrast to the rebellion of Miriam and Aaron in Numbers 12. Moses is talking about the spirit of prophecy, the knowledge given from the Spirit that Jesus is the Christ and other truths that only the Spirit can reveal. Miriam and Aaron, on the other hand, seemed to be finding fault that Moses was the sole spokesman for the Lord-a very different matter. Their complaint-that Moses had married an Ethiopian-was only a cover for their own proud striving.
In the early days of the Restoration, Joseph Smith faced similar insurrections, those who wanted to share or usurp his mantle. But the Lord was clear to Joseph Smith, “this generation shall have my word through you.”(9)
The Lord instructed Moses to send a spy from each tribe to search the land of Canaan, determine its fertility, observe the cities and people, and report back. They reported that the land was indeed flowing with milk and honey and brought back a cluster of grapes, pomegranates and figs to make their point. But here was another test that would make the Israelites long again for Egypt. The researchers also reported that they had seen walled cities and a people far stronger than they were. “And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature.”(10)
“We were in our own sight as grasshoppers,” they said. Stacking up the evidence and hearing the “evil report,” the “people wept that night.” They had not yet learned that with God they were a majority. In fact, their tears demonstrated that even with continual vivid reminders of his presence and protection, they still knew him not. Faith is to “hope for things which are not seen, which are true.”(11)They could see the fierce people in Canaan; they forgot to see the Lord.
Lest we find ourselves feeling superior in our virtue, think how often a promise is given us, and then it is not fulfilled in our time frame. Circumstances seem to crowd in upon us; droughts occur where we looked for abundance. It is easy to feel abandoned or to misunderstand the reach of God’s power. But those who slack at that time do not get to see the promised land.
The Brazen Serpent
Trouble is never polite, and the nature of a cleansing test is that it will truly be a test. Thus, just as the Israelites were most discouraged because “of the way” and once more were complaining to Moses, “Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”(12) the Lord sent fiery serpents among them. He is chastening them, yes, but also offering an easy way to escape that will again test their spirits and priorities. Remember the goal of the wilderness journey. God has taken the people out of the world, and now he wants to take the world out of the people by teaching them where to turn for life. Moses is instructed to make a brass serpent, put it upon a pole, and “everyone that is bitten, if he shall look upon it, shall live.”(13)
This brazen serpent is a potent symbol of Christ. When Jesus said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up,”(14) he was inviting us to see scripture and history typologically. In other words “there is a connection between two events or persons, the first of which signifies not only itself, but also the second, while the second encompasses or fulfills the first.”(15)
In other words, when Moses raised the brazen serpent, it was both an event which actually happened, but also a marker pointing ahead to the crucifixion of Christ, which in turn points back to this historical event.
The type works on many levels and opens up new ideas of understanding. Why, for instance, is Christ symbolized by a serpent when we think of the serpent in the Garden of Eden as Satan? Apparently, Satan, in taking upon himself the disguise of the serpent, was mimicking a symbol that, in fact, would belong to the Savior. It is Christ that is the “feathered serpent” of Meso-America Cunningly, in the garden Satan was doing as he always does, telling a lie by aping the truth.
It is also fascinating to consider the pole on which the serpent was lifted. In the FARMS Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Jeanette W. Miller connects it to the tree of life, which, of course, stands for Christ. According to the mythic epics of the ancient Near East, Adam had a scepter which was cut from the tree of life and then passed down through the patriarchs to Abraham-finally ending up with Moses. Williams noted then that, “This rod was the rod which Moses carried into Egypt, with which he challenged the authority of the Pharaoh, divided the waters of the Red Sea, struck the rock that produced the abundant water, healed the bitter waters, held the brazen serpent that healed those who looked upon it, and ultimately led the Children of Israel to the Promised Land.
It was this staff which budded and grew. In the end it found its resting place in the Holy of Holies.”(16)
The symbolism is clear. It is Christ’s atonement that heals us from physical and spiritual death.
All we must do is look to the serpent and live. Nephi told us that many of the Israelites refused to look upon the brazen serpent because of “the simpleness of the way”(17) Experience also teaches us that it is the discipline of a lifetime that allows us to keep our eye single to the glory of God-especially with the distractions of the fiery, flying serpents in our own lives.
When poisonous serpents are flying and biting with poisonous fire, they seem to demand our attention. God says, even then, gather strength, look up to him and live.
1 Nephi 4:2
2. Numbers 11:6
3. Josephus Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews
4. Mosiah 2:23
5. Numbers 11:20
6. Numbers 11:16
7. Moses 1:39
8. Numbers 11:29
9. D&C 5:10
10. Numbers 13:32
11. Alma 32:21
12. Numbers 21:5
13. Numbers 21:8
14. John 3:14
15. As quoted in Neal A. Lambert, ed., Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience [Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1981]
16. Jeanette W. Miller “The Tree of Life, A Personification of Christ” FARMS Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. Vol. 2, #1 (Spring, 1993)
17. 1 Nephi 17:41