The serpent in the wilderness (John 3, Num 21; Lent 4)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). So begins the section of the book of signs, the section from the Gospel of John that is offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (John 3:14-21).

The allusion to Moses is clear, referencing the time when “Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Num 21:9). The Numbers passage is included in this Sunday’s lectionary, as the reading from Hebrew Scripture (Num 21:4-9).

The Brazen Serpent Monument
on Mount Nebo in Jordan

Of particular note in the Numbers passage, before we head into the Gospel passage that alludes to it, is the fact that there is a crucially important Hebrew word which appears in Num 21 and which in most current English translation, is not accurately rendered. (This is a favourite of my wife, Elizabeth—she often refers to the translation issues inherent at this point.)

In Num 21:6, the Lord sends creatures often described as “fiery serpents” or “poisonous serpents” amongst the people, who are grumbling about the food and water available to them in the wilderness. In Num 21:8, the Lord commands Moses to put a “fiery serpent” or a “poisonous serpent” on a pole. In both verses, the crucial word is saraph — a word that appears just seven times in the Hebrew Bible.

On three occasions (twice here, and again at Deut 8:15), saraph is translated as “fiery serpent”. In two instances, it is rendered as “flying serpents” (Isa 14:29 and 30:6). But in one very well-known story (the call of Isaiah), the word appears in its plural form, seraphim—and here, it is usually transliterated, letter for letter, as “seraphim” (Isaiah 6:2, 6).

The seraphim, of course, were one of three forms of angels known to the ancient Hebrews—the malachim, or messengers (from which Malachi gets his name), the cherubim (depicted on the ark, according to Exodus 25:18-22), and the seraphim (six-winged creatures who are the heavenly attendants of God).

And as Isaiah indicates, these seraphim were certainly able to fly (Isa 6:2), and they clearly dealt with fire, taking a coal from altar with a pair of tongs and delivering that to the prophet (Isa 6:6-7). In fact, the word saraph derives from a word that literally means “burning”.

Alongside this word, the more usual Hebrew word for serpent, nehash, is found in the Numbers story. It occurs once in what the narrator reports in Num 21:6, where the word stands right alongside seraphim; here the double barrelled hanehashim haseraphim appears to designate the serpents that bit the Israelites as “fiery serpent-like seraphim”, or even “flying serpent-like fiery-seraphim”.

Then the simple nehash appears once in what the people say (21:7), asking Moses to “take away the serpents from us”; and then twice in the actions of Moses (21:9). What Moses makes is a nehas nehoset, “a bronze serpent”; and what Moses places on the pole is a nehas hanehoset, “the bronze serpent”—that is, a serpent figure forged from bronze metal (21:9). But what God had commanded him to place on the pole was a saraph, a “fiery serpent” (21:8).

So there is a curious element in the Numbers story—did Moses use an image of a serpent, or an image of a seraph, to ward off the seraph-serpents who bit the people? (Num 21:9). The Hebrew actually refers to the image on the pole using both terms!

This brief (and complex) allusion to the “fiery serpents” (or should that be the seraphim?) in John 3 forms part of an important motif running throughout the whole Gospel, in which Jesus is linked to scripture–often as “the fulfilment of scripture”, but in many more ways as well.

It’s a feature that is common to all four canonical Gospels; but it has a distinctive shape in the book of signs. I think that topic warrants its own blog ….. https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/10/the-complex-and-rich-world-of-scriptural-imagery-in-the-book-of-signs-john-3-lent-4/

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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