Don’t give glory to the serpent
One word. One simple word can change the meaning and understanding of a Biblical passage and the concepts that are held within that passage. A single word can either illuminate the Bible so that those reading will see the pathways and connections laid out to lead us precept upon precept, line upon line, or it will sever the connection between those precepts leaving us short of understanding the complete messages that G-D established within His Word.
One powerful example of this is found in Numbers chapters 20 and 21. The events that take place in these two chapters are well known to most believers. In chapter 20, we find Moses hitting the rock instead of speaking to it. In chapter 21, we read about the fiery serpents attacking the children of Israel. We can learn a lot from both of these events. In chapter 20:9-12 we read:
So Moses took the staff from before the presence of Ad-nai, just as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly in front of the rock. He said, “Listen now, you rebels! Must we bring you water from this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with the staff. Water gushed out and the community and its livestock drank. But Ad-nai said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in Me so as to esteem Me as holy in the eyes of Bnei-Yisrael, therefore you will not bring this assembly into the land that I have given to them.”
From these verses, we learn that a leader should not get so angry toward the people he is shepherding that he disobeys G-D in the process. We also learn that G-D is just in His judgment as we see that He punished Moses while at the same time providing water to those who were thirsty. There are many more lessons we can learn from these verses and every single one of those lessons is important.
In Numbers chapter 21:8-9 we read:
Ad-nai said to Moses, “Make yourself a fiery snake and put it on a pole. Whenever anyone who has been bitten will look at it, he will live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and it happened that whenever a snake bit anyone and he looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
Here we find that Moses does exactly what G-D instructed him and the people were delivered and even though the serpents were a result of the people’s rebellion against G-D and Moses, Moses himself didn’t get angry and rebel against the commandment G-D gave him.
By now, you are asking your self, “Okay, so what does this have to do with the definition of a word and the possible illumination of important Biblical concepts?” When we look at verse 8 and 9, we find the phrase “put it on a pole” in both verses. Yet, the Hebrew word that is being translated is not the word for “pole.” The word being translated is “nes,” which is never translated as pole in any other locations we find it in the Bible. In other locations, that word is translated as “banner” and in some locations a “standard” or “ensign.” Now, you may be asking, “So what?” Well, the truth is that this one change of wording disconnects this verse from the verses in Exodus 17:15 where we read:
Then Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Ad-nai-Nissi.
As you turn in your Bible back to Exodus 15, you will see that the chapter is about a very similar event as the Children of Israel are thirsty and murmuring:
So Moses cried out to Ad-nai saying, “What am I to do for these people? They are about ready to stone me.” Ad-nai said to Moses, “Walk before the people, and take of the elders of Israel with you, along with your staff with which you struck the river. Take it in your hand and go. Behold, I will stand before you, there upon the rock in Horeb. You are to strike the rock, and water will come out of it so that the people can drink.” Then Moses did just so in the eyes of the elders of Israel.
This is the first appearance of this Rock, which we read about in 1 Corinthians 10:4:
…and all drank the same spiritual drink—for they were drinking from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the Rock was Messiah.
The significance of this Rock being the Messiah who would appear twice, first to be struck and second to be worshipped, cannot be missed. This helps us to understand why Moses’ punishment was so severe. It was because the intention by G-D was to provide a clear prophetic picture of the two appearances of Messiah, first as suffering servant and second as reigning King.
But the connection between these two events both brought on by rebellious people murmuring and complaining goes deeper than this. Notice that Moses called the place in Exodus 17 “Ad-nai is my Banner.” Moses understood it wasn’t his hitting the Rock that brought water, nor was it the staff in his hands his hands being held up that brought victory. It was looking beyond his staff to the Banner that brought the victory. This concept makes more sense when you understand that the word “nes” in Hebrew also means miracle. Anyone who has played dreidel during Hanukkah knows that the letters on the dreidel are nun, gimmel, hey, shin (outside of Israel) these letters stand for the phrase “nes gadol haya sham,” which means in English “a great miracle happened there” (there being in Israel). Notice the first word “nes” is the exact same word used for banner in Exodus 17 and it is the same word translated “pole” in Numbers 21. This simple word change keeps people from connecting Moses saying “Ad-nai Nissi,” or “The L-RD is my Banner,” in Exodus 17 with Moses raising up a banner in Numbers 21.
This simple change makes it appear to the readers that when Israel looked on a serpent on a pole they were healed and lived. The truth is that they looked at a serpent being held up by the Banner of Ad-nai in defeat. Another way of looking at these words is that they looked at the miracle that defeated the serpent and the result was those that had rebelled against G-D were healed and given life.
Now stop for a moment and think about this picture as it was intended. First, the people were in sin and rebellion and the “Rock” appeared and was struck and from its side flowed living water and the enemy was defeated. Then the “Rock” followed the people and a second time the people thirsted for water and longed to be out of the wilderness. It was this time the “Rock” was to have been spoken to or “worshipped” and the serpent was to be defeated providing a flow of water. The former and the latter rains. Each time a “nes,” banner, or miracle was to be viewed as the mechanism of victory.
To further understand the breadth of the concept, let’s look at three more verses from Isaiah:
All you inhabitants of the world, and dwellers on earth, when a banner is raised on the mountains, look! when a shofar is blown, listen!
Thus says Adonai Elohim: “Look, I will lift My hand to the nations, and raise My banner to the peoples! They will bring your sons on their chest, and carry your daughters on their shoulders. Kings will be your guardians, their princesses your nurses. They will bow down to you with their face to the ground, and lick the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am Adonai— those hoping in Me will not be ashamed.”
Go through, go through the gates. Clear the way for the people! Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Lift up a banner over the peoples. Behold, Ad-nai has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to the Daughter of Zion, “Behold, your salvation comes! See, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him.” Then they will call them The Holy People, The Redeemed of Ad-nai, and you will be called, Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.