This week our lesson is about the Fiery Serpents by the Red Sea. You can find the story in Numbers 21.
The context of the story starts with the rejection of Edom, in which Edom rejected the Isrealites’ request to travel through their land. This forced the Israelites to travel around their land in a much more difficult route. This brought them again to complaining and wishing they were back in Egypt.
The biggest question in understanding this story is what is this “fiery serpent”. Here are some thoughts.
Wikipedia’s article on Fiery Flying Serpents offers some thoughts. The three options offered are a Pterosaur, Seraph, and Saw Scale Viper. The Pterosaur is an interesting thought, which I had never heard. The article about the Ropen lends credence to the possibility that such an animal may have existed. The reptile part fits the serpent description and the bioluminescence fits the fiery part.
The Seraph is another option that could fit. Remember that in the garden of Eden, Satan did take the form of a snake. This wouldn’t be the only time that God has released permission for demons or Satan’s servants to afflict human-kind.
The Saw Scale Viper is an option that fits well too. Wikipedia has an article that explains more about the snake: Echis. The flying description as found in the Isaiah passages might refer to the powerful strike of the snake: “These snakes are very aggressive and will strike vigorously from the position described above. When doing so, they may overbalance and end up moving towards their aggressor as a result; most unusual behavior for a snake.” These snakes are very deadly: “Bites from Echis species result in more human fatalities than from any other venomous snakes.”
The Bible Encyclopedia’s article about the Fiery Serpent offers some more ideas. The Heie Sursurie and Heie Thiare were options that I couldn’t find information on, but the naja haje was very interesting.
The naja haje is one of my favorite options. It is the Egyptian Cobra. The Bible Encyclopedia describes it as a “swift-springing, deadly snake”. Wikipedia has a nice article on the snake: Egyptian Cobra. A section of the article talks about the significance of the snake to the Pharaoh. I think is only fitting to have this snake punish the Israelites who were wishing they were back with the Pharaoh!
The Horned Viper was another option to which I saw references. Although I can’t find the referring article again, Wikipedia has an article about them: Cerastes.
No matter what the option, one point is definitely clear: the result was no fun. All of the snakes I read about had a bad bite. The symptoms were things like rotting flesh, bleeding, vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, etc. The Bible says that many died. I believe the point is that God takes complaining seriously especially when it comes to forgetting and disbelieving God.
As always, God comes to the rescue with His mercy. God tells Moses to make an image of these snakes on a pole. When the people have the faith to look at the pole, they are mercifully healed.
Wikipedia has an article about the Nehustan that talks about this image. I think it is neat that the EMS uses the Star of Life as its symbol. It has the Rod of Asclepius at its center, which I thought was Moses’ serpent, but the Wikipedia article lists the primary source as a Greek god.