The “hits” just keep on coming with Israel. The longer they wander in the wilderness, the more discontent and grumbly they seem to be — not unlike ourselves, sometimes. In his book, Finishing Strong, Steve Farrar makes the sad but astute observation that as strong as some people seem to start (in the Bible and in our times, too) too many finish weak or not at all. One thing is for sure, you don’t want to finish poorly in this most important “marathon”.
As Israel continued to journey in the wilderness, they sometimes worried about food and water. In Numbers 20 they are acutely anxious about water and they assemble against Moses and Aaron. Moses had, of course, seen the complaint and faithlessness before, but for whatever reason, this time he just “lost it”. Anyone who has ever been a parent can probably relate and empathize — “Are we there yet? I’m hungry. Joey’s looking at me. Are we there yet?” So, instead of speaking to the rock, as God had commanded, Moses struck the rock. Water still came out, but Moses was in big trouble with God. God, because of this disobedience, forbade Moses from entering the promise land! Again, we pause to ask how striking a rock instead of speaking to it could be such a major issue? And it, again, boils down to the higher expectation and accountability given to leadership who must “treat God as holy”. If leadership sins without consequences, the people believe that sin is no big deal. Every leader of God’s people (including moms and dads) need to pay attention here. Everybody wants to be a leader, but few are willing to take the extra accountability of leadership.
In chapter 21 we find the famous story of the brass serpent. Israel wasn’t complaining about the food and water — again. And this time God decided to send poisonous (fiery) serpents among them to bite them. A large number died. When the people repented, God told Moses to build a brass serpent to put on a standard pole, so that it could be hoisted high so that everyone who wanted could see it. Those who would look on the brass serpent survived their snake bite; those who refused died. Jesus referred to this story when He says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” John 3:14, 15, NAS95.
One last note on this matter, too; the brass serpent was kept by Israel as a relic. In time it became an object of worship known as Nehushtan (2 Kings 18:4). Sometimes we might wonder why there aren’t more relics from biblical times. There are precious few archaeological items that can be pointed to as authentic objects mentioned in the Bible. We wonder, “Wouldn’t it increase faith? Wouldn’t unbelievers have the proof they seek?” Truthfully, unbelievers seldom let proof change their minds, they simply try to find reasons to invalidate or inauthenticate the object (e.g., the James Ossuary, the Jehoash Inscription, the Ivory Pomegranate that topped the high priest’s staff, etc.). And worse, they often become objects of worship — holy relics.