14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." (Jn 3:14-15)
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food." 6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Nm 21:4-9)
31 Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; 32 and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." (Jn 12:31-32)
The first text above from John’s Gospel is part of a dialogue between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. During this discourse, Jesus compares His own crucifixion with the OT narrative above from Numbers. Israel, during their 40 year sojourn in the wilderness, was plagued by “fiery serpents” which had fatal bites; the remedy for such bites was to look at a bronze serpent held high upon a pole, made by Moses. The bronze serpent on the pole is somehow a type of Jesus on the cross. We see above that when a victim looked at the bronze serpent, he would live; Jesus said those who believe in Him will also live: eternal life – the supernatural analogy to the bronze serpent story.
First, a rather obvious point is the analogy of the serpent and the devil. As explained in another essay on The Fall, the Hebrew word for “serpent” used in Genesis 3 is nahash. This is the same Hebrew word used here in Numbers to describe the fiery serpents. Furthermore, the Hebrew word for “fiery” is seraph, which is the same as used for Seraphim – those angels mentioned in Isaiah 6. These “fiery serpents” plaguing the Israelites were real-life images of the demons who plague all humans with temptation and sin in the wilderness of our lives in this world.
Then, God instructed Moses to make a fiery serpent and put it on a pole. Instead of a fiery serpent, Moses made a brass serpent. Interesting is the Hebrew for “brass” - nahashet - is very similar to the word for “serpent” - nahash. Anyway, the bronze serpent was representative of the fiery serpents, themselves representative of the devil. Then, we should compare and contrast Jesus lifted up on the cross with… the devil lifted up on pole. How to compare Jesus and the devil lifted up?
The solution is in the second text by John above. Jesus refers again to His being lifted up (on the cross), but he prefaces it with a reference to the devil, the ruler of the world. Furthermore, Jesus explains that when he is lifted up, he “will draw all men to” Him. The creation of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, was born on the cross. One of the benefits of this union with Christ is that He took on our sins when He “drew us unto Himself,” and nailed them to the cross with His own body. Then, Christ crucified is synonymous with sin crucified. We can now see a closer relationship between the bronze serpent, the devil, on the pole and sin on the cross.
There is a further, interesting detail to note: that of being “lifted up.” Jesus carried out His Redemptive act in the air. Likewise, the bronze serpent was held up in the air. Why the air? It makes sense if we remember that Jesus’ crucifixion was also a battle against the devil. We know from St. Paul that this battle was on the devil’s turf:
1 And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. (Eph 2:1-2)
The devil is “the prince of the power of the air.” Why the air? It was a belief in ancient Hebrew cosmology that when the demons came out of their home in the Deep to tempt humankind, the did so via the air. They ruled the air. Jesus, lifted up on the cross, defeated the devil in the air. We might also note that "fiery serpents" were again mentioned in Is 14:29 & 30:6, where they are called fiery flying serpents. (The RSVCE leaves out the word "fiery.")
There is one more facet to these texts: a fourth text from Deuteronomy refers again Israel dealing with these fiery serpents:
11 "Take heed lest you forget the LORD your God, by not keeping his commandments and his ordinances and his statutes, which I command you this day: 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, 15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. (Dt 8:11-16)
This is part of Moses’ farewell speech to Israel before they entered the Promised Land. He reminds them of the hardships of their 40 years in the wilderness, which he sums up by referring to the awful episode with the fiery serpents. He then reminds them of the water from the rock episode and the manna – the former a type of baptism and the latter a type of the Eucharist. This points to a future solution of the temptations and sins of which the fiery serpents are a type: the sacraments. The grace of the sacraments is our protection from temptation and sin. We found this same conclusion in another essay also about temptations in the wilderness.