The Lord does not easily give up on us. He wants us to come to Him even when we have rejected Him. Such was the case with the ancient children of Israel.
With a firm decree, the Lord consigned the Israelites to 40 years in the wilderness for their unbelief (see Num. 14:33). He did not, however, abandon them. He promised to preserve and bring all their “little ones” under age 20 into the promised land (see Num. 14:29–31). He then proceeded to guide them through a series of difficult yet valuable experiences to help them develop faith in Jesus Christ. As with the ancient children of Israel in the wilderness, it is often in the most difficult times of our lives that we finally sense the depth of the Lord’s love and His anxious desire to forgive and heal us (see D&C 95:1).
The Israelite nation numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and their animals would have numbered in the millions! It is therefore easy to see why the nations located along their path did not want them on their land. Some of these nations soon came upon them, violently driving them from the border of the precious and fertile promised land. Yet the Lord comforted them (see Num. 15:2) and gave them instructions on how to be forgiven of unintentional sins (see Num. 15:22–26). But He sternly warned them that anyone who “doeth ought presumptuously [intentionally sins] … shall be cut off from among the people” (Num. 15:30). This point was soon dramatically emphasized when the Lord commanded that a man be put to death for willfully breaking the Sabbath (see Num. 15:32–36). The Lord then pled with them to “remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them” (Num. 15:39).
Despite these warnings, a Levite priest named Korah, two men from the tribe of Reuben, and 250 other leaders rebelled, openly reviling against Moses and Aaron. The Lord therefore kept His word, and a great destruction came upon the camp: Korah and his followers were swallowed up by an earthquake, fire consumed the 250 leaders, and a plague killed 14,700 others who had threatened Moses (see Num. 16).
In the midst of what must have been a time of great sadness, the Lord sought to strengthen the Israelites’ faith by showing them a marvelous and instructive miracle. He asked that 12 “rods” or staffs, one for each tribe, be placed inside the tabernacle (see Num. 17:2, 4). The Lord then promised to make one of these dead poles sprout blossoms, thereby signifying which tribe was accepted of Him to lead the people.
The next day when Moses displayed the staffs before the people, only Aaron’s had sprouted (see Num. 17:8). The people confessed their sins and agreed to sustain Moses, Aaron, and the tribe of Levi as their leaders. They acknowledged with great resignation, “Behold, we die, we perish, we all perish” (Num. 17:12). They now knew that the Lord’s will would be done—namely, no one from the older generation would enter the promised land.
By the 40th year a new generation of Israelites had emerged, and once again the camp of Israel was on the move toward the promised land.1 The Canaanites attacked them and captured some, but this time the Israelites turned to the Lord for help and gained a complete victory (see Num. 21:1–3). When the Amorites and the king of Bashan came to battle against them, the Lord again vanquished their enemies (see Num. 21:21–35).
In the midst of these momentous victories, Moses asked the king of Edom for permission to travel through the land. When he refused, the people had to detour, making their journey more difficult (see Num. 20:14–21). “The soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way” (Num. 21:4), and once again they murmured against the Lord and Moses. So “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people” (Num. 21:6). Recognizing their sin, the people pled with Moses to petition the Lord for deliverance. Rather than simply taking the serpents away, the Lord chose to teach His people about faith and salvation through Christ. He instructed Moses to fashion a serpent of brass and mount it on a tall pole, and “if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Num. 21:9).
The prophet Nephi referred to these snakes as “fiery flying serpents” (1 Ne. 17:41). What kind of a serpent was it? The Hebrew word for fiery means “burning,” a probable reference to the burning pain of the bite. What does it mean for a serpent to fly? Possible explanations include the lightning speed with which a snake can strike and the propensity for some snakes to actually leap through the air at their victims. One snake that fits this general description and lives in the areas inhabited by the Israelites thousands of years ago is the saw-scale viper. Its venom causes death by internal bleeding over several days.2
Three Book of Mormon prophets used this story in their efforts to persuade their people to repent and believe in Christ. Nephi, son of Lehi, told his brothers that the Lord sent the serpents among the people to soften their hearts and that the only “labor which they had to perform was to look” (1 Ne. 17:41). Nephi also emphasized that while the labor was simple and easy, many still perished. The prophet Alma added several insights into this story: (1) many Israelites “did look and live” (Alma 33:19); (2) many would not even look because they did not believe, so they died; (3) among those who did look and were healed, some did not understand what the Lord was trying to teach them (see Alma 33:20). Nephi, son of Helaman, explained the symbolism of the brass serpent when he testified: “As he [Moses] lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he [the Messiah] be lifted up. … And as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal” (Hel. 8:14–15).
The Savior likened Himself to the serpent of brass: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).
Like ancient Israel in the wilderness, we have experiences during our mortal lives that point us to the Lord as the only source for healing and salvation. Sometimes He “straitens” us (see 1 Ne. 17:41), hoping to soften our hearts. But in each difficult situation, He stands ready mercifully to heal us if we will but believe in Him. Elder Carlos E. Asay (1926–99) of the Seventy said, “We, like Israel of old, must rivet our eyes and minds upon the cross of Christ if we hope to gain eternal life. … Our looks must not be allowed to wander across the way or to become fixed upon the perishable things of the world. The eye, ‘the light of the body’ (Matt. 6:22), must be trained to look upward. We must look to God and live!”3
We show our desire to be healed by remembering Him always and obeying His commandments. It was not the brazen serpent that brought healing; it was faith in Jehovah and obedience to His words. The prophet Alma urged his son Helaman: “Do not let us be slothful because of the easiness of the way. … The way is prepared, and if we will look we may live forever” (Alma 37:46). Let us not let the simpleness of the path lead us to be slothful or slow to keep the commandments of God. The Savior’s invitation is, “Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live” (3 Ne. 15:9).
More on this topic: See Name Withheld, “Being Clean Again,”Ensign, Sept. 1996, 20–22; A. Theodore Tuttle, “Developing Faith,”Ensign, Nov. 1986, 72–73; Ermel J. Morton, “I Have a Question,”Ensign, Sept. 1983, 49.
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