Numbers 21:4-9 (NRSVCE)
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 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 detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
The Israelites are ungrateful and indignant. Moses has led them out of slavery in Egypt, but they can only find it within themselves to complain. There’s no food or water here! We were better off as slaves! They have lost all faith in Moses, and all faith in God. They have sinned through their unbelief, and the wages of sin is death. And so they begin to die, at the hands of poisonous serpents. It’s not until they see the repercussions for their actions that they begin to turn back to God.
One interesting thing is that the people do not beseech God directly. They go to Moses, and ask Moses to intercede on their behalf. This is noteworthy for a couple reasons. Firstly, it seems to speak to how far the people have fallen into unbelief. They are not even able to pray anymore, and so they need someone to pray on their behalf. But secondly, we see Moses time and again appearing as a Christ-like figure—the one who saves, who provides nourishment through mana, who provides live-giving water from the rock, and who leads the people to the Promised Land. Here we see Moses the intercessor, the one who looks up on them with pity and asks for mercy on their behalf. He is the one mediator between the Israelites and God, just as Christ is the true mediator between man and the Father.
That is, of course, not the only figure of Christ we find in this passage. The salvation of the Israelites in this moment comes from the serpent that God had Moses raise up on a pole. It was serpents that were killing the Israelites, and it is a serpent sent by God that saved them. Man kills himself by his sin, and it is a man sent by God, raised up on a pole (that is, the Cross), who offers the only path to salvation. Jesus tells us this himself: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). The thing which was killing man was raised up on a pole, and now became the source of their salvation. So too the Son was made like the thing which was killing man—namely, sinful man—and was raised up on a pole so that we might have eternal life.
Am I the one who looks to Moses and does nothing but complain? “How could you do this to me? I was far better off before you!” Am I the one who brings death upon himself by his sin? Or am I the one who looks to the cross, and finds upon it the source of my salvation?