Weekly Thought: Encouragement from Every Book Numbers: Curses Reversed
The past is painful. Mistakes were made there, regrets multiply, and consequences cast a cruel shadow. Terrible choices haunt us and invade our memories. The curse of our own failures and sins hangs like a dark cloud. How could I have caused so much pain? How could I have rejected God in that way? As part of the human experience, we are forced to live with the often dire effects of our sin. God even sometimes gives us over to those consequences in order to shake us awake from the destructive sleep of rebellion against His will.
This is a lesson that must be learned by Israel over and over again in the book of Numbers. In this section of Scripture, we find Israel in the wilderness after leaving Egyptian bondage as they set out for the promised land. Yet, rather than a story of new beginnings and triumph, Numbers often reads more like a list of colossal failures from Israel. They do not trust God, they constantly complain, they consistently break God’s commands, and they even try to rebel and head back to Egypt. Although God proves to extremely patient and faithful to His hard- hearted people throughout the book, He often responds to them with strict discipline designed to purify and purge the evil from Israel.
One particularly severe case of punishment occurs in Numbers 21:4-6:
“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. 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.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.”
Surely, this was a dark day for Israel, being handed over to the consequences of their sin and utter faithlessness. Their sin brings death in the terrifying form of fiery serpents. This would be a mistake of the past that would be looked back on with regret and dread. But God, in his great mercy, does not let it only be that. Notice what happens next in Numbers 21:7-9:
“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. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
Isn’t this rather strange? God sent serpents as a means of punishment, but he then commands Moses to make a bronze serpent that would be a source of healing. Anyone who looks upon it would have life and be healed. What’s this all about? God has the ability to turn the moments of our deepest pain and failure into means of redemption and healing. The Lord forces His people to confront the consequences of their sin by looking upon a symbol of wrath and punishment, but he uses that same symbol as an object of redemption and mercy and new life. From then on, this moment in Israel’s history would be looked back on with pain but not with despair. God transformed it into a moment of hope. He can turn our most horrible mistakes into opportunities for our healing through His grace.
That reality is revealed most clearly at the cross. Jesus refers to Numbers 21 in John 3:14- 15:
“And 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.”
Jesus says that He will be lifted up on the cross in the same way that Moses lifted up the serpent. The crucifixion of our Lord was the darkest moment for humanity, the pinnacle consequence of destructive sin and rebellion. Yet, God used that shameful moment to produce a profound hope, the ultimate act of redemption and healing if we look to him and confront our sin. So, we can look back on the cross not with mere sadness, but with joy for how God has worked in that horrible event.
In Numbers 22, the very next chapter, the enemies of Israel hire a prophet Balaam to curse the people, yet every time Balaam attempts to curse them, he can only speak blessing. What was meant for evil became a source of good for God’s people. Another moment that could have resulted in pain and suffering was turned into hope and protection.
As we as Christians look to our own histories and mistakes of the past, God does not leave us mired in shame and despair. He takes each failure and sin and puts it on the cross as a display of His grace and mercy. We no longer have to look back, dwelling on all the wrong we have done; rather, we can look back and see the faithfulness and goodness of God in our failure, how He can use even the worst moments to work for our transformation and redemption. The past now becomes evidence of how God rescued and delivered and blessed despite the curse.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).