The Bible’s Account of “Nehushtan” (Numbers 21.4-9)
As a result of the people’s murmuring, God sent “fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (v. 6). The people cried out for mercy, confessing their sings, and Moses prayed for the people (v. 7). The Lord gave Moses the remedy for the people’s snakebites by telling Moses, “Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live” (v. 8). This is exactly what happened (v. 9)!
After this, some might assume that the snake was disposed of somehow. Sadly, this is not the case. Hezekiah, king of Judah, “broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18.3-4). What was once helpful for God’s work had become an idol they worshipped. Therefore, Hezekiah destroyed it, calling it “Nehushtan,” meaning “a piece of brass.” In other words, he was saying it was worthless. It was just a piece of brass, having no power of any kind.
Hezekiah’s action reminds us that just because God uses something one time does not mean he will continually use that object. For example, once the flood ended (Genesis 8), the ark was left behind and not used again. This was true of the ark of the covenant, the tabernacle, or the temple’s use. Once God was done with something, it was not necessary for man’s use either.
“Nehushtan” Was a Type of Christ
Following the statements in Numbers 21 and 2 Kings 18, the final time we read about “Nehushtan” is in John 3. We might not have noticed this before, but “Nehushtan” is used as an important comparison in this text. When we read John 3, we see where Jesus told Nicodemus, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3.14).
This statement foreshadowed his upcoming crucifixion. When Jesus reminded Nicodemus about Moses “lifting up” that serpent in the wilderness, he was speaking of the time when the brass serpent was used in the correct way. When the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, it became a type of Christ. This event, Jesus said, foreshadowed the salvation to come through Christ being nailed to the cross and “lifted up” for all to see. In Numbers 21.8, God said that those who looked upon the brass serpent (i.e., obey God’s command) would save their physical lives. So today, when folks look to Jesus and accept his word, obeying him in baptism (Matthew 28.19), they can be saved from sin, thereby saving their souls!
In Numbers 21, God punished sin and showed his willingness to forgive sinners. In John 3, we see the same thing. God shows his willingness to forgive sinners as evidenced by the coming of Jesus and his willingness to die on the cross as a sacrifice for us (John 3.14-17).
Man perverted God’s purpose with the brass serpent (Numbers 21.8) by turning it into an idol (2 Kings 18.1-4). In like manner, man has perverted Christ’s purpose in coming to earth (Luke 19.10) by claiming that he came to feed the poor or establish an earthly kingdom (John 18.37), etc. Let us remember to respect God’s will, not going beyond or falling short of what he has said. Doing so results in sin (1 John 3.4; James 4.17).
Let us take time to thank God for his salvation. In Numbers 21, when man sinned by murmuring, God punished the people. Afterward, God provided a way by which men could be saved. So also today, though we have sinned (Isaiah 59.1-2; Romans 3.23), God still provided a way by which men can be saved. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14.6). When we look to him for the answer to our spiritual needs and submit to the Lord’s plan for salvation (Acts 2.38), we can be saved from sin!