Atonement in Scripture: The Bronze Serpent and Passover, Part 1


To develop further my argument regarding John’s Gospel and the Pentateuch simultaneously, I will examine the incident of Moses holding up the bronze serpent (Num.21:4 – 9) in the book of Numbers and in the Pentateuch as a whole as a motif of atonement.  Sailhamer again makes very intriguing observations.[1]  He argues for a literary symmetry between Exodus 1 and Numbers 22.

  • Israel is called a ‘mighty nation’ in Exodus 1:9 and Numbers 22:3 and 6.[2]  This refers to their sheer numbers, and it provoked fear in Pharaoh of Egypt and Balak of Moab, respectively.
  • Both Gentile rulers tried to harm Israel in response, preventing Israel from leaving for the Promised Land (Ex.1:10) or finally entering the Promised Land (Num.22:6).  So both Pharaoh and Balak/Balaam are powerful Gentile figures that initially oppose Israel and God’s purposes for the people.
  • As Sailhamer notes, both Pharaoh and Balak made three attempts to counteract God’s blessing and decrease the population of Israel.  Pharaoh appointed slave masters over the Israelites to enslave them (Ex.1:11 – 14); issued a command to all Hebrew midwives to kill all the male children (Ex.1:15 – 21), and then commanded every male child be thrown into the Nile (Ex.1:22).  Balak made three attempts to curse Israel through the lips of the enigmatic Gentile prophet Balaam (Num.23:1 – 12; 23:13 -26; 23:27 – 24:9) but each attempt to enlist Balaam to speak a curse was reversed and turned to a blessing (Num.23:11 – 12: 23:25 – 26; 24:10 – 11).
  • After Pharaoh’s third attempt, a deliverer (Moses) rose from Israel to deliver them (Ex.2ff.).  After Balak/Balaam’s third attempt a prophecy is given of a deliverer (‘the star out of Jacob’) who will rise from Israel to deliver them from their enemies (Num.24:15 – 19), presumably like unto Moses but even greater, for this prophecy uses the same language Jacob did in his prophecy of the king who will come out of the tribe of Judah (Gen.49:8 – 12).
  • Pharaoh was ‘hardened’ (Ex.7:14; 8:11, 28; 9:7; 10:1; 14:4) whereas Balak promised to ‘honor’ or ‘reward’ the seer Balaam (22:17, 37; 24:11).  The words for ‘hardened’ and ‘honored-rewarded,’ interestingly enough, share the same Hebrew root word.

This literary placement is surely not accidental.  There can be little doubt that the selection and arrangement of all this material is part of the author’s conscious intention.  Sailhamer suggests that this should draw our attention to the narrative section of Exodus 16 – Numbers 21.  That may very well be part of the author’s intention.  But I believe that a greater case can be made for paralleling the two incidents so that the deliverance of the first generation of Israelites from Egypt in Exodus 1ff. is paralleled to the deliverance of the second generation of Israelites from the wilderness in Numbers 18ff.  Here is why I believe that.


Chiastic Structure of Numbers 1 – 36

A. God numbers Israel for the camp and Tabernacle (Num.1 – 10); first generation

B.  Plague breaks out due to complaining about not having meat (Num.11)

C.  God defends Moses’ leadership (Num.12)

D.  Spies see the land of Canaan but people grumble; two have faith; Moses intercedes for Israel; Canaanites beat Israelites; Temple sacrifices and teaching are given, presumably as part of the response (Num.13 – 15)

E.  Korah leads rebellion against Moses; God punishes it; reaffirms Aaron (Num.16 – 17)

F.  Aaron’s sons must ‘bear the guilt’ for the sanctuary (Num.18)

F’.   Red heifer ashes and water to cleanse the people from contact with death of the first generation of Israelites (Num.19)

E’.   Miriam dies; Moses and Aaron rebel against God and misrepresent God to the second generation of Israelites; God declares Moses’ death; Aaron dies (Num.20); shift from Moses and Aaron to the priests to mediate the covenant

D’.   Israel defeats Canaanites; people complain; serpents strike Israel; Moses lifts bronze serpent on a pole to enact God’s healing; Israel begins to possess land (Num.21)

C’.   God defends Israel from Balaam’s curse; hope for Messiah (Num.22 – 24)

B’.   Plague breaks out due to worshiping Baal of Peor (Num.25)

A’.   God numbers Israel for inheriting the land and cities of Canaan (Num.26 – 36); second generation

The symmetry of Numbers is worth a lengthy explanation in itself.  I hope that my basic outline will suffice for this purpose.  The parallels seem clear:  the numbering of the camp at the beginning and the end (A and A’); the plagues (B and B’); the leadership questions (C and C’); the issue of despair and faithlessness upon seeing the Promised Land remedied by Moses’ direct intercession and later the despair and faithlessness as they fight some Canaanites in the wilderness remedied by the bronze serpent (D and D’); the rebellions and deaths (E and E’).  The turning point of the narrative of Numbers involves the establishment of priestly continuity through the sons of Aaron, and the unusual ceremony of the red heifer, which purified Israel from its contact with death (F and F’).

This turning point meant that the role of priestly mediator shifts from the larger-than-life personalities of Moses and Aaron to the institutional priesthood.  This is important because immediately afterwards, all of the first generation of Israel’s larger-than-life leaders die:  Miriam, Aaron, and Moses will soon follow (Num.20).  By the end of Numbers, we find an accounting of the second generation of Israelites in the camp, compared to the first generation of Israelites in the camp.  Only Caleb and Joshua will remain from the first generation to enter the Promised Land, with Moses’ death to come quickly.  Thus, I believe that the Passover-Exodus deliverance of the first generation of Israelites from Egypt is to be compared with the cleansing of the second generation of Israelites in the wilderness.  In fact, the narrative suggests that in the wilderness, God is delivering the second generation of Israelites out from the sin, faithlessness, complaints, and despair of the first.

Both the red heifer and the bronze serpent recall the Passover lamb and Exodus deliverance.  God ordered the red heifer procedure to handle the deaths of the first generation of Israelites, given that God’s holy presence in the Tabernacle made death a special complication and contaminating factor.  The person who touched a dead body or grave or tent where someone died became impure for seven days (Num.19:11 – 16), just as Israel had to cleanse itself from leaven for seven days in Egypt.  Hyssop was used in both ceremonies:  Eleazar the priest was to burn hyssop with the red heifer to make an ash and water combination (Num.19:1 – 10), and apply the water using hyssop to cleanse a person who has touched a dead body (Num.19:17 – 19), just as the Israelite family was to use hyssop to apply the blood of the lamb to the doorposts in Passover.  One heifer was used for all affected people for simplicity’s sake.  The color red was probably used because of its connection with blood.  Blood was associated with both the death of the uncleanness that was symbolically killed with the animal, and for the life of the animal released by its death, which then was available to cleanse the Israelites.

The bronze serpent also looks backward to the Passover.  On Pharaoh’s royal headdress was a serpent, and Moses’ first miraculous sign involved the defeat of the Egyptian serpents which symbolically represented the forces preventing Israel from leaving for the Promised Land (Ex.4:1 – 5; 7:8 – 11).  This connection was surely meant to be a figurative expression of victory and a sign of God’s victory over Pharaoh concerning the fate of Israel.  So also the bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness represented a poison or venom that had infected the first generation of Israelites, despite the fact that God had delivered them from Egypt.  The fact that this episode in Numbers comes right before Balaam’s oracles of Israel’s final deliverer (Num.22 – 24), symmetrically arrayed in my proposed chiasm to parallel Moses as Israel’s first deliverer (Num.12), is also very important, as is the fact that it straddles the period when the first generation of Israelites are dying in the wilderness, beginning with Miriam and Aaron and soon, Moses (Num.20); the second generation of Israelites were readying themselves by faith in God to march into the land without their greatest heroes.  Israel’s hope and faith were being clarified.  Israel, in effect, is being cleansed, renewed, and forgiven.  Once again, the twin themes at the heart of the atonement – cleansing and forgiveness – are not to be separated, which penal substitution advocates inexplicably do.  In fact, ontological priority is given to cleansing, and forgiveness follows.

The healing brought about by the bronze serpent (Num.21:4 – 9) is paralleled to the earlier intercession of Moses (Num.14:13 – 19), who has sinned and will soon no longer be with the people.  Thus, both incidents involve atonement in principle, even though the word ‘atonement’ is not present in the narratives.  In both cases, Israel complains and despairs of being in the wilderness.  The provocations are similar:


‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!  Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?’ (Num.14:2 – 3)


‘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 miserable food.’  (Num.21:5)

However, the immediate contexts do differ with respect to some elements.  In the earlier incident, the Israelite spies spied out the land and returned with news.  The people, lacking the necessary faith, despair.  In response, God delayed Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land until the first generation of Israelites died in the wilderness.  In the later incident, the Israelites won a preliminary battle against the Canaanite king of Arad at Hormah, then complain about having to wander in the wilderness still longer.  In response, God sent fiery serpents among the people to bite them; many died.  The people confessed their sin to Moses and asked him to ‘intercede’ for them (Num.21:7).  God then gave Moses the instruction to lift a bronze serpent on a pole so that people could look at it with faith in God and be healed.

This parallelism is significant.  In the earlier incident, Moses’ words of intercession were enough to prevent God from wiping out the people of Israel and starting over with him.  God accepted Moses’ faith as a proxy for the lack of faith by all the rest of the people.  But as the narrative looks forward towards the day when Moses will die and no longer be with the people, a different form of intercession appears.  Thus in Numbers 21, God did not invite Moses to pray on the people’s behalf.  Instead, He used a peculiar method that required each individual to look for herself or himself at the bronze serpent.  The importance of each person’s faith was more important in the second episode.  God was apparently sensitizing the second generation of Israelites to the importance of each person’s personal conviction and faith.

Furthermore, the narrative draws the reader’s attention back even further to the ‘poison’ of the most ancient serpent which tempted Eve and Adam and led them into rebellion against God (Gen.3:1 – 8), which drew the curtain of the original Garden Land against them.  The repetition of the literary motif of the serpent all the way back to the fall of Adam and Eve cannot be overlooked, for this reveals to us something about the nature of sin, the corruption in human nature, and the ontological healing and cleansing – not merely a legal-penal forgiveness as a declaration over their heads – that God would need to bring about on behalf of humanity.  The bite of a venomous snake does not kill instantly, but rather slowly, just as corrupting one’s own humanity does.

In the Exodus deliverance from Egypt, Israel had been externally freed from the serpentine rule of Pharaoh, who wanted to prevent them from receiving God’s blessing of the Promised Land.  But the episode in Numbers shows that Israel had still not been truly freed from the internal serpentine poison of unbelief and faithlessness and personal resistance to God, which threatened to stop them from receiving God’s blessing of the Promised Land once again.  The fact that the motif of the serpent is used in the deliverance of the first generation of Israelites from Egypt and also in the deliverance of the second generation of Israelites from crippling unbelief, is a commentary on something more deeply wrong with human nature, induced by the original serpent of old, who did not want humanity to live in the original Garden Land.  That serpent’s power, lurking behind both moments, must be defeated, and, like the bronze serpent hung on a pole by a dying deliverer, must be hung on a pole by another deliverer.  The serpent’s poisonous lie, which still dwells in human nature, must be undone and cleansed by that one, the one who will come like a star out of Jacob.

The multiple levels of parallelism here are instructive.  My argument about the bronze serpent lends even more weight to my earlier argument that the Passover was a cleansing of Israel through a judgment on the nation, not a forgiveness of Israel by drawing God’s judgment onto the lamb through a legal fiction.  It bears repeating that when Jesus referred to the episode of Moses lifting the bronze serpent, this fit right into John’s wider theme of Jesus being a paschal lamb; this intentional parallel by Jesus coincides very well with my own theory that the author of the Pentateuch already saw the parallel between the paschal lamb for the first generation of Israelites and the bronze serpent for the second.  Even more significant for my case, moreover, that the ontological substitution atonement theory is the theory that better fits the biblical data than penal substitution, are the mechanics of the bronze serpent episode.  The people were already poisoned and were dying, so this was not about a punishment looming in the future, but rather a problem that was already unfolding and affecting everyone.  What was mounted on a pole was not a bronze image of an Israelite, but a bronze image of the source of the poison.  In other words, the bronze serpent did not symbolize God’s judgment on the sinful Israelite who complained and muttered against God and Moses in the wilderness; rather, it symbolized the poison within the Israelite.  Thus, it can be conceptually connected to circumcision, the excising away of something unclean within the person, to cleanse the whole person, like the whole experience of the Passover can be understood also.

When Jesus used the bronze serpent as an image for himself on the cross, in one of the clearest statements of atonement in John’s Gospel, he seemed to be saying that on the cross, his ‘flesh,’ the corrupted human nature which he shared with all other human beings, would be judged by God and expunged of its corruption.  He was bearing the poison within his own body, then, as Israel’s final deliverer.  Jesus was therefore not using a penal substitution image.  He was using an ontological substitution image.  More on Jesus’ use of the bronze serpent in John 3 in the next post.


[1] John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), p.41 – 44

[2] NASB translates this ‘mightier’ in Ex.1:9 and ‘numerous’ in Num.22:3 and ‘mighty’ in Num.22:6.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Never saw that chiasmus in Numbers before. Of course it covers so much textual ground this is not surprising. There is also a significant chiasmus in John’s gospel, which would also connect to your analysis. I like this piece. I am inclined to agree with your assessment of the nature of atonement. I believe the penal substitution theory misrepresents God in the manner you have delineated here. Also, as food for thought, consider that Jesus came proclaiming the message of the “kingdom at hand” which implies that if the nation repents, the kingdom age would begin immediately. However, they did not. Jesus also declares that he came “only for the lost sheep of Israel”. So his atoning sacrifice is not a penal substitution as much as it is a cleansing sacrifice for the rebellion of Israel. His resurrection is pictured in the way God commands Moses to “go up the mountain” and die there. Moses, like Messiah, lays his life down of his own volition at the behest of the Father (also vividly pictured in the Akedah). It is interesting that Moses died “with no abatement of his strength”. This picture of the vigor of the First Redeemer is also paralleled by both Isaac and Messiah. To support this notion you have posited, the Talmud concludes that the reason the Temple (the Mishkan) was destroyed was so that the people would not be. So Jesus, representing the Heavenly Temple, offers himself and thereby secures that a remnant will enter the World to Come, in the same way that Moses, by obediently “going up the mountain” to die, secures that a remnant will also enter the Promised Land.


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