Numbers 21:4-9 - Seeing your own soul hanging dead on a pole

Updated: Mar 16

From Mount Hor the Israelites 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.


This is the Old Testament reading selection for the fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B, according to the lectionary for the Episcopal Church. It is read aloud along with Psalm 107, which sings: “He gathered them out of the lands; from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; they were afflicted because of their sins.” It also precedes the Epistle selection from Ephesians, where Paul wrote: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.” Finally, it accompanies the Gospel selection from John, when Jesus said to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

In can help to realize the logistics of that which is stated in verse 4. Mount Hor is east of the Jordan River, in modern Jordan’s southwestern quadrant. The mountain range it is in runs parallel to the river, south from where it leaves the Dead Sea bodies of water. The Hebrew word translated as “Red” actually says “reeds,” so that reflects the narrow point between the main portion of the Dead Sea [north] and that to its south. This is an area known to have reeds, as the water does not cover the land deeply there.

This area of the Dead Sea is to the north of the land of Edom, which was what is today southern Israel, from the Jordan River and to the west, with it also spread on the eastern shore of the Jordan. Thus, the placement in Mount Hor was to the east of that eastern border of Edom, forcing the Israelites to travel through rugged terrain going north, As such, one can imagine the mountainous terrain became a struggle for them.

Roughly presented

The Hebrew words translated as “the people became impatient” are “wat·tiq·ṣar ne·p̄eš- hā·‘ām,” rooted in “qatsar nephesh am.” The key word left out of the translation stems from “nephesh,” which means “soul.” This means the text says, “the soul of the people became short.” The meanings of “qutsar” include “cut down, much discouraged, reaper, harvestman, mourn and loathe” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance), such that the best essence from this one should take is the eternal souls [married to Yahweh] suddenly wanted to “cut off” that relationship, killing their commitment to God. To say this is “impatience” is putting it too mildly.

To best grasp this meaning, one needs to recall the lesson of the third Sunday in Lent, where Exodus 20 was shown to begin with the words “waydabber elohim” – “and the gods spoke.” With the Ten Commandments seen as the wedding vows God prepared, they were not spoken by human flesh, but by the “gods” giving life to that flesh. Those “gods” are now identified as “souls” in Numbers ["ne·p̄eš- "].

Recalling that language from Exodus can then be seen echoed in Numbers, when verse 5 begins, “waydabber hā·‘ām bê·lō·hîm.” Where the NRSV translates this as saying, “and spoke the people against God,” in reality it says, “and spoke the people against gods,” which can only be their souls. It says the people spoke as the people, refusing to be led by souls in marriage to Yahweh. Thus, they next spoke “against Moses,” as he was the one who officiated the marriage of their souls to God, as His priest. The negative of “against” says the flesh of the people spoke up for themselves, angry that leading the pious life was too difficult and too painful.

This aspect of the flesh complaining about their souls being always following the lead of Moses, with the Promised Land always remaining a place that takes more work to obtain, the flesh began saying it only had so much time for wandering, before flesh dies [being mortal]. This can be seen in their question posed: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” In that question, the mortality of their flesh [not their souls] is not so much a surprise necessity for all human beings, as much as it is about having been taken away from fun places [Egypt], where the flesh can [seemingly] die happy. Their bodies of flesh complained about dying in a place barren of fun things to do. In that question, the word “wilderness” [“midbar”] should be read as meaning “an uninhabited land” (Brown-Driver-Briggs), such that while they were there, they had no life to speak of.

To confirm their complaint was less about the physical strength their bodies of flesh needed, in order to walk in mountainous terrain, their focus was no “bread” [“lechem”] and no “water” [“mayim”], which was not so much a complaint about not having basic life sustaining necessities, as much as it was a statement that they missed the variety of foods and drinks they had given up, when they left Egypt, following Moses. The key to understanding this as such comes from the next complaint that came in the same breath.

When the NRSV translates their complaint as if saying, “For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food,” the word “food” is repeated, which is important to look closer to see just what is said. Also, when the translation simply says “we,” it gives the impression that a bunch of complaining Israelites were throwing another of their rebellious tantrums. However, the Hebrew written for the last segment where “food” is repeated does not say that.

What is written is actually two segments, each consisting of two combined words: “wə·nap̄·šê·nū qā·ṣāh , bal·le·ḥem haq·qə·lō·qêl .” In the first segment the word “nephesh” is repeated, such that “wə·nap̄·šê·nū” says, “and our souls.” This is followed by “qā·ṣāh,” which is similar to the prior use of “qutsar,” because the word used here also means “loathe.” This means the previous statement of “cut down souls of the people” is now clarified as meaning “loathe souls of the people,” because here the statement following no bread or water says, “and souls loathe.” Following a comma that is not transferred into the translation is the statement “bread this worthless,” where “bê·lō·hîm” [from “lechem”] is “bread.”

This becomes significant when the use of “our souls loathe this worthless bread,” where the comma becomes a pause before they spit that out. By saying their bodies of flesh were tired of the same ole “bread and water,” with none of the variety of Egypt given to them as a form of pleasure [like a carnal sin], the “worthless bread those souls loathe” is manna. This says manna was not physical food [the first “le·ḥem”] for nourishing a body of flesh, but spiritual food [the second “bal·le·ḥem”] for nourishing the soul. Therefore, the Israelites’ souls were complaining “against gods” that had to follow Moses and digest manna from heaven, in order not to complain about all the pain and suffering of a wilderness test.

With this seen, verse 6 is translated to state, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” This translation shows three segments of words, but the Hebrew shows four, as:

“so sent Yahweh the people” , [“way·šal·laḥ Yah-weh bā·‘ām,”]

“serpents fiery serpents” , [“êṯ-han·nə·ḥā·šîm haś·śə·rā·p̄îm,”]

“and they bit the people” --- [“way·naš·šə·ḵū ’eṯ-hā·‘ām;”]

“and died” . [“way·yā·māṯ”]

In the first segment of words, the verb “sent” [“shalach”] is read as if Yahweh heard the complaining of the Israelites and their souls, so He becomes the sender. However, if one realizes the previous verse says what the people’s souls spoke against Moses [and thereby Yahweh], it becomes them who did the sending of that message to “Yahweh,” seen because this separate segment of words only identifies the two ends of the message as being “Yahweh” and “the people,” not what is “sent.”

The root words in the second segment of words are “nachash,” meaning “serpent,” and “saraph,” also meaning “serpent,” but used as “fiery serpent.” To translate this simply as “fiery serpents” is wrong and misses the importance of repetition in “serpents.” Because it is the “elohim” who sent this message of loathing to Moses [which Yahweh heard], those souls spoke as influenced by the wisest and craftiest of all animals in Eden, who had been cast out for influencing the sins done by Adam [man] and Eve [wife]. Therefore, the face worn by the Israelites was no longer that of Yahweh [the First Commandment in their wedding vows], but that of the “serpent” Satan, who had penetrated their Big Brains.

The repetition of “serpents” that are “fiery serpents” needs to be seen also on the level of immortality, where the Hebrew word “saraph” [singular number] means “seraphim” [plural number], who were “beings originally mythically conceived with serpents' bodies, represented as majestic beings with six wings, and human hands and voices.” (Brown-Driver-Briggs) By realizing that, the second segment of words identifies “serpent-influenced seraphim,” which are “elohim” cast out of Heaven, forever contained in the physical realm.

Seeing how the first two segments of words identify how the souls of the Israelites became engaged [so to speak] with the evil whispers of a “divorce attorney” that advised them to complain and point out all wrong Yahweh was causing them, as grounds for divorce, it was they who brought about the “serpents sent,” which were “poisonous.” It was their souls that became poisoned by this evil influence [a sin to turn away from Yahweh and wear the face of other elohim], so their complaint about being led into the wilderness to die became the truth of a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” The serpent deity they were bowing down before then brought out his pet “fiery serpents,” who did what they knew to do, which was to “bite people and kill them” with poison.

The purpose of death was to release the souls from their bodies of flesh, which Satan would then claim as his possessions, no longer the wives of Yahweh’s. We then read that “many Israelites” suffered death, which was caused by the “serpents.” Knowing this was due to themselves, and not some punishment meted by Yahweh, we read: “The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against [Yahweh] and against you.” This becomes a confession of sins made before a divine priest of Yahweh, who they asked, “pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”

Here, it is vital to see their petition to “take away the serpents from us” was not asking God to kill all the snakes, which were causing them death. The admission that “we have sinned” says they realized their souls had become influenced by evil, so those who died had become the souls divorced from Yahweh and married to Satan. Those in that same condition of sinning, through “speaking against Yahweh” and His most divine priest, knew their souls would also be sold into slavery to the devil, if the snakes they had allowed themselves to become were not removed from them. Therefore, “Moses prayed for the people” to be saved by God, meaning he begged God to take back their souls as His wives.

Yahweh heard the prayers of His priest Moses and responded to his prayers, telling Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” This translation appears as three separate segments of words, thereby representing three stages of acts being required, for the salvation of the Israelite souls to be met. However, the Hebrew states this in four stages, including a very important word that has been omitted from the NRSV translation. Thus, it becomes helpful to look at what Yahweh actually said to Moses.

The segments appear as this (literally translated into English):

  1. “make a likeness of a seraph” ,

  2. “and set it on a standard” ---

  3. “and it shall be that” ,

  4. “everyone who is bitten” ,

  5. “and when he looks at it and he shall live” .

When the first segment says, “make,” the Hebrew adds “to you” [“lə·ḵā”]. This (basically) untranslatable addition should be seen as Moses being told to “make” what he thought “seraphim” [“śā·rāp̄”] looked like. He was not told to go catch a snake or kill one. He was told to make himself appear as a deity sacrificed unto Yahweh.

Here, it becomes important to realize last Sunday’s interpretation of the Ten Commandments [Exodus 20], where the marriage vows to Yahweh [spoke by one’s soul] included: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” This means that Yahweh told Moses to break this covenant purposefully, to set an example of what a marriage commitment to God means – figuratively [because an immortal seraph could not be caught or killed].

When the second segment of words has Yahweh telling Moses to take his image of a seraph and “set it on a standard,” or “a pole, ensign, signal, sign” (Strong’s usage), the intent is to place the likeness of a seraph one an instrument that will raise the image up high. This then becomes a continuation of the marriage vows agreement God sent Moses to the Israelites with, which explained not making idols by saying, “You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” By having an idol raised high, one must stand and look upward [not bow down before or submit one’s being unto] in order to see it.

See this as Moses raising a likeness of himself, as a Saint of God, whose body was like all the Israelites - mortal.

The one word that has been omitted from the NRSV translation comes after this instruction to place the image on a pole, with the word separated by hyphen, making it an extension of this order by Yahweh. The word is “wə·hā·yāh,” which translates as “and it shall be that” or “and it shall come to pass.” The separation makes it importantly known that an image of a seraph atop a standard becomes a prophecy of oneself in marriage to Yahweh. Looking upon it will come to represent just what bowing down before another “elohim” and worshiping it will mean to one’s soul. It says to the soul seeking redemption from sins, sacrifice the soul of you to God in marriage or your soul or eternally find your soul sentenced to death, one body of life after another. Marry Yahweh or the god you see yourself as will forever be imprisoned on a stake for all to see the worthless reward for not marrying one’s soul [and staying married] to Yahweh. "That will come to pass."

From that important distinction that an icon will be a reflection of what one must not become [a little-g god lifeless on a sign post], the fourth segment of words becomes the stage where the symbol becomes the cure, as it is what “everyone who is bitten” by self-importance and the influence of evil to sin, causing them to reject marriage to Yahweh must look upon. One must stand up [arise and awaken] and lift up one’s eyes [raise up one’s stake], so one sees the outcome of living to please a body of flesh that most certainly will die. Because an “elohim” is lifeless on a pole, one’s soul will gain nothing more than the same return to a body of flesh, always complaining about not getting more of what one wants in the world.

By seeing this image of oneself, as a soul always trapped within a body, where death becomes repetitious, one is able to see one's life of suffering is nothing, when compared to endless lives of suffering. By looking upwards to see the reflection of one’s soul mounted forever on a pole, one will realize service to Yahweh, no matter how much one’s flesh might suffer and strain, is the path that frees one from falling down and becoming the prey of Satan.

When this reading ends by stating, “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,” two points need to be realized. First, it says Moses did as the Lord told him. Even though Yahweh told him to do something that was against the marriage vows, it was not a sin to do whatever God told him to do. As such, “make” and “made” [forms of “asah”] is a command from the master to the subject, so nothing “done” on the command of Yahweh can ever be a sin. This becomes a lesson that confirms how Jesus said God within one’s heart will inscribe the Law on the walls there, meaning an external Law could have people wonder “Should I make an image, when I said I would not?” making them do nothing out of fear of breaking a Commandment. The order to “make” and Moses having then “made,” according to what God said, means God was in his heart.

Second, the use of “bronze” or “copper” is important as Moses made the image of an eternal “seraph” [singular of “seraphim”] out of a metal of low value, which lasts much longer than wood, where the metal can catch the light of the sun and become an attraction to the eyes. Bronze [or copper] becomes a color that is symbolic of the earth, nature and that which comes from the ground. ( Because, as a metal, it reflects lasting strength, durability and sturdiness as a functional element, it became the metal of choice by Moses to symbolize a fallen god, forever trapped in the earth. As a most common metal, usually an alloy of copper mixed with tin, it shows just how lowly a soul is when attempting to call oneself a god. Thus, Moses erected a metal and wood icon that symbolized a soul giving life to that which is dead and will always return to that state of being.

As a reading selection for the season of Lent, it must be seen that this says all souls who hear the proposal of Yahweh for marriage and accept it, but then find the ways of righteousness are difficult to travel, the Israelites had struggled for decades following Moses. Trying to will oneself to be righteous is impossible, because that misuse of willpower comes with few perks that are offered a soul by the material realm. Struggling to do something not truly desired says the lesson is clearly saying a soul alone cannot make the journey to eternal salvation without God. The lures of a sinful world will always become a distraction if one’s soul is not divinely committed to serve God, as was Moses. It says it is always the easy way out to blame God and blame those who serve God as His saints, than it is to keep one’s head [thus face] bowed down in subservience, always saying, “You know, Lord” when God speaks to one. [This shines new light on what being "blameless" is really about.]

This particular reading says the wilderness experience that comes from a marriage to God’s Holy Spirit is longer than forty days. In hindsight, from our modern perspective, we find it difficult to fathom forty years that the Israelites followed the lead of Moses. For Lent to be some imaginary concept of self-sacrifice, forty days becomes a reflection of a child playing church, not a soul making a commitment of marriage to Yahweh. Our complaint is more than “no food and no water” for forty days, as it is the ungrateful attitude that “I” will force myself to do without one excess of addiction, which is only one of the plethora of lustful desires available in the social environment of one's own personal "Egypt." A Lenten season not seen as the anniversary of one’s soul’s marriage to God, lasting until the end of one’s physical life on earth, when one’s soul is released forever to be with Yahweh, is nothing more than a game being played.

When every reading in the church lectionary ever presented must call upon oneself to see what oneself needs to see, in order to correct the mistakes of one’s own life [one’s sins confessed, begging God for absolution], this reading from Numbers calls everyone claiming to be “Christian” to see just how much one’s soul is complaining to Yahweh, “I detest having to eat this spiritual food you send from heaven.” One has to ask oneself, seriously, “Do I put any real effort into reading the divine texts prepared for my soul’s salvation, so I begin to see clearly how the divine texts are speaking loudly to me and telling me what God expects from me?”

The answer to that question, to anyone who embarks on a forty day camping trip without cigarettes of chocolate bars [whatever trivial sin one admits to], is “no.” By not taking the time to read Scripture and listen to what God tells you it means, says your soul loathes consuming that spiritual food sent to you. Sporadically listening to sermons on Sundays is far from a commitment that looks for daily consumption of spiritual food. [Spiritual food is not wafers handed out by priests at a church's altar rail.] Whenever the thought of “Bible studies” makes you want to complain to God [and the authors of the divine texts who were the true priests of Yahweh], you then are telling God, “I prefer wearing my face, as a little-g god, rather than put on God’s face and suffer the ups and down of a mountainous terrain, in order to reach the Promised Land [i.e.: not any land on earth].”

The lesson for this Lent is then look upon yourself as a seraph on a pole, because you have been bitten by the poisonous snakes of a modern world of lusts and pleasures.