Among the animals forbidden for food were "whatsoever goeth
upon the belly... and creeping things that creep upon the earth". We are told
elsewhere in Scripture that there is nothing unclean of itself (1Ti 4:4; Rom
14:14,20; Mark 7:15). Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that all the
creatures rendered "unclean" by the Mosaic law were made so to teach moral
lessons. What lesson is taught by Lev 11:42?
This verse is an obvious allusion to the curse upon the
serpent in the Garden of Eden:
"Because thou hast done this (ie, enticed Eve into sin), thou art cursed above
all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go,
and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life" (Gen
The serpent indirectly brought sin into the world, though
without question the moral offence of Adam and Eve was greater than his -- they
being "under law". The sin of our first parents was crystallized in a change of
nature, from "very good" to mortal, which they experienced as a direct
punishment from God. This change in nature also meant that their minds would
thereafter be prone, or inclined, toward sin.
This mind of the flesh, or "serpent-mind", has been inherited
by all their descendants. It is a frame of mind characterized by thinking
according to the natural desires, rather than the spiritual guidelines of God's
word. This is an "abomination"; any man who lets the flesh take over his mind is
"going upon his belly"; He is letting the grosser, more materialistic impulses
-- his "belly" -- crowd out and choke the Spirit-mind that a concentration upon
Scripture could cultivate. Such a state of mind, if persisted in, will at last
bring the curse of Eden upon its holders -- death without remedy!
In similar language Paul speaks of such "natural men" -- and
he describes the moral (or immoral!) equivalent of this Mosaic
"The first man is of the earth, earthy" (1Co 15:47) -- he
never elevates himself above the dust of his origins, but is always looking
downward and groveling in those things that are merely sensual. He "feeds" upon
the "dust" (Gen 3:14)!
"For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping,
that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction,
whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly
things" (Phi 3:18,19).
The fact that Paul uses the word "walk" of these men, and his
exceeding sorrow at their conduct, imply that these men were nominally
"brethren" of Christ. What had made them "enemies of the cross of Christ"? The
cross was the means whereby Christ conclusively put to death the lusts of the
flesh, and it is the invitation and the challenge to us to do the same: to
crucify "the world" (Gal 6:14) within ourselves.
Any who aspire to put on the name of Christ, yet make no
meaningful attempt to live as he did, are really his "enemies" and not his
friends. They profess friendship, but their actions make them liars. Their God
is not Yahweh -- it is their "belly"; their mind is not on heavenly, spiritual
things -- but upon "earthly" things! They see all the enticements of the world.
Like Eve did with the fruit of the tree, they desire, they take, and they
"enjoy"; like the serpent, their "end is destruction".
It is not surprising that many of the abominations and
"uncleannesses" of the Law reflect the events in the Garden of Eden. Not only is
the serpent an abomination (Lev 11:42), but nakedness is to be scrupulously
avoided (Exo 20:26). In fact, to uncover another's nakedness becomes, in the
Hebrew, a euphemism for sexual union (Lev 18:6-19; 20:11) -- probably because
the sexual union of Adam and Eve followed close upon their realization of their
"naked" state. Since the image of the "serpent-mind" is inherited by each
generation from the preceding one, therefore childbirth brings a stigma of
uncleanness (Lev 12:1-8). Even the reproductive functions of both men and women
in their most innocent aspects are nevertheless "unclean" under the Law (Lev
Since death came into the world because of Adam's sin, merely
to touch a dead body brings an unclean condition. And the legal decree of Deu
21:23, finding its fulfillment in Gal 3:13 ("Cursed is every one that hangeth on
a tree"), no doubt has its origin and justification in the fact that sin first
entered the world in the eating of fruit from a tree!
The tragedy of Eden, then, was kept before the eyes of the
Jews in many ways. It must not be forgotten, since it was the reminder of how
they had come to be in their fallen condition. But for those who looked beyond
the surface, these were also prophetic types of the redemptive work of Christ.
In becoming the "last Adam", in order to undo the consequences of the first
Adam's sin, he came under all the effects of the Edenic curse: he was born "of a
woman, under the law" (Gal 4:4), necessitating a cleansing sacrifice even by his
birth (Luke 2:21-24). He possessed a "serpent-nature" in common with all men,
and ultimately he crucified that nature by lifting it up on a "tree" (Num
21:6-9; John 3; 14), in the process being stripped naked. And thereby he died,
again bringing legal uncleanness to himself and those who handled the
When the children of Israel set out from Mount Hor, they
grumbled in the wilderness against God and against Moses. So God sent fiery
serpents among them which bit them, bringing death to many. After the people
acknowledged their sin and begged Moses to intercede for them, the Lord
commanded Moses to make a "bronze" serpent and lift it up on a pole. The
erection of this brass snake was the token that God had conquered their plague,
and the act of looking upon it was a gesture of faith in God's work.
The children of Israel were notorious for giving in to their
own lusts and complaining against God. In this enacted parable God emphasized
their deep enslavement to sin, an enslavement without remedy unless He
intervened. His intervention took the form of a lifeless, powerless brass
serpent on a stake. Here was a "serpent" of brass -- signifying man's flesh, but
a serpent that had been made incapable of stinging, now uplifted as an ensign
witnessing to all men. The message was that the serpent-power of sin in human
nature would be once and for all conquered by God, and those who had faith in
Him would -- despite their own personal shortcomings -- be saved from
Jesus expressly connects this parabolic event in Num 21 with
his own death:
"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of
man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have
eternal life" (John 3:14,15).
In making comparison between those former Israelites and those
to whom he was then speaking, Jesus was plainly intending to stress two
1. The first -- between the "snake-bitten" then and the
"sin-bitten" now -- is easy to grasp because we remember the role played by the
serpent in the garden. Because sin entered into the world through the first
couple's acceptance of his suggestion, the serpent became the fitting symbol of
sin. He was in fact the true Bible "devil" (Rev 20:2). By extension, then, the
Bible "devil" now dwells in each of us because we bear the condemned nature of
Adam, a nature prone to the blandishments of the "serpent".
So, Jesus says, this generation is dying because it is bitten
by "sin". He scarcely needed to add that every generation since Adam has met or
will meet the same fate. We are born of the flesh, "born in sin", and dying just
as surely as the Israelites fell in the wideness -- unless a divine miracle
brings us back to life.
2. Thus is the way prepared for the second intended
comparison; between the serpent on the pole and Christ "lifted up". The serpent
was the symbol of sin and therefore the serpent on the pole was the symbol of
sin conquered. By "lifting up", Jesus unquestionably meant crucifixion (John
12:32,33). His crucifixion was to be the conquest of sin.
This of course implies that in some sense "sin" was attached
to Jesus. But we err if we call him a "sinner":
"He did no sin" (1Pe 2:22).
How then did Jesus the sinless man partake of "sin"? How could
he, with any degree of reasonableness, be symbolized by a serpent? Paul gives
"He was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15).
"Which of you convinceth (ie, convicteth) me of sin?" (John
"For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God
sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin
in the flesh" (Rom 8:3).
Jesus was associated with sin because he possessed "sinful
flesh". The death of Jesus accomplished in full what the erection of the brass
snake had done in part. It condemned sin, or the serpent, in human flesh; it
destroyed it; and it provided a focus for the faith of those who needed
forgiveness and deliverance from their sins.
No individual Israelite in that day was able completely to
destroy (by his own will and strength) the "serpent" or diabolism in his bosom.
And neither can we! But one special member of the human race, with a nature just
like theirs (and ours), totally subdued the evil desires of the flesh in
himself, and finally took that serpent-nature that inevitably tended to sin and
hung it upon a tree. What a wonderful illustration of our redemption is that
serpent of brass!
* * *
It should be stressed here, so that no false conclusion be
drawn, that the serpent in the Garden was undoubtedly a literal serpent. It is
indisputable that other passages (for example, Rev 20:2) use "serpent"
symbolically. But, as with other figures of speech, the only basis for such
figurative language is a foundation of literal truth. In short, there could be
no "serpent" symbology unless there had been a real serpent in the first