Why Does God Send the Poisonous Snakes? Blogging Through Our Sermon Series

I’ve been blogging through our sermon series, “Living God’s Story” and have found myself a few messages behind. Today’s post is about the story of the Israelites wandering through the wilderness in their rebellion. The central point of the sermon was God goes with us even when we choose to go into the wilderness. When we repent, He graciously leads us back to His place and purposes. You can listen to the message, “Wilderness Wandering” here.

One troubling aspect for many of us in the in the wilderness wanderings is when God “sends” poisonous snakes into the camp. “Sends” are in quotes because there is discussion on whether God “allowed” the snakes to enter the camp (as if they were previously registered and already on their way) or “send” as if God intentionally directed them there. As uncomfortable as it is to admit, I tend to think the latter. The commentators I trust have interpreted that word as “send” or with something that demonstrated God’s choosing. Further, this is not metaphorical, they are real snakes doing what they do, like biting people and infecting their prey with venom. God later provides a solution to this but not before some people perish.

Of course, if I was God, I would have made sure no one perished. I would have provided even more sign posts in the wilderness. I would have spoken louder to them. Each night, I would have dazzled them with Disney-esque fireworks so not only would they know that there was a God, but that they would like me too. That’s right, I would have had the angels prepare analysis of what worshippers are looking for and then I would have marketed myself to them. You gotta give the people what they want. You just can’t trust people with so much free-will, they always squander it.

Ok, you get the point, I wouldn’t have made a good deity. And I find this is always the catch with such difficult passages of Scripture. Why send the poisonous snakes?

Here’s what I think we are to learn from the passages:
One, God does punish those He loves. Under this interpretation, the snakes are for punishment. This does not mean that every time there is an earthquake, hurricane, plane crash, or any other tragedy that God “sent” them. I think we need to be careful in our assumptions and so unless God declares, “Tim, I created the pothole that would flatten your tire the moment before you drove into it. Next time don’t tail gate the ladies headed to the Bible study – they are my servants.” If God said that, I would likely try to go to that Ladies Bible Study but you get the point.

Second and even more interesting to me, is that this does not become a reoccurring punishment system with God. He doesn’t say later, “You better knock it off or I’ll send the snakes back. Or maybe this time, I’ll send scorpions …” Though God does continue to punish those He loves as He deems necessary, He does not do so in what I feel is a predictable, systematic way. I think we have to be careful here because there tends to be a lot of bad theology that results from this. I hope I am not guilty of this as well. Not every bad thing is from God. In this case, He chose to do send the snakes, He chose to proclaim He that He did this and though I am “uncomfortable” with it, I trust His sovereignty.

Third, God is merciful. It’s incredible to me that the punishment is quickly provided by a solution. God instructs Moses to build a bronze serpent. Anyone bitten can look to it and be healed. Jesus later references this powerful scene and I find it incredible (John 3:14-15). Incredible, because it’s another example of God not only not giving up on us but offering a life-giving solution.


  1. Hi Tim,

    I am really enjoying your blog! I keep hearing about how cool you are so I am kind of sad that my kids are all grown up and I am currently worshipping at the Wilmington Campus… Perhaps I will have an opportunity to get to know you sometime in the future in spite of all this :0)
    Thanks for discussing a very difficult topic. I do not consider myself a Calvanist… but the fact remains that the passage reads … God sent the snakes??? I tend to lean towards … God allows these things to happen, but He doesn’t cause evil… But as you say the passage is clear God sent them… Those God loves He disiplines so the ultimate outcome is that this is for our ultimate good! Still I have heard a theologan, explain to a survivor or abuse, that God caused her husband to beat her for a greater good to happen in her life. That I disagree with and chaulk up to free will in a fallen world. Thanks for the care you have taken in approaching a difficult passage! I am still wrestling with it, but ultimately we come back to the cross and hold on to the fact that God is love and in Him there is no darkness! Thanks for being brave Tim!!!’Blessings

  2. Thanks Lisa, you and I are the only ones who think I’m cool by the way. If you stay in Wilmington and I stay in Lexington, I may be able to keep up this charade a little while longer.

    I don’t consider myself a Calvinist in the fore-ordination sense either and I think we’d have a number of similarities. For me (and I imagine for you) is that God cannot do evil.

    This particular passage is a little different for me because like God sending the flood, He is claiming responsibility for the snakes. This is how He chose to respond to the disobedience of the Israelites in these instances.

    Regarding the theologian who said that, it sounds like bad theology to me. Though I’ll admit, it’s not fair to comment void of the context (but that part is extremely difficult for me to appreciate). I have heard other well-intended say similar things and have completely disagreed. It is a fallen, messed up world. I try to tackle that in my responding to “Everything Has a Reason” posts last December. http://www.blackcoffeereflections.com/site/?p=2988

    Thanks for reading and for your encouragement Lisa!

  3. Da Autonomia Desportiva no contexto constitucional.

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