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A Practical Commentary On Holy Scripture by Frederick Justus Knecht D.D.

[Numb. 10–11]

IN the beginning of the fortieth year of their wanderings, the Israelites—the children of those that had died in the desert—suffered from the want of water, and began to murmur against the Lord. Then the Lord appeared in glory, and said to Moses: “Speak to the rock, and it shall yield waters.” Then Moses, taking the rod from the Tabernacle, assembled the people before the rock, which he was about to strike. Then he raised the rod and struck; but doubting a little he struck a second time.

That momentary diffidence, which was only a venial sin, and which made Moses strike the rock a second time, was displeasing to the Lord, and He told Moses and Aaron: “Because you have not believed Me, you shall not bring these people into the land which I will give them.”

Thence the Israelites removed their camp and came to Mount Hor, where Aaron died, and Eleazar, his son, became High Priest. Some time later, the Israelites, tired of their incessant wanderings in the desert, began to murmur against the Lord and Moses. Wherefore fiery serpents were sent amongst them, by whose deadly bite a great number were killed.

Then the people, knowing that the serpents had been sent in punishment of their sins, came to Moses and said: “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and thee: pray that He may take away these serpents from us.” And Moses prayed for the people. Whereupon the Lord said to him: “Make a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: whosoever, being struck, shall look on it, shall live.” Moses, therefore, made a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign which healed all those that looked upon it.

The Justice, Mercy and Omnipotence of God are all shown in this story.—God punished both the doubt of Moses and the murmuring of the people: but He gave the ungrateful Israelites water, listened to Moses’ prayer for them, and healed them from the bites of the snakes. By His almighty power He called forth the water from the rock; and, through one glance cast at the brazen serpent, He restored the dying to life and health.

Murmuring against God is a great sin, as we can learn by the severe punishment which it brought on the murmuring Israelites. We must submit humbly to the will of our God and Creator, and never resist or murmur against Him and His divine decrees.

The use of sufferings. Whenever God visited the Israelites with sufferings, they acknowledged their grievous sins and repented.

Temperance. The sensuality of the Israelites was the cause of all their grumbling. They craved for other food than that which God fed them on, and refused to put up with any hardship. Instead of subduing their appetites and submitting themselves to God’s will, they were discontented, and were always complaining and murmuring. They did not possess the virtue of temperance.

Doubts about faith. Moses and Aaron did not doubt Almighty God’s power, but, for one moment, they doubted His mercy. They were righteously angry when they perceived that the new generation of Israelites, who from their youth up had witnessed the miracles of God, and who had been daily fed with manna, should be as wavering and refractory as their fathers had been before them. They felt that these thankless people were not worthy that God should again perform a miracle for their benefit. But God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His mercy is infinitely great. God, who is the very truth, had said: “Speak to the rock and it shall yield waters”; so they ought to have believed unconditionally and not doubted for a single moment. Anyhow, their doubt was a sin.

Venial sins. Wilful unbelief is a grievous sin. But as the doubt of Moses and Aaron was only a passing one, and as they did not give their full consent to it, but, in spite of it, obeyed God’s command by going to the rock &c., their sin was not mortal, but only venial: nevertheless they were severely punished for it. If a person has laboured for a long time to attain a certain object and has nearly reached it, it would be a very severe trial to him to be told that he must renounce it. Moses and Aaron had during forty years trained the Israelites and prepared them for their entrance into the Promised Land; they longed to complete their work and return to the land of their forefathers. But now, at the end of their labour, care and toil, they were told that they must die without setting foot in the long wished for country! It was indeed a severe punishment! But they humbly submitted to God’s will, and preferred to expiate their sin in this world rather than in the next. This severe punishment of one venial sin teaches us to know and fear God’s justice, and shows us that even venial sin is a great evil, and must be expiated either here or in the world to come.

The intercession of the saints. The sinful people knew well that they did not deserve that their petition should be heard by God; therefore they begged His faithful servant, Moses, to intercede for them, and to him God hearkened. For this same reason we call on the Saints in heaven, the friends of God, to intercede for us.

The brazen serpent, a type of our crucified Lord. The brazen serpent set up on a pole is a type of our Divine Saviour. He Himself, in His discourse with Nicodemus, told him that it was so (New Test. XV): “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.” As the brazen serpent was raised up on high, so Jesus Christ (who, by the mouth of David, said of Himself: “I am a worm and no man”; Ps. 21:6) was raised up on the Cross. Whoever was bitten by a poisonous snake was cured by turning his eyes in faith to the brazen serpent. So we, when our souls are wounded by the infernal serpent, shall be healed of our sins, if we, being full of faith, turn our eyes to our crucified Saviour.

The Israelites bitten by the fiery snakes were a type of mankind. The infernal serpent has wounded all men, and has kindled in them the flame of sinful passions, and caused them to be subject to everlasting death. It is of great significance that He who redeemed us from sin and death should be typified by a (brazen) serpent. How is it that the serpent, the very type of sin, should also be a type of the Redeemer, and a means of salvation? Because the brazen serpent, hanging on the tree, was not poisonous, even though it had the form of a poisonous snake. Thus Jesus Christ, though free from the poison of sin, being “holy, innocent, undefiled” (Hebr. 7:26), took the form of sinful man, loaded Himself with the sins of the world, and suffered Himself to be raised on and nailed to the Cross in order to save all men from sin and eternal death. The brazen serpent, therefore, foreshadowed the fact that the Redeemer would appear in the form of sinful man, would be raised on and nailed to a Cross, and by this very means would redeem man from the death of sin, and from eternal loss.

Jesus Christ, the source of salvation. The brazen serpent being a type of the Saviour of the world, God promised that “whosoever should look on it should be saved”. The wonderful healing power of the lifeless serpent did not lie in itself, but in the crucified Saviour, of whom it was a type.

The necessity of faith. Even as none of the mortally stricken Israelites could be cured unless, full of faith, they looked at the brazen serpent, which was set up as a sign of salvation, so no man can be saved unless, full of faith, he turns to the crucified God made Man. Only they who believe in Him will have life everlasting.

Christ the Rock. The waters which flowed from the rock in the wilderness to refresh the Israelites and slake their thirst, were emblematic of the divine graces, which flow to mankind through the Sacraments of the Church of Jesus Christ. “And all drank the same spiritual drink, and they drank of the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4).

APPLICATION. You have often done wrong, and said to yourself: “Oh, it is only a venial sin!” But think, even a venial sin is an offence against God, and is deserving of punishment. Ask yourself to which sin you are most prone, whether anger, lying, greediness, or so forth, and firmly resolve to overcome it.








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