It’s surprising to see how God responds to the complaints of the Israelites. We expect to receive sympathy when we complain. Instead, God sends a punishment on the Israelites when they complain. What exactly did the Israelites complain about? They were complaining about the miraculous food that God provided them: the mana. I think it’s pretty hard not to complain at all about anything ever, though I’m sure that’s a way to holiness. Perhaps one thing we can learn from this passage is to be careful when we start to complain – the Israelites were literally complaining about a miraculous gift from God because it wasn’t delicious. Anyone who has ever been really hungry knows that hunger pains can be solved by putting absolutely anything in your stomach. That is why, in places where there is quite literally not enough food, people will eat dirt just so they do not feel hungry. The Israelites are clearly not starving because they are complaining about how the food tastes. Rashi, a rabbinical commentator on this passage, states that the Israelites were lusting after fatty, heavy, meaty foods – the foods of their former slavery. God gave them the mana, a subtle, lighter fare, so that when eating it their minds might be clearer and their hearts lighter so as to rise to spiritual thoughts and contemplation, rather than focused inwardly on their stomachs. The Israelites are punished because when their needs were met sufficiently by a miraculous food, they did not respond in faith to seek spiritually the Lord of their hearts.
God is tremendously merciful, however, in that He continues to bring them opportunities for life and salvation despite their rejection. When things are bad, sometimes they get worse before they get better – but they can only really get better when we turn to the Lord. He heals us as He wounds, says the scripture – and, “The Lord corrects the sons and daughters that he loves.” When our minds are occupied with darkness, sin, and all the worldly influences like selfishness, gluttony, popularity, greed, lust, rage, deceit, and jealousy they are like so many vicious serpents that bite our hearts and fill us with poison. We are so weak that we find ourselves engaging with those snakes, tempted by their hissing, rather than terrified by their fangs and the murderous poison designed to kill our soul.
The bronze serpent, lifted up in the desert, is a reminder to the Israelites of their weakness and infidelity. But, whoever gazes upon it with hope is cured of the poison – the poison that represents their sin. Our bronze serpent is Jesus crucified. He has come in the weakness of human flesh, but is perfectly without the poison of sin. We have the crucifix in our classrooms and in our Churches so that we can gaze upon Him throughout the day. When we look at Him, we can hope in His healing power. His death removes from our hearts the poisonous death of sin – He saves us from the darkness of evil. May our minds and hearts be lifted up to Him frequently – may our hearts be healed by His.