At the beginning of chapter 21 in Bemidar, right after their triumph in the war with the King of Arad, Bnei Yisrael complain…again. “Why did you take us out of Egypt to die in the desert”? Check. “There’s no (drinkable) water to drink or bread to eat”? Check. God responds with a punishment? Check. The aberration in this episode, however, is the type of punishment God decides to enact. He doesn’t send a plague or a God-fire – but poisonous snakes! God has never used such a ‘natural’ punishment against Bnei Yisrael’s continued complaints in the desert; those type of Divine acts of destruction were saved for the Egyptians, during the makot!
A second issue that needs to be marked is the difference between what God tells Moshe to do in order to reverse the punishment (after forgiveness is prayed for and granted) and what Moshe actually does. God tells Moshe to make a שרף and place it on a standard; Moshe then makes a נחש, specifically out of נחושת, and places that on the standard. A שרף and a נחש are certainly two different reptiles (as seen in Devarim 8:16) and Bnei Yisrael – in their admittance of guilt and request for absolution in this scene – specifically ask Moshe to remove ‘הנחש’ (verse 7). So, did Moshe actually do what God was intending and we are merely witness to Moshe’s interpretation of God’s intention? Or did he change God’s command, somehow adapting it to serve a different purpose?
Lastly, the scene enigmatically concludes with the report that Moshe made the Divinely-instructed snake-standard and anyone who looked upon it would then be healed…but then were are told immediately afterwards – ‘and Bnei Yisrael traveled from Ovot’. There is no ‘conclusion’ to the scene: there’s no report of how it all played out after Moshe fashioned the cure; no description of how the afflicted looked and were healed. All we hear is that Moshe made the snake and then Bnei Yisrael simply ‘moved on’!
They key to understanding this scene is the context it’s played out within. The entire episode begins with the following report:
ד וַיִּסְע֞וּ מֵהֹ֤ר הָהָר֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יַם־ס֔וּף לִסְבֹּ֖ב אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ אֱד֑וֹם וַתִּקְצַ֥ר נֶֽפֶשׁ־הָעָ֖ם בַּדָּֽרֶךְ:
“And they traveled from Hor HaHar on the path of Yam Suf in order to circumvent the territory of Edom; and the nation grew impatient on this path”
Previously (20:14-21), the king of Edom had refused Bnei Yisrael passage through his territory and facing an encroaching enemy army seeking to defend its borders, Bnei Yisrael turned away. The next scene (after the death of Aharon at Hor HaHar is recorded), the king of Arad attacked Bnei Yisrael and God’s nation was triumphant (21:1-3). We are then told that they were directed to travel a path back in the direction of Yam Suf in order to avoid Edom. And it is this path that causes them to become impatient and complain. They had just defeated Arad, why couldn’t they attack and defeat Edom! And worse, they were now headed back to Yam Suf?! They were being told they had to travel backwards and end up right back where they began?! It is no surprise that this situation catalyzed an impatience and subsequent complaint – ‘Why did you take us into this desert to die here?! We’re finally moving on after the death of the ‘last of the punished generation’, we’re ready to move forward to our deserved destiny – and now we’re just going around in circles, back to where we started?! You’re not letting us get anywhere!’
And it is due to this unique mind-set and motivation that their complaint is answered with an outbreak of poisonous snakes! Why? In Devarim (8:15-16) Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael:
טו הַמּוֹלִ֨יכֲךָ֜ בַּמִּדְבָּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּדֹ֣ל וְהַנּוֹרָ֗א נָחָ֤שׁ ׀ שָׂרָף֙ וְעַקְרָ֔ב וְצִמָּא֖וֹן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֵין־מָ֑יִם הַמּוֹצִ֤יא לְךָ֙ מַ֔יִם מִצּ֖וּר הַֽחַלָּמִֽישׁ:
טז הַמַּֽאֲכִ֨לְךָ֥ מָן֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־יָֽדְע֖וּן אֲבֹתֶ֑יךָ לְמַ֣עַן עַנֹּֽתְךָ֗ וּלְמַ֨עַן֙ נַסֹּתֶ֔ךָ לְהֵיטִֽבְךָ֖ בְּאַֽחֲרִיתֶֽךָ:
“God took you into the enormous awful desert, where snakes, serpents and scorpions dwelled and [you were struck with] thirst because of a lack of water – and He brought water out for you from a rock”
“And He fed you in the desert, with food that even your forefathers didn’t recognize, in order to oppress you and test you, to [ultimately] create a better future for you”
According to Moshe, the desert presented the nation with three distinct challenges: lack of food, lack of water and the dangers of poisonous reptiles. When Bnei Yisrael now complained about their ‘wasted time wandering in circles in the desert’ and about the lack of food and water – God in essence responded with: ‘but don’t forget the snakes!’ God had constantly provided them with the bread they needed and had always miraculously provided them with the necessary water. With their new impatience and their denial of such truths, God illustrates a third truth that they were totally unaware of previously! “You think I haven’t been there for you? You think I haven’t provided for all of your needs in this desert? Well, here’s a protection you didn’t even appreciate you were receiving!” And this is why the ‘unfamiliar’ Divine punishment of snakes is a perfect and necessary response to this particular complaint. They declared that He was carelessly leading them in circles, totally unconcerned with their welfare – but in fact, He had been actively protecting and caring for them all along, keeping the daily dangers of the desert at bay!
And brilliantly, when Bnei Yisrael repent and beseech Moshe to pray to God, they ask ‘to remove the snake’ (“ויסר את הנחש”). Why don’t they ask for the perhaps more expected ‘stop the snake attack’? For they were reacting to the larger lesson that was being taught them! After many fall prey to the venomous bites of the swarming serpents, Bnei Yisrael declare ‘we have sinned (“חטאנו”!), for we spoke against God and you’! They significantly realized what their complaints actually implied, and they use the powerful word of ‘חטאנו’ to repent for questioning God and Moshe’s decisions and their concerns for the nation! And this is why they request ‘to remove the snake’ – for they were not merely looking for a quick respite from this particular punishment’s attack! Rather, they were understanding that they needed the ‘third’ challenge of wandering in the desert – ‘the snake’ issue – to be addressed once again. They now realized that in fact God had always been providing them even a third essential service, protecting them from the dangerous reptiles of the desert – just like He had always been providing them the necessary bread and water. And with this newfound appreciation of and trust in God’s continued presence and concern or them, they were requesting to re-instate the Divine protection that reflected this.
God accepts their repentance and declaration of appreciation and therefore tells Moshe:
עֲשֵׂ֤ה לְךָ֙ שָׂרָ֔ף וְשִׂ֥ים אֹת֖וֹ עַל־נֵ֑ס וְהָיָה֙ כָּל־הַנָּשׁ֔וּךְ וְרָאָ֥ה אֹת֖וֹ וָחָֽי:
“Make for yourself a serpent and place it on a standard and it will be that all who were bitten will look upon it and will be healed”
And then Moshe does the following:
ט וַיַּ֤עַשׂ מֹשֶׁה֙ נְחַ֣שׁ נְח֔שֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵ֖הוּ עַל־הַנֵּ֑ס וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־נָשַׁ֤ךְ הַנָּחָשׁ֙ אֶת־אִ֔ישׁ וְהִבִּ֛יט אֶל־נְחַ֥שׁ הַנְּח֖שֶׁת וָחָֽי:
“And Moshe made a copper snake and placed it on the standard. And it was to be that if the snake bit a person they would gaze upon the copper snake and would be healed”
Aside from the differences mentioned above (שרף vs. נחש and the addition of נחושת) there is a difference in the language of the second half the pasuk, namely when describing how this snake-standard will be used. God seems to be referring to the immediate issue at hand, i.e. the people who have just been attacked by the poisonous snakes (הנחשים השרפים). And He states: ‘anyone who was bit, should look upon this standard and be healed’. However, Moshe’s actualization seems to address the larger lesson of this episode. He specifically makes a נחש – the constant ‘reptilian’ challenge of the desert; he fashions it out of copper – which is a long-lasting and durable material; and the method to employ this object was: ‘if a snake ever bit someone he would gaze upon it and be healed’. Moshe created a symbol that not only addressed the immediate attack but sustained a constant and continued consciousness of the very protection God was providing them; one which they had been sadly unaware of previously! They had the man(na) to remind them of God’s constant providing of their food; they had miraculous water from rocks to remind them of God’s constant providing of their water; and now they had a copper snake to remind them of God’s constant providing for their physical protection – the ‘third desert challenge’! And this is why there is no ‘aftermath’ reported at the end of the scene. Because it wasn’t really about the here-and-now episode but rather an establishing of a greater, constant reminder of a Divine truth. And, once successfully established, ‘Bnei Yisrael traveled from Ovot…” – now they could ‘move on’.
And what does this enlightened nation face next? A war with Sichon and the Amorite nation. A war in which Bnei Yisrael completely overwhelm their enemy: annihilating the attacking army and annexing all the defeated cities. In the scene that then immediately follows, they are faced once again with an encroaching defiant king – Og, the king of Bashan. This time, however, God speaks to Moshe beforehand and tells him not to fear, for He will give Og and his nation into Bnei Yisrael’s hands, and that Moshe will successfully defeat Og the same way he defeated Sichon. What is interesting to note here is that 1) God didn’t speak to Moshe before the previous war with Sichon, and 2) God says ‘like you accomplished in the previous war’. What we are being led to understand is that the previous battle with Sichon was accomplished by Moshe and the nation themselves without direct assistance from God! For, after their previous epiphany of God’s constant protection and supervision learned through the snake episode, they were now able to confidently charge into battle, with full faith and knowledge that they would succeed as God’s nation, actualizing His intended plan!
However, if this heightened level was in fact reached after the snake episode, enabling an amazing demonstration of independent success and victory over Sichon and the Amorites, why would God then need to ‘step-in’ for the Og war? Why did He now feel the need to place Himself at the helm of the upcoming war’s success? For this we return to the pesukim recorded immediately after the two we listed above (Devarim 8:15-16). Those two verses talked about the three-pronged ‘suffering and oppression’ of starvation, thirst and dangerous reptiles which God put Bnei Yisrael through in the desert ‘in order to create a better future’. But what was this ‘better future’ God was ensuring Bnei Yisrael would appreciate through the trials of traveling in the desert?
The Torah continues:
“Lest you will say, ‘it was my might and the strength of my hand that I actualized these successes’. For you must remember that it is [actually] God who gave you the strength to succeed [in this way]; [and if you remember this] He will maintain His covenant that He swore to your forefathers”. (17-18).
The nation successfully defeated Sichon immediately after the significant lesson learned during the snake episode; but God stepped in for the next war to ensure that the ‘confidence’ and ‘independent successes’ from the first war didn’t serve to ultimately undermine the very heightened consciousness of God and His constant presence they had just attained (and outwardly expressed)!
And with the conclusion of this second war, the Torah reports that the nation arrives at the plains of Moav, on the banks of the Yarden: the lessons of the desert have been learned, the wandering, therefore, is now officially over.
 We are told God’s reasoning later on, in Devarim, that because Edom was a descendant of Eisav, they couldn’t be attacked – but at this point, Bnei Yisrael were unaware of this consideration.
 Remember, this is at the end of the forty years in the desert; they were ‘ready’ to enter the Land at any time.
 This also fits nicely in R. Hirsch’s understanding that the word “וישלח” (in reference to when God ‘sent’ the snakes) is actually the פיעל form and shouldn’t be understood as ‘He sent’ but rather ‘He released’. I.e. He had been previously holding back the dangerous snakes, but now ‘released’ them to attack as they would have naturally been doing all of this time if it had not been for his constant protection.
 It’s actually still around in Melakhim 2. And it makes sense that he wouldn’t have used gold or silver – metals easily worshipped due to their value.
 הביט vs. God’s ראה: a deep, conscious gazing and not merely a looking