Being guilty of Slander and the Fiery Serpent, בלק חקת פרשת, Parshiot Chukat and Balak, Bits of Torah Truths


The narrative in this week’s Torah portion lays out a very important principle about having faith and being saved. Parashat Chukat opens with the laws of becoming unclean by touching the dead and how to become ritually pure. (Bamidbar / Numbers 19:1-22) We are told that Moshe’s sister (Miriam) dies (20:1). Moshe and Aaron sin before the Lord by not speaking to the rock but striking the rock at the waters of Meribah and are not allowed to enter the Promised Land. (20:2-12) Aaron dies and the high priesthood is given to Eleazar his son. (20:22-29) And the people grumble against God, Moshe, the food, and the water, and the Lord God sends fiery serpents biting the people, killing them. Moshe askes the Lord what to do, and he is instructed to make a bronze serpent lifting it up so the people who had faith looking upon the serpent would not die from the serpent bite. (21:1-20) The Torah explains the situation that led up to the complaint and the fiery serpents in Bamidbar / Numbers 21:4-7, ד וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהֹר הָהָר דֶּרֶךְ יַם-סוּף לִסְבֹּב אֶת-אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם וַתִּקְצַר נֶפֶשׁ-הָעָם בַּדָּרֶךְ: ה וַיְדַבֵּר הָעָם בֵּאלֹהִים וּבְמֹשֶׁה לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר כִּי אֵין לֶחֶם וְאֵין מַיִם וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל: ו וַיְשַׁלַּח יְהוָֹה בָּעָם אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ אֶת-הָעָם וַיָּמָת עַם-רָב מִיִּשְֹרָאֵל: ז וַיָּבֹא הָעָם אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמְרוּ חָטָאנוּ כִּי-דִבַּרְנוּ בַיהוָֹה וָבָךְ הִתְפַּלֵּל אֶל-יְהֹוָה וְיָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אֶת-הַנָּחָשׁ וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה בְּעַד הָעָם: 21:4 Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. 21:5 The people spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.’ 21:6 The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 21:7 So the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.’ And Moses interceded for the people. (NASB) According to previous Torah portion, the Lord God decreed a major punishment to the people due to their rebellion of refusing to obey God’s command to go into the Promised Land. In Parashat Korach we read about another rebellion where a group of people wanted to take control of the priesthood questioning Aaron and Moshe and the Levities as those who will perform the services in the Tabernacle. In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the people complaining again against both God and Moshe for their current situation and of there not being the kind of food they desired and that there was no water. What started this complaint was following having asked Edom to travel through their land and being refused, in order to reach their destination they had to travel around Edom. Traveling around Edom in the desolate places led to the people complaints with Moshe, God, and the type of food. The commentary Or HaChaim on Bamidbar / Numbers 21:5 Part 2 suggests the Manna (bread from heaven) this type of food might not have been “heavy” enough to last in their stomachs due to their traveling, and it might have happened that they became hungry more quickly. Once the food was digested they were dissatisfied and complained. The midrashic approach (Midrash Rabbah on Bamidbar Parashat 19 Part 21) is the Torah introduced the fiery serpents and the peoples complaints by mentioning the detour around Edom because there remained a remnant of the earlier generation had nothing to look forward to but death in the desert during the coming years. They rebelled against God, against His Word, rejecting His presence in their lives and so their lives seemed hopeless and they became a generation of complainers. As a result, the people despised both God and Moshe in their hearts and they reaped the consequences for their actions.

The Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 110a describes the danger of despising someone in the heart, especially he whom God has established as a leader and teacher. Both the Lord Himself and Moshe were spoken against here in the biblical text. What we are being shown is how the people had become guilty of slander against the heavenly manna and by doing so, they slandered God and Moshe in the process. There is an interesting analogy here to Yeshua’s use of the heavenly manna as referring to Himself. (John 6:51) The rabbis say seeing their sin consisted of lashon hara (לשון הרע), as a result, the Lord God sent the creature that invented slander, the serpent (see Bereshit / Genesis 3). The rabbinic interpretation of the manna, the food God had given the people (the bread from heaven), was this heavenly bread had all sorts of different tastes that was in accordance with the one who was eating it. This manna tasted whatever one was desiring. The interpretation is connected to the desert place, a dry, dusty place, that is void of the pleasures of food and drink and the power of God to provide for their needs. It is interesting how this desert place is the habitat of the snake based upon the curse upon the animal from Bereshit / Genesis 3:14 “dust you shall eat all the days of your life!” In the desert, the Lord God had protected the people from being bitten until this point. Back in Parashat Shelach Lecha, we are told the Promised Land is being given to Israel, that they should go up and take the Land because “their protection” (the nations) has been removed from them. Here we find in Parashat Chukat, the protection of the people of God has been removed due to their despising God in their hearts. This is an important point! We are created after God’s image according to the Torah, and our nature, we were designed to love God and to love others. The situation being described here in the Torah of despising God and others (Moshe) led to the snake attach for a particular reason. (i.e. Snakes symbolise slander ever since the time Eve was tricked by a snake into eating from the tree of knowledge, see rabbinic interpretation in the Talmud Bavli Taanit 8) The reason the Torah does not write that “God sent snakes against the people” but writes הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים ha’nakhashim ha’seraphim “the snakes which are seraphim” (the fiery serpents) underlies the point of this punishment. Back in Shemot / Exodus 8:17, Moshe told Pharaoh that God would punish him by an invasion of wild beasts. Moshe did not say that God was going to send against Pharaoh wild beasts, but that there would be an invasion of wild beasts. This meant that the beasts would leave their natural habitat, their nature would be changed such that they would invade the urban areas. A similar thing is happening here in the case of the serpents leaving their natural habitat (the desert place) and harming the people of Israel because they were unfaithful to God by despising Him in their hearts. Because of this, the Lord God of Israel commanded Moshe to build a bronze Saraf (שָֹרָף, serpent) and elevate (lift it up, place it upon a standard) the Torah writes וְשִֹים אֹתוֹ עַל-נֵס “to place it upon a miracle” for all to see (ח וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה עֲשֵֹה לְךָ שָֹרָף וְשִֹים אֹתוֹ עַל-נֵס וְהָיָה כָּל-הַנָּשׁוּךְ וְרָאָה אֹתוֹ וָחָי). Notice how the Hebrew text states that this Saraf is to be placed upon a miracle (נֵס) so that all who are bitten (הַנָּשׁוּךְ) will see it and live. This caused the people to recognize something that is occurring on the inside that consists of both despising God and His Anointed One which is being connected to the destruction of the body by the poison of the serpent due to the consequences of sin. (Or HaChaim on Bamidbar / Numbers 21:8 Part 2) These things teach us how despising God and His Messiah Yeshua will lead to destruction of both the body and the soul.

The significance of these Scriptures from Parashat Chukat is illustrated by Yeshua’s uses of this Torah portion to describe the necessity of being born new by the power of God according to John 3. Yeshua described this process of being transformed (changed) from the inside to Nikodemus and how this is the power of God and what it means to be born new. This transformative process is described as a supernatural event in a person’s life according to John 3:1-18.

John 3:1-18
3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 3:2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’ 3:3 Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ 3:4 Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’ 3:5 Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 3:6 ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 3:7 ‘Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 3:8 ‘The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 3:9 Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ 3:10 Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? 3:11 ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. 3:12 ‘If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 3:13 ‘No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. 3:14 ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 3:15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. 3:16 ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 3:17 ‘For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 3:18 ‘He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (NASB)

Yeshua describes the Torah Portion in parallel to heavenly power in our lives to transform us for God’s glory. Note how Nicodemous states that they know he is a teacher sent from God. This may be by reason of the miracles that He is performing and is connected to Moshe teaching and instructing the people. This is also connected to the Talmudic discussion on despising a teacher who is sent by God on Parashat Chukat (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 110a) and Lashon Hara. In John 3, Yeshua speaks to Nicodemus about what we are able to see and not able to see, and of what we are able to testify of in relation to what God is doing in our lives. (3:11-12) He then provides an example from the Torah describing the one who ascended into heaven and descended from heaven, this is an allusion to Moshe at the mountain of Sinai, and describes himself as the Messiah of God, the manna (the bread from heaven), the Son of Man. The concept of ascending and descending draws in the Torah context by referencing Moshe at the mountain of Sinai. Yeshua then uses the event of the fiery serpents (הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים) from Parashat Chukat, saying, 3:14 ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 3:15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. (NASB) What Yeshua is teaching us here is connected to the condition of a man without God (i.e. the one who despises and does not love God or others) and the poisonous bite that destroys the body. The one who repents, humbles himself, renews his faith, and looks upon the Seraph he will live, surviving the consequences of lashon hara (לשון הרע). Remember the rabbinic interpretation on lashon hara is connected to idolatry, murder, adultery, and all the sins of mankind. In the Talmud Bavli Taanit 8, the rabbis say in the messianic future the other wild beasts will ask the serpent why it kills with a poisonous bite seeing it does not receive a physical satisfaction out of the damage it causes? The serpent replies with the verse (Kohelet / Ecclesiastes 10:11) אין יתרון לבעל הלשון, “the slanderer does not get anything out of his slander.” The serpent then asks “why not ask the same question of the slanderer? What does he get out of spreading lies against people?” If we consider the reasons for slander, slander is the result of pride in one’s heart! The interpretation follows that the people continued to slander God and Moshe as they traveled around Edom. Therefore, the Lord God sent serpents which are said to have been created by their slanderous remarks. The rabbis provide the interpretation on why the Torah describes these fiery serpents as the הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים and why in Bamidbar / Numbers 21:8 the Lord said to Moshe the following 21:8 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.’ (NASB, ח וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה עֲשֵֹה לְךָ שָֹרָף וְשִֹים אֹתוֹ עַל-נֵס וְהָיָה כָּל-הַנָּשׁוּךְ וְרָאָה אֹתוֹ וָחָי) Note here the Lord speaks to Moshe using the word שָֹרָף rather than the word נָּחָשׁ which means serpent or snake. The reason being, the people’s slander created two kinds of serpents, the נָּחָשׁ was a poisonous bite which destroyed the body, and the שָֹרָף is the one that destroys the soul. (Or HaChaim on Bamidbar / Numbers 21:6 Part 1) The rabbis interpret this saying “in this instance the נחשים were the result of their slander against Moses, whereas the שרפים were the result of the Israelites having misrepresented what G’d had done. The Midrash mentions that the שרפים were the punishment for what they said against G’d, as these serpents burn the soul.” This is an interesting interpretation in the sense that lashon hara (Slander, gossip, evil speech) destroys both the body and the soul! These things are being drawn in context by Yeshua who spoke of the Son of God, having faith, and being created new from within.

The interpretation on why the serpent had to be lifted up was due to the people not having sufficiently repented. (Or HaChaim on Bamidbar / Numbers 21:8 Part 4) This aspect of being faced with death led to the people truly being repentant for what they had done. The most important element of repentance is an undertaking not to again become guilty of the sin one asks God to be forgiven of. The people had failed to mention this kind of repentance on their part. This is why their affliction had not been removed when Moshe prayed for them. The symbolism of the snake being lifted up was meant to awaken the need to repent properly such that when they looked they needed faith to also be healed.

The commentary Or HaChaim states there are seven things that we learn from this. (Or HaChaim on Bamidbar / Numbers 21:6)

  1. We learn to keep our hearts pure because keeping our tongues silent, no murmuring, no slanderous remarks, the snake will be harmless to do anything to us. Note how the evil one uses the serpent to do his bidding (Bereshit / Genesis 3) and having impure heart can lead to the work of the evil one in our lives.
  2. We learn about the confession of our sins. Lashon Hara (slander, gossip, evil speech) should be recognized for what it is as deadly. We do not want to be guilty of what the original serpent had done when it made slanderous remarks about God who is so High.
  3. We learn about the importance of the one who is raised up above as opposed to the one who is below. The serpent which was cursed to crawl on the earth brings death. The one who is lifted up brings life. This draws a context to the bread from heaven as opposed to the bread which is grown below on earth. We should seek the heavenly blessing!
  4. We learn how the Lord brings things into our lives to wake us up to Teshuvah (Repentance). These things were done in the Torah Portion so the people would realize God who dwells in the heavens had done so to make them totally dependent on Him for their sustenance and all their needs and that there is no other source on earth in which they could rely.
  5. We learn that we are not to rely upon miracles to keep alive our faith. We note that in the NT men saw the miracles Yeshua performed and yet they would not believe in Him and who He said that He was! It is a fact that people who deny God’s miracles endeavor to demonstrate, by all kinds of deceptive devices, that what are claimed to be miracles are in actual fact natural occurrences which had to occur at that particular time and at that particular place. The argument of these heretics is based on the fact that the so-called miracle occurred only once and only in a particular location. Inasmuch that the people might have harbored similar thoughts, God determined to demonstrate that He could maintain such miracles on a permanent basis by supplying the Jewish people with all their needs through miraculous means for a period of 40 years.
  6. We learned how God wanted to demonstrate the power of true Repentance. The sages in the Talmud Bavli Yuma 86 have said that if someone is a truly a repentant person even his former sins will be accounted as merits for him, i.e. not only will he have his sins forgiven but they will be turned into meritorious deeds.
  7. We learn how God wanted that every individual person experience His miracles as something which had happened to him personally.

The Rabbis state the Hebrew word וְהָיָה denotes something joyous as opposed to the word ויהי which suggests something sad. In the phrase, וְהָיָה כָּל-הַנָּשׁוּךְ , “it would be that everyone who had been bitten,” the Torah used the word וְהָיָה, the rabbis say this was to show the positive effect of having been bitten. The positive effect was that it had led to repentance and seeking the God of Israel! A person had to renew his faith, repent, and turn from his sinful ways, and look upon the copper snake because he had been bitten and learned seven lessons in faith that are listed above. This situation become a joyous experience for the one who was bitten. The parallel is to our joy over realizing our sinfulness, repenting, turning from sin, and look to Yeshua the Messiah and what He had done on our behalf, bearing our sins upon the cross. The reason the Torah wrote כָּל-הַנָּשׁוּךְ, “everyone who had been bitten” without adding the word “by a snake,” the rabbis say is because even people, who had sustained snake bites before the snakes had proliferated and Moses had made the copper snake as a result of the people’s slanderous remarks, were healed also if they looked up at the copper snake. The reason the Torah added the conjunctive letter ו at the beginning of the word וָחָי was to inform us that looking up at the copper snake also cured those people who had been bitten by a שרף the kind of snake that destroys their souls. (Or HaChaim on Bamidbar / Numbers 21:8 Part 13) Looking upon and believing in the One who was lifted up healed both the body and the soul, the entire person from head to toe, both inside and out!

The commentary Or HaChaim lays down the seven things we learn about this event of the fiery serpents. These seven spiritual lessons clearly connect to the NT account of the Messiah Yeshua, of his being lifted up causes one to be saved believing in Him as it is written in John 3. Lashon hara draws in the concept of the sins which come from the heart illustrating for us that all sins come from the heart, and all sins are being forgiven by faith! The lifting up is for recognizing our sins before God, and the need to personally repent before God and believe He is able to forgive, heal, and save both the body and the soul from death illustrated in the nakhash and seraph narrative in the Torah. Our sin represents a slanderous action before God in relation to His commands and His way of life. The lifting up is designed to awaken the need to live in Teshuvah (Repentance) and that we are totally dependent upon the Lord God in heaven for everything. The Lord God provides miracles to keep us alive each day holding back the enemy from destroying our lives. When we breath, we have the breath of God on our lips that is sustaining us each day, and for this we should be thankful. Heretics claim miracles are not real, they occur only in select locations, and for select people, etc. The miracle of life however happens every day, in a new born child, and with each breath we take! This is paralleled to the miracle of being given bread from heaven for a period of 40 years. The lifting up led to God demonstrating the power of true penitence which leads to eternal life (John 3:15). If a person has faith and is truly repentant his sins will be forgiven him. And by the lifting up, the Lord God wanted every individual man, woman, and child to experience His miracle of salvation and life. These are the things that we find in Yeshua the Messiah being raised up as the serpent was lifted up per the parallel given according to the Torah (Parashat Chukat) and John chapter 3. This is why there was and is a need for the Messiah to be lifted high as we read according to both the Torah and the NT. This is why there is an absolute need to believe in Yeshua the Messiah for the salvation of the soul. This is how the Torah and the Gospel Message go hand in hand!