As the Israelites approach the land of Canaan, they “became impatient on the way” (Num. 21:4). They begin to criticize 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 worthless food”(Num 21:5). Fed up with their complaining, Jehovah sends “fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died”(Num 21:6).
This has an immediate impact. The disposition of the people changes completely. “And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people”(Num 21:7). It is a simple request: Ask God to take away the snakes. But God does not actually do what they ask. “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Num. 21:8). There is no indication that God takes the snakes away anywhere in this text. Instead he gives them a solution so that the bitten can live. The wording even implies that there will be further bites and a continual need for the bronze serpent. He provides mercy, but does not remove the threat.
This relates to our experience with “unanswered prayers”— times God does not grant our request. We may assume that God is not answering us when he gives us a solution that is not precisely what we asked for. When we pray for a mate, we want the person of our dreams to show up (the next day, preferably). When we ask for relief from financial troubles, we want to be reset to zero in some miraculous way. When we seek healing from our own foolish choices, we want an easy path to recovery and wholeness. Yet often God answers us in ways we do not expect—giving us people to encourage us, changing our perspective, laying out a path toward recovery, weaving our lives into a beautiful new pattern. It is easy to misinterpret this as an unanswered prayer—or perhaps as God saying “no”—yet the bronze serpent reminds us that this is incorrect. God provides mercy, but not always in the way we ask.
This story also reminds us that it is times of deep need, pain, and frustration that we most readily reach out to God. Hardship transforms the people of Israel. So if God were to simply take away the snakes, they might immediately revert to their complaining and ingratitude. “Unanswered prayers” often have deeper wisdom at play than simply giving us comfort. It is in learning to respect God’s answers that we find humility, faith, and peace.
~Via Jacob Hudgins