14 April 2023

What were the fiery serpents in Numbers 21?

In our most recent podcast, we told the story about the fiery serpents that God sent to bite the people for complaining about the lack of food and water. It all happens in just five verses in Numbers 21 (verses 5-9)

Here's the story from the Bible in Fewer words.

5 The people spoke against God and Moses, saying,

Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness?

There’s no bread or water, and we hate this light bread.

6 So God sent fiery serpents to bite the people. And many died.

7 The people came to Moses, and said,

We have sinned by criticizing you and God. Ask God to take away the serpents.

And Moses prayed for the people.

8 God said to Moses,

Make a fiery serpent and put it on a pole.

Whoever looks at it will live after being bit by a fiery serpent.

9 So Moses made a brass serpent and put it on a pole.

Whoever was bitten by a fiery serpent didn't die if they looked at it.

The Brazen Serpent by James Tissot

These verses have long fascinated both believers and skeptics. What were the mysterious "fiery serpents" that God sent to bite the people, causing many of them to die? Well, parasitologists say it may have been the guinea worm (The nematode Dranunculus medinensis).

To understand why the guinea worm is suspected, you must understand its life cycle.

Guinea worm larvae are released by their mothers into a body of water. The larvae thrash about vigorously until they attract and are eaten by a copepod, which is a small, nearly microscopic, crustacean. The copepod is, however, just a temporary home for the worm. It cannot complete its life cycle unless it can somehow get inside its definitive host: a human being. This is accomplished when someone drinks water containing the infected copepods.

The copepod's body is destroyed by the stomach acids, releasing the guinea worms, which burrow their way through the intestinal wall. They migrate through the abdominal cavity and into the connective tissue, stopping to mate with any other migrating worms that they run into along the way. By this time females have grown to be nearly a meter in length, while the males are only a few centimeters. After the worms have sex, the little males wanders off to find a place to die, while the females continue their journey through the human host's body.

The migration of the female worms cause great pain and discomfort, but it is when the worm reaches its final destination that the torment really begins. The worms end up just beneath the surface of the skin, usually in the legs or feet, where they remain for a month or more. Their metabolic wastes and the host's allergic reaction cause blisters to form, resulting in intense itching and burning pain. One of the few ways to relieve the pain is to immerse the blister in water, inducing the worm to break through the surface of the skin releasing millions of guinea worm larvae. A copepod eats the larvae and a human drinks that water, completing the guinea worm life cycle.

But the human suffering is far from over when the worm breaks through the skin, for although the female worms die soon after releasing the larvae, their dead meter-long bodies are not easy to remove. And even if the dead worms can be extracted without rupturing, serious secondary infections often occur.

So how are the female worms removed? Well, the traditional way, which is still used today, is to carefully wind the worm around a stick. The only other option is surgical removal, but this is extremely difficult and not often successful.

Using a matchstick to wind up and remove a guinea worm from the leg of a human

So were the "fiery serpents" of Numbers 21 guinea worms in disguise? I'll leave that for you to decide, but some aspects seem to fit the description in Numbers.

The pregnant females are rather large worms and cause excruciating pain when breaking through the skin to release their larvae. So it is easy to see how they could be called "fiery serpents."

Guinea worms would have been present in the region at the time of the Exodus, as they still are today. If the Israelites encountered drought conditions, as they did according to the account in Numbers, it would have facilitated the transmission of the disease by concentrating worm larvae, intermediate hosts (copepods), and infected humans at the same water source.

And the serpent on a pole could well represent the most common form of treatment, then and now: pulling out the guinea worm by winding it on a stick.

Okay, let's assume the "fiery serpents" were guinea worms. If so, what message should we take from all this? What is God trying to tell us here? And what can we learn about God from this passage in Numbers?

One thing that should be clear to us all, of course, is the moral of the story: Don’t whine. God can’t stand a whiner. So if you or your children don’t have enough to eat or drink, well, just keep quiet about it. Whatever you do don’t mention it to God. If you ever get tempted to complain about it, just look at the above photo as a reminder.

So we know why God did it. What isn’t so clear, to me at least, is how. Did he simply infect the drinking water with guinea worm larvae? Or did he specially create guinea worms just for the occasion? If so, why didn’t he clean up afterwards? Why did millions of people have to suffer (and still suffer today) because the Israelites complained to God about their living conditions?

And what should we make of the “serpent on a pole” thing? The bible says that people were cured just by looking at it. Would it still work today? If so, then someone should let people know because the current treatment is much more involved (and painful) than that.

You also have to wonder why God didn’t explain how to prevent further infections, because prevention is much easier than treatment. All that is needed is to filter the drinking water through a fine-mesh cloth to remove the copepods. (The World Health Organization and the Carter Center has nearly eradicated the disease by using this method.) Wouldn’t that be better than Moses’s magic brass serpent - or the real treatment that this may have represented? Didn’t God know how to prevent the disease that he created?

But the last question is most important of all. Why are there guinea worms? Did God specifically design these worms to live inside the body of humans? Or were they created by Satan? Or did they just evolve, and God had nothing to do with it? If the first is true, then God is evil. If the second, then there are at least two gods. If the third, then God cannot control his own creation. Which do you think it is?

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