At more than 70 years old, Smokey Bear is “the face of the longest-running public service campaign in U.S. history,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Conceived in 1944 as part of World War II resource conservation efforts, he has his own ZIP code (20252) to handle all his fan mail. His familiar tagline is, “Only you can prevent wildfires.”
Smokey Bear is a symbol of caring for creation, and the bronze snake in today’s passage was given to the Israelites as a symbol of healing and life (vv. 4–9). The Israelites had grown impatient at taking a longer route, which Moses had chosen to do in obedience to God’s instructions not to fight against the Edomites (descendants of Esau). They were also complaining (again) about leadership and food. Rejecting God’s provision of manna led to an immediate judgment of death by poisonous snakes. The people repented, Moses interceded, and God gave the sign of the bronze snake to stop the plague. Thus, healing didn’t happen automatically. It required faith: A person had to choose to look at the bronze snake in order to be saved.
This episode is sandwiched between a pair of early military victories by Israel. The first victory was over Arad, a Canaanite king in the Negev desert (vv. 1–3). The second was over Sihon and Og (Amorites), following an aggressive response to Israel’s request to pass peacefully through their territory (vv. 21–35). Sihon had previously been strong enough to take land from Moab, so this was a significant victory.
The case of the bronze snake also shows, unfortunately, our human ability to turn good into evil. Centuries later in Israel’s history, during the days of Hezekiah, the bronze snake became an object of idolatry and had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4).