The New Birth Midrash, Part Three


Read the series.

The Serpent in the Wilderness

(John 3:12-15 with Numbers 21:4-9)

Postulating that a New Testament text is a midrash of an Old Testament passage is sometimes open to challenge. In other instances, we are positive that a New Testament text is indeed a midrash of an Old Testament text because the New Testament text makes the connection. Such is the case with the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, particularly John 3:12-15,1 the comparison of the serpent in the wilderness and looking to Jesus in faith.

The Incident in the Wilderness

Numbers 21:4-9 records the creation of a bronze/brass/copper serpent in the wilderness, and its remarkable effect.

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against 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.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 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. 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.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Because the people sinned against Yahweh (again) and thus provoked His wrath, the Lord sent poisonous snakes to bite them fatally. The people soon recognized that this was a judgment from God and therefore approached Moses to intercede.

Perhaps Moses was surprised that God did not immediately answer his prayer, but instead instructed Moses to oversee the creation of a metallic (the Hebrew word used is sometimes translated as brass, bronze, or copper) serpent. The serpent was to be placed on a pole; whoever was bitten would be healed if they but gazed upon the uplifted serpent.

This representation (a bronze serpent) borders upon idolatry and might be misunderstood as a talisman, but it does not cross the border. Magic is not the issue here: it was their faith in what God had promised that delivered the bitten, not a power emanating from the serpent. This simple test of faith (“look and live”) offers a remarkable picture of New Testament saving faith: looking in faith to the One who was lifted up to heal the terminal condition of our souls. Rather than an idol, it is a simple object lesson, “stacking the deck,” as in were for a future New Covenant purpose. Later, however, the idolatry-prone children of Israel degraded this object lesson into idolatry. Godly King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4) destroyed this artifact because the people made this relic an idol:

He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).

Sadly, the symbol of the cross (which it foreshadows) is sometimes used as a talisman, warding off vampires and demons—or becoming an object of worship to which we are expected to bow. The problem persists today.

A Midrash from the “Son of Man” to Nicodemus

The text in John (3:12-15) reads:

If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

The incarnate Son (via His divine nature) ascended from heaven and could share (hitherto unrevealed) heavenly things with Nicodemus. But why should He bother, since Nicodemus had neither mastered nor truly believed what was reveled in the Tanakh? Yeshua scolds Nicodemus once again.

Although the self-designation of Jesus as “Son of Man” can be ambiguous,2 it almost certainly refers to Daniel 7:13-14,3 a crucial Old Testament passage pertaining to the expected Messiah; these verses are play an important role in the Gospels (including Jesus response in His trial as per Matthew 26:64). They read:

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

Did Yeshua have these verses in mind when He referred to Himself as the “Son of Man?” Probably so.

Richard B. Hayes observes:

John presupposes this apocalyptic Son of Man tradition. He applies the title “Son of Man” to Jesus without explanation or argument, and without ever explicitly citing the key source passage in Daniel… But he is also transforming it in several ways.

First of all, while John highlights the imagery of ascent in the Danielic Son of Man tradition, he injects the additional complementary imagery of descent as an aspect of the Son of Man’s action. Both these elements are displayed in Jesus’ cryptic dialogue with Nicodemus.4

Jesus had to be lifted up, just as the bronze serpent had to be lifted up. Yeshua uses the phrase “lifted up” as a discreet prediction of His coming crucifixion – a term Yeshua used on several occasions in John’s Gospel (see 8:28, 12:27, 12:32, 12:34).

By painting this picture for Nicodemus via midrash, Yeshua communicates that eternal life (the healing of our soul/regeneration) begins by sensing our precarious position. Like the ancient Israelites, we find ourselves under the wrath of God. In an attempt to remedy this situation, we gaze upon Yeshuah in faith, coming to realize that when He was “lifted up” He became an atonement for our sin. Eternal life does not come by gaining merit through good works, but by the grace of God who has made provision for our sin.

Looking over this entire passage, we see the connection between regeneration (the new birth), entering the Kingdom of God, and eternal life. These terms (while associated with one another) are not identical: regeneration is the underlying cause and one who is born again will also enter the Kingdom of God and already possesses eternal life.

Rather than entering into the “life to come” by virtue of Jewish birth (God collectively saving the nation) or “meriting” eternal life (through Torah observance), we must individually experience regeneration.

David Sedaca explains Judaism’s contrasting position:

… in traditional Judaism the blessings for obedience and the consequences for disobedience have effect in the here and now, not in the world to come. Messianic Jews and Bible-believing Christians understand that salvation has eternal effects, that is, salvation not only applies to the here and now but also to there and then.

… Judaism stresses the fact that instead of “salvation,” one’s relationship with God has to be based on three elements: repentance – “teshuva“; good deeds resulting from repentance—“tzedakah and mitzvot“; and a life of devotion—“kavanah and tefilah.” The question is whether these three things…are able to restore one’s relationship with God.5


1 John 3:16-21 could either summarize Jesus’ further words to Nicodemus or could be John’s commentary much like his prologue. I lean (but only slightly) toward the idea that these summarized words were spoken by Yeshua. Since they in many ways reflect similarities to John 5:19-24, I plan to address when we get to that point.

2 Because the term was ambiguous and could mean an undesignated human being, “Son of Man” could, on the one hand, carry Messianic implications for Yeshua’s followers while, on the other hand, shield Jesus from overt attacks from those Jews hostile toward Him – at least until the appointed time for His death.

3 Even Daniel Boyarin, in The Jewish Gospels, argues such is the case (pp. 25-70) from a mainstream liberal Jewish viewpoint.

4 Richard B. Hayes, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, p. 332.

5 David Sedaca, “Salvation as Interpreted by Judaism,”, accessed 10-06-2023.

Ed Vasicek Bio

Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic but, during high school, Cicero (IL) Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute and served as pastor for many years at Highland Park Church, where he is now pastor emeritus. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has published over 1,000 columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers which are available at Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul's Teachings.