Thanks to Cheryl McIntosh, of Cleburne, Texas for phoning in her great observation about the carving of graven images. You will remember that in Numbers 21, God actually commanded the making of a graven image. The brazen serpent was that to which the people must look if they’d been bitten by the poisonous snakes that were the punishment inflicted for constant and rebellious grumbling against Jehovah and Moses.
Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth (hates) this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died (vs 4-6).
If indeed the very carving of images (likenesses of any part of nature) was prohibited in the first verses of Exodus 20 and in Leviticus 26 and in Deuteronomy 4, then the forming of this serpent would have, in any other circumstance, been sinful. It would have been comparable to the offering of Isaac on Moriah. It was only right that one time, because God had commanded something that would have otherwise been sinful. It would have been similar to God’s telling Hosea to marry a prostitute. If (and that’s a big IF) the command in these passages prohibited any carved likenesses, then certainly the One who gave the command had the right to make any exceptions at any time, simply by His command.
The most shocking thing about this whole snake incident is revealed much later and in a cursory mention in 2 Kings 18:4:
He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan.
They worshipped the image! Eight hundred years later, Hezekiah destroyed the snake because it was an object of worship! Astounding and very telling. God knew these people and, of course, as always, His prohibitions in Exodus 20 were for their own good and with the object of their holiness and ultimate salvation through the Christ.
The snake was really all about the Son, too. It was about love.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:14-16).