In the Old Testament we have several examples of the people not only falling away from their relationship with god, but becoming whiny and entitled and complaining about things that they used to be thankful to have.
Today's Old Testament reading is one of those moments-- only this time god is fed up and sends serpents in to bite the people.
I have a hard time with this story on a literal level. It is difficult for me to believe that an all-knowing god would think that poisoning the people would bring about the attitude change god desired.
However, on a human level, I can understand the impulse represented in this story. I know I've at least day-dreamed about showing someone who was being (to my mind) whiny and entitled what a really bad day looks like. Sometimes when I hurt all I want to do is hit back at the world.
It helps me understand this story if I think of those times. The times when anger-- especially anger at someone I deeply love-- blinded me to the long term consequences of my actions. For in this story, god gains short-term control over the people. He has Moses make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole and says that everyone that looks at it will survive the poison and live and they do.
I say short-term control because just a few chapters later in Numbers the people drift away again into the worship of other gods. They feast and worship and lose interest in their relationship with their god.
God feels this loss even more keenly and things get messy in a very Old Testament way quickly. I can't help but think that it is in part because the people were wondering if they really could trust a god who would poison them to make a point.
We all do rash things from time to time. We are imperfect, limited beings. We are carried along in the stream of time and anything from fear of loss to exhaustion to growing pains can cause even saints (maybe especially saints?) to lash out.
This story shows me that giving in to that impulse to share pain by inflicting it damages relationships and it damages me. It destroys the trust needed in deep relationships. That is even more true when the power in the relationship is unbalanced. God to people, parent to child, boss to worker-- if I have the power and I use it to strike out at those who depend on me then I shouldn't be surprised if they wander off and find more fulfilling relationships, or at least more interesting idols.
Bible references are from the NRSV on Bible Gateway.