Today’s first lesson is a strange story, indeed. It’s so strange that I’ve avoided preaching on it for my entire pastoral ministry….until today. Our first lesson is the tale of the bronze serpent on the pole or as I like to call it “Snake on a Stick.” The story begins with the Israelites who have been wandering in the wilderness for quite some time. During this long and perilous journey, God has given them guidance in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God has produced water from a rock
and fed them manna and quail. What is their response to God’s gracious gifts? They whine and complain!
Earlier in Numbers their whining went something like this: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” [Num 11:6]
This “whine-fest” continues in our first lesson, only this time the complaining extends to God as well as Moses: “Why have you [meaning God] brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” [meaning manna]
In other words they are complaining about the menu selection God has set before them. “Couldn’t we have a little Bojangles, God? How about a filet mignon or a nice Caesar salad? Throw in a glass of wine while you’re at it! What’s up with all this manna, manna, manna.”
The next detail in the story is where it gets a bit strange for modern readers. The author of Numbers tells us that “God sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”
Seriously? This is the way God works in our world? It sounds ridiculous to Lutheran ears. But there are Christians who would not bat an eye at this understanding of how God works in our world. It’s a vision of God as One who sends hurricanes, floods and earthquakes in order to get our attention. It’s a vision of God who sits up in heaven with a billy club in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other, ready and willing to smite anyone who commits the smallest of transgressions. The people of Israel were simply whining and complaining. Does it make sense, then, that God would kill them for this? What in the world is going on in this story?
Then to kick up the strange factor one more notch, the people repent of their whining and ask Moses to intercede to God on their behalf. God then tells Moses to “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
Snake on a Stick! Can we hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people? Hmmmm…where is the good news in this text? What is the writer of Numbers trying to tell us? Does God require a little bit of hocus pocus in order to get things done in our world?
Then the REALLY weird thing about this story is that it worked! The author tells us that “Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” Is it any wonder I’ve avoided preaching on this text for so many years?
Unfortunately, John’s gospel links this strange passage to Jesus dying on the cross. He writes “Just 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.” Therefore, we cannot avoid this story because it is ties into John’s understanding of who Jesus is.
So, where do we go from here? Well, my approach this week in trying to understand our First Lesson is rooted in something Marcus Bog said about the Bible. In a nutshell, he said that the Scriptures are a combination of memory and metaphor. They are a memory of things that happened in the life of God’s people. This is combined with metaphoric language which attempts to interpret and comment on these events. These two things are nearly impossible to separate.
Therefore, the most important question we can ask of any Biblical text is not whether it’s historically true. The important question we should ask is “What Truth is the story trying to tell us about God and God’s people? What wisdom is it trying to impart?”
Armed with this approach, I did some research about the symbolism of the serpent in ancient cultures. What I discovered was helpful in trying to make sense of this story. The snake is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols we have. Snakes have been associated with some of the oldest rituals known to humankind and represent the dual expression of good and evil. Since snakes shed their skin, they were seen as symbols of rebirth transformation, immortality, and healing.
Furthermore, snake’s venom has the power to both kill and heal. In ancient cultures, snake’s venom was used in the preparation of medicine. It was also ingested small amounts to provide expended consciousness through divine intoxication; meaning they thought their hallucinations were a way to communicate with God.
When we get to ancient Hebrew culture, snake cults were well established in Canaanite religion, which was the land the Israelites would later occupy. Archaeologists have uncovered serpent cult objects at several pre-Israelite cities in Canaan as well as Syria and Babylon. Snakes were also important in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece.
What all of this means is that the snake was a powerful symbol throughout the region where the Israelites lived. It was a part of the Israelite’s story as well. The snake first appeared in the creation story and was seen as a trickster or deceptive creature, who was also very wise and cunning. [Gen 3:1-7]
The staff of Moses transformed into a snake and then back into a staff is in the Exodus story. [Ex 4:2-4] In this instance it was seen as a sign of God’s power that was also duplicated by the Egyptian priests in the name of their gods. Thus, the symbol of the snake was already firmly fixed in the minds of the Hebrew people as they left Egypt and headed for the Promised Land.
When we arrive at the story in our First Lesson the snakes we encounter here are called “poisonous serpents” which in Hebrew literally means “fiery serpents.” This refers to a species of vicious snakes whose poison burns upon contact. According to one scholar these “fiery serpents” were common in the desert wilderness. They came to be seen by the Hebrew people as a metaphor of the fiery anger of God.
Therefore, when the serpents bit some of their people they came to the conclusion that God was angry with them. This resulted in their act of repentance which we see in our first lesson for today.
Finally, we get to the bronze serpent on the pole that people look at and were healed. Mainstream scholars suggest that the image of the fiery serpent served to function as a magical talisman. Magic amulets or charms were used in the ancient Near East to practice a healing ritual known as sympathetic magic in an attempt to ward off, heal or reduce the impact of illness and poisons. Copper and bronze serpent figures have been recovered, in a number of ancient cultures showing that the practice was widespread and not limited to the Hebrew people.
You also might find it interesting to know that the bronze serpent of Moses was carried with the Israelites to the Promised Land. It was eventually placed in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem where it remained for 250 years or so. During this time some of the Israelites began to worship the bronze serpent as an idol or image of God, by offering sacrifices and burning incense to it. Therefore, it was destroyed by King Hezekiah during his reform of the Temple. This story is found in 2 Kings 18:4.
Snake on a stick? Oh my! What a history this object had in the life of the Hebrew people! As we look at this story with modern eyes it seems like a bunch of ancient superstition that has no place in modern Christianity. However, after having spent the week with this story, I do believe there is something we can learn form it.
The first thing we need to do is separate ourselves from the Old Testament concept that God punishes us for our sins. Sin punishes us for our sins, but God does not punish us for our sins. Our bad choices and rebellious ways take on a life of their own without any help from God whatsoever.
Therefore, when the poisonous snakes enter the first part of our story we need to see them NOT as a punishment from God but as a bad thing that happened to good people. This is something we can all relate to. Life is tough. We all get bitten by many things. Our hearts and souls burn from the poison that our world inflicts on us. I believe the Hebrew people were wrong in associating the attack of the snakes with the vengefulness of God. But this is the way the author wrote the story and we have to live with it.
The good news is that Jesus challenged this kind of thinking. We see this in John 9 where he heals a man who was born blind. The big question everyone kept asking in the story was “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In other words, who was God punishing by causing this man to be born blind?
Jesus, dismantles this misunderstanding of God by responding, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” What I think Jesus was saying is that bad things happen to good people but God will take this bad situation and use it for good.
This is what I think is happening in our First Lesson: A bad thing happened to good people, but God intervened and brought hope and healing. Granted, the bronze serpent on the pole was unnecessary, but this was a symbol the Hebrew people would have easily understood. Therefore, God used it because God meets us where we are and takes us to a better place. Were the same incident to happen in modern times a snake venom kit would fit the bill quite nicely. We really don’t need a snake on a stick these days, in order to understand the healing power of God.
If we can truly hear what the Spirit is saying in our First Lesson, I believe it is the message that whether our brokenness is self-inflicted or circumstantial, God is a God of healing and new life, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
This is why I believe John connects this ancient story with the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate symbol of healing and new life. Death surrounded him, but it did not destroy him.
This same healing power is available to all of us who call upon the name of Jesus. Like the ancient people before us, we need to cast aside the notion that God punishes us for our sin. The cross is proof positive that our God is a God of healing and new life, of second chances, rebirths and resurrections. This is the good news of the gospel. It is the good news of the Lent and Easter story.
So, friends in Christ, we don’t need to shy away from this strange story of the bronze serpent on the pole. Hopefully, today, I’ve been able to help us put it in it’s proper context so that it point us to the One who gave his life so we might have life in all of its abundance. AMEN
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck