|“The Brazen Serpent”
Benjamin West (1738-1820)
BJU Museum & Gallery, Greenville, SC
Lectionary Passage: Numbers 21: 4-9
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 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 detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So 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.
OK, this is just odd! It’s one of those passages that probably wouldn’t have made it into the lectionary except that the Gospel writer that we know as John included it. (We’ll read that this week too!) Personally, I think it’s a little over the top–sending poisonous snakes. I mean, it seems that the people were only asking for a little variety in their menu. Isn’t this a little out of proportion? I mean, really: complaining…bad; poisononous snakes all over the place…REALLY bad.
But from the very beginning of Creation, as one of the Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible explains, the snake has slithered on its belly and eaten only dust and yet it has done so without a word of complaint. So, then, what better character to rule over the people who have murmured over a choice of food? Essentially, the snake comes to teach humility and patience. But we as humans cannot resist being more than a little squeamish at the character. There is something about a snake that demands our full attention. When someone mentions that a snake is nearby, we don’t ask what lessons can be learned. Instead, we climb on the furniture or over one another to get out of the way.
Our full attention…to how many things do we give that? And how many things would we rather climb on the furniture or run to get out of the way rather than dealing with them? And it is interesting that in order to save the people from the plague of snakes, God gave them a snake. So, when someone is bitten by a snake, he or she is to look at a snake. What sense does that make? Think about it…we are to look at our fear; we are to look at those things that tempt us; we are to look at those things that distract us and pull us away from God. (Goodness…that sounds a lot like this season of Lent!) And God, in God’s infinite wisdom puts them on a pole so that we cannot avoid seeing them.
But only in the wisdom of God do we counter something that we fear with that which we fear. Here, God’s antidote for the snakes is a snake. Isn’t that sort of paradoxical? We have to look beyond that with which we are uncomfortable. We have to look into a sight that brings such fear, such loathing, that it is hard for us to find God’s presence in it. And, deep within it, is the sight of humility and patience, a creature that, according to Creation mythology, had resigned itself to surrendering to that which ruled its life. And by looking into one’s fear, by looking into one’s death, one is freed—the ultimate paradox.
It is notable, too, that nothing is said to imply that God destroys the snakes. Essentially, God does not destroy the enemy—God recreates it. Isn’t that an incredible thing? You see, we need to recognize that the traditional Jewish reading of the “Garden of Eden” story differs from the classical Christian version. While the snake has often been identified in both faiths as Satan (or satan), the Jewish understanding is not that of something or someone outside of God’s command or a rebel against divine authority. Rather, it’s sort of a prosecuting attorney, entrusted with testing, entrapping, and testifying against us before the heavenly court. It’s part of God’s way of maintaining order. It’s part of God’s way of showing us a mirror to look at ourselves. So, from that standpoint, these snakes or serpents are not enemies but, rather, part of our ourselves. (On some level, maybe that’s more uncomfortable even than enemies!)
So, the simple equation is this: the cure for snakes is a snake…the cure for something is to stare it straight in the face. Where have we heard that before? Centuries later, God did it again. The cure for our death is death—death of those things that stand in the way of our relationship with God, death of those things that make us less than human, death of those things that are not part of who we are as images of God. And, if you remember, the cure for a life of pain and suffering and temptation is life eternal. Snakes for snakes; death for death; life for life.
Those whose eyes are fixed on the Son of Man as he is lifted up ultimately see God’s healing of the world. The Cross is that thing at which we are forced to look, forced to see a part of us that we do not want to see, forced to see the way we murmur and complain about our lives when they’re really not that bad. In an odd way, the cross is that snake on a pole. So as hard as it may be, stand still. It doesn’t make sense in this world. It’s gruesome and loathsome and filled with danger. But God, in God’s infinite wisdom, takes it and turns it into life. We don’t need to become snake-handlers; we just need to be aware of that to which we should be looking. So, walk now, toward the cross—the instrument of death that gives you life.
On this seventeenth day of Lenten observance, go commune with a snake…no, just kidding! Instead, give someone today your full attention. Do not get pulled away by your cell phone or your watch or your calendar.
Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,