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Numbers 21:4-9

There are many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures that point to the long and hazardous journey of the Israelites toward an understanding of God. This one concerns poisonous serpents. The story in itself is puzzling. It contains elements that speak of sympathetic magic and ancient rites as well as posing an interesting problem through God’s own action against his people.

The people again complain about their lot in the wilderness, speaking against both God and Moses. The words of their complaint echo those when they first hungered and thirsted in the wilderness (cf. Exod 16:3; 17:3; Num 20:4-5). Their words, now spoken after the long sojourn at Mt. Sinai where God established a covenant with them, gave them the law, and rejected the golden calf they made (Exodus 32), show there has been no real understanding by the people of God’s deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt. None of these tremendous events seems to have got the message across, that behind this experience is not only one who can provide for their needs but who longs to be in relationship with this people he has rescued. The hardships of the wilderness, not to be denied, loom large in the people’s mind and they now constantly see the former life of slavery under the Egyptians as a time of comfort and plenty. The people have forgotten their calling as the people of God led by Moses. The picture is one of not only an impatient people complaining understandably about what they are enduring but also of a people who have not learnt about trust in relationship. Even that which God supplies seems to be despised for they complain not only about having no water and food, but about the ‘miserable food’ they do have (Num 21:5; presuming this is a reference to the manna supplied by God, cf. Exodus 16).

The story takes a new turn at this point. In the past the people complained against
Moses initially and it was God who developed ways to alleviate their hardship (Exod 16:2, 4; 17:2-5). But here the complaint is directly against God and only against Moses secondarily (Num 21:5). Moreover, instead of supplying their need God now sends something deadly into their midst (v. 6). While the narrator gives us no sense of God’s motive here we infer it from the people’s interpretation of events; they have sinned against the Lord. This action by God seems unduly harsh and punitive given God’s earlier graciousness and patience. From this distance we might not, understandably, feel comfortable defining God’s response in this way. But maybe there are some points worth noting in this. First, it is a story told from Israel’s point of view so it does not present us with an unchallengeable image of God. Secondly, does the storyteller want to say to us that God’s patience with his people is not entirely without its bounds? Is this not also the point of the giving of the law we read about last week in Exodus 20 (see Lent 3). God’s patient and gracious response to our needs calls for a response from us, and law and obedience to it, in Old Testament terms, is that way of living in God’s grace.

In response, the people immediately appeal to Moses to pray for them so that the serpents will go away (v. 7). When Moses does talk to God, he is instructed to make a bronze image of a serpent and put it on a pole. Everyone bitten by a serpent who then looks at the one on the pole will be healed. This appears to be some kind of sympathetic magic at best, or even a hint of idolatry at worst. But to focus on such is to miss the point here. It is God who provides a way out for his people, even from his own judgment on them. This imagery is repeated in the gospel reading set down for the day, John 3:14-21. The Son of Man is to be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.

The apocryphal book, the Wisdom of Solomon, has an interpretation that throws further light on the meaning of the bronze serpent. In chapter 15 of that book the enemies of the Israelite people wandering in the wilderness are denigrated as foolish, miserable people, who mistakenly worship idols (v. 14). Verse 18 says ‘they worship even the most hateful animals’, referring to snakes, epitomized by the despised and evil serpent of Genesis 2. They even eat abhorrent (i.e. non-kosher) creatures to survive. On the other hand, God cares for the Israelites (Wis Sol 16:2), giving them quails and manna to eat. When they complain about their lot, the serpents are sent into their midst as a warning that they must obey God (16:5). When they recognize the warning, they are given a means of being cured of the serpent bites. They are to look up at a bronze serpent on a pole. It is not, though, the serpent itself which brings about their healing. Their healing comes from their faith in God (v. 7). Their faith is proved by their obedience in following Moses’ instructions and turning toward the serpent. As they do that, they actually look beyond it and find the mercy of God, the ‘Saviour of all’ as the Wisdom of Solomon says.

John’s Gospel says the dreadful imagery of a crucified man achieves the same purpose. By looking toward the crucified Christ, the believer looks beyond it to the God who redeems. The symbol of the bronze serpent and the cross are signs of divine involvement in the people’s journey toward understanding, repentance and reconciliation with God. In this case it will not just be ‘life’ given to the one who looks up to the Son of Man, but ‘eternal life’. John has taken the imagery of the bronze serpent and given it new meaning and power for the followers of Jesus.

On Mt. Nebo, the traditional site east of the Jordan from which Moses is said to have viewed the promised land at the end of the wilderness wanderings, remembering that he was not allowed to cross into it with the people, one can see today at St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church a monumental cross upon which is coiled a serpent. The monument combines the story of the bronze serpent in the wilderness with the cross in a way that echoes the Gospel reading but pushes beyond what is immediately observable to the God who seeks life for his people in the midst of death.

Psalm 107

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