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.
Thirty-five years ago, when I was making up my mind to move from Virginia to New England, I made up a list of pros and cons. The list was neck and neck for a while, but obviously New England won out. The debate in my head came down to something like this:
Con: New England has notoriously harsh winters which produce mountains of snow, plenty of ice to slip on regularly for months on end, low temperatures made worse by biting winds, weak winter sunshine resulting in Seasonal Affective Disorder, not to mention dry skin and chapped lips.
Pro: New England doesn’t have poisonous snakes. (Or so I was told at the time.)
The “doesn’t have poisonous snakes” argument was pretty persuasive. Taking on the perils of winter seemed like a fair trade if it meant I could leave the likes of cottonmouths and copperheads behind me. Years later, when it was too late to turn back, my husband informed me that New England does, in fact, have at least one poisonous snake: the timber rattlesnake, an endangered species in New Hampshire. I felt like I had been duped by a bait and switch campaign of the worst sort. Who cares if there are probably only about 25 of these “shy, non-aggressive, mild mannered, who will only bite when stepped on” snakes in the state where I live? I want my money back.
Anyone here have a better relationship with snakes than I do? Like many people, snakes give me the willies. I surprise the garter snake that lives in our backyard at least once a summer, and as he gets bigger every year my screams get proportionately louder each time we meet. For years, I avoided preaching on today’s passage from Numbers, with all its creepy snakes. But there was also something intriguing about this puzzle around Moses and the people looking on the snake raised up on the pole, etc. There’s something weird and incomprehensible about that thin line between magic and religion that I wanted to explore, but you have to deal with snakes before you can get to that. I felt it was time to face up to this passage and follow my sister’s advice on all things intimidating: “Put on your Big Girl panties and deal with it.”
To tell the truth, I’m not sure what frightens me the most about this story: the presence of the snakes, or that the story claims that it was God who sent them the snakes in the first place as a form of punishment. I mean, what kind of a God is that? We have to remind ourselves that this is a story, with all of its attendant mechanisms of exaggeration, anthropomorphizing God, attempts to explain the unexplainable through stock characters, etc. Setting aside that gnarly theological question for the moment, let us look at the complex relationship that has developed between God and the Children of Israel, for this passage is only one in a long series of episodes known as the “murmurings.” That there were so many murmurings is a pretty big hint that things weren’t going well between God and the Chosen Ones.
In reading the story of the Israelites journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, one gets the sense of “Déjà vu, all over again.” Close your eyes and listen to the dialogue, and you might just as well be in a station wagon on a family vacation driving through the underworld: the oppressive heat, the fatigue, the jarring unpredictability of no steady schedule, the whiney voices “Are we there yet? I’m hungry.” “Well, here’s a snack honey, some nice fresh manna and some quails.” “EEEEwwwww Ick! I HATE those. I want something else.” “Make her stop looking at me. Mom! Make her stop!” The steady stream of complaints is punctuated only by periods of angry silence. “Are we there yet? I’m thirsty!”
Perhaps it is no accident they these wilderness wanderers are called the “children” of Israel, for whiney, unhappy children is what they sound like. What parent wouldn’t have at least a tiny flash of wanting to throw a handful of stinging vipers into the backseat of the car on a road trip like that?
When the people of Israel set out for the Promised Land, they took the long route. Surely they could have made it over that short distance in less than forty years. But the wandering in the wilderness seemed to be necessary to help them work Egypt out of their system. God’s people were haunted by their life in Egypt: plagued by memories distorted by desert heart, Egypt took on mythic proportions in their imagination. “Why can’t we go back,” they whined? “I miss the routine, the predictability. I miss the food. What I would give for some of those tasty exotic dishes the Egyptians always made us eat. Slavery wasn’t that bad, was it?”
Wilderness, with its endless acres of sand, punctuated by hard going rocky terrain, the rare respite of an oasis, fierce hunger, a thirst that couldn’t be slaked, approaching caravans that were more likely to be foe than friend, the relentless sun, cold winds at night… wilderness was so hard that Egypt began to look really, really good. Like a soul hankering after an abusive lover, the Israelites pined away, longing to go back to what was, at the very least, familiar. Wilderness is the place where false attachments are revealed and the Self is laid bare. Wilderness is the place where the temptation to turn back to the old gods is the strongest. Wilderness is that place where we face our deepest fears. Wilderness is, at last, that disturbing and liberating terrain where we go to finally grow up.
In the wilderness, the Children of Israel are confronted with and unnerved by their deepest fears: snakes that slither and slide and sidle up close and hiss and bite and insinuate themselves right down into what little sense of safety or sanity that these people have left. God, like the parent who realizes that perhaps they have overreacted a little bit with the snakes, sets about to correct the problem. The solution may seem a little odd to us: God tells Moses to make a snake out of bronze and to hold it up in front of the people so that they may look up to it and be healed. The temptation for Christians is to impose our Christian interpretation back onto the Hebrew text, see this as emblematic of the Christ lifted up on the cross and be done with the passage. Or we could even take the view of King Hezekiah, who much later in the history of Israel during his temple reform destroyed the bronze serpent made by Moses. By Hezekiah’s time the people had made an idol of the bronze serpent, turning it into an object of magical thinking rather than something that helped to deepen their faith in God’s healing powers. For the moment let’s stay with the “ambiguous” image of the serpent as both killer and healer, an image that appears in Western medicine with its appropriation of the Greek healing deity’s staff with its twisted serpent as symbolic of the medical profession.
As I said, the Children of Israel had to face their deepest fears in the wilderness. In that strange, paradoxical way scripture is famous for, this mysterious passage suggests that looking at that which frightens us is a part of the process of being healed from the crippling effects of fear. The Israelites were required to look upon their fear; to own, at last, the truth that fear was one of the driving forces behind the wilderness wanderings. Remember, when the Israelites first approached the Promised Land after leaving Egypt they sent spies to check out the land of Plenty. Ten of the spies came back with tales that terrified the people so much they wanted to turn tail and run. Only two of the Israelite spies, Joshua and Caleb, urged them to trust in God and face their fears. The people’s fear won out and they headed back to the desert. God was so angry about their decision to live out of fear and not faith, that like that frustrated, over-reactive parent who has had it up to here, God says fine, just for that you can just wander in the wilderness for forty years.
The snakes were a pale reminder of their fear of the Canaanite giants, which was a reminder of how they refused to trust God in the first place. When fear drives our decisions, when fear shapes our posture toward life, when fear shorts out our ability to trust in God’s good intentions for our lives, then we are destined to wander in circles rather than living fully in the Promised Land.
Of what are you afraid? The Diagnosis? Being alone? The displeasure of others? Are you afraid of dying, of living? Of being rejected? Of not having meaning and purpose in your life? Snakes are probably the least of the things that we fear. If we are honest with ourselves, and with God, we can own up to the things that keep us awake in the night. We can name our fears and bring them out into the light where we honestly assess the threat level. Are the things we fear real or imagined dangers? Naming the fear that binds us is the first step toward healing.
Acknowledging our fear is important, yet if we stare too long at the things that chill our hearts then fear may be the final word. Which brings me back to that gnarly theological question we sidestepped earlier. What kind of God would inflict poisonous vipers onto a beloved people as a punishment? Is God the being of whom we are most afraid? Some answer this question by claiming that the God of the Old Testament is not a loving God, and so we can dismiss the view of God expressed in this passage. But I don’t buy that. Remember, the Jewish faith is the faith that formed Jesus. There are many examples in the Older Testament where God is known to be tender, loving, and full of compassion, rescuing God’s people when they are in deep need, leading them to new and abundant life.
Given that this story is the attempt of a human community to make sense of their experience, I would ask the question from a different angle. Instead of asking: “Why would God send snakes to punish the people,” we might ask: “Why would the people attribute a bad life event to a punishing God? Why would their “go to” place be the belief that God would do such a thing to them?” In spite of evidence to the contrary, why would they understand God primarily as being punitive? What does this interpretation of events say of a people’s capacity to experience God as loving?
Ultimately, the story reveals a God who seeks to heal the people of their deepest wounds and fears. This biblical narrative dares us to look our fears in the eye, and then invites us to look beyond that which terrifies us, to look up to that which is greater than all our fears. We make a god out of our fears, but when we look up, and shift our eyes, we see the real God beyond our fears. We lift our eyes to see that God so loved the world that God came to be lifted up among us. Paradoxically, looking at that which frightens us is one step on the way to seeing, as we shift our gaze, that God’s grace has the final word. In that good news, we have nothing to fear. Amen.