Psalm 107:1–3, 17–22
I don’t know if the people of God wandered in the desert for a literal 40 years or if that is merely a metaphorical amount of time, but it certainly felt like it was 40 years to them. Most of us know the exciting story of the Israelite’s escape from slavery—the story of God parting the sea, allowing Moses to lead God’s people through it, drowning the Egyptians who chased after them. But what else do we know about the 40 years (literal or metaphorical) that they spent in the wilderness? We might recall an episode here or there—Moses getting the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai, or God feeding the people with manna from heaven when they got hungry. But then we tend to skip to the Israelites arrival in the Promised Land, a land they describe as flowing with milk and honey.
We tend to gloss over all the other days and nights of wandering in the wilderness, all the endless hours of being hot and exhausted and sick of everyone around them. Have you been there? Whether your wilderness journey is an illness or a relationship struggle or a crisis of faith or finances or something else altogether, I suspect that part of what plagues our trek through our wilderness to the promised land is that we get bored and cranky, stuck between a promise and its fulfillment.
Although the people of God in this story from the book of Numbers have almost completed their wilderness time, they don’t know that. So like most people who are discouraged and weary, they complain. They whine about the quality and quantity of the food they get, about the scarcity of water. They start wishing they were still enslaved in Egypt. However mistreated and miserable they’d been there, at least they felt secure about where their next meal was coming from. If their complaints sound petty and ungrateful, remember they are HOT and TIRED. They’ve been nomads in the desert a LONG TIME!
I understand why God, who liberated the people from slavery and guided them by a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud by day, who caused water to gush from a rock when the people were thirsty and quail when they were sick of manna, would be frustrated to hear the people saying, “Why did God bring us out here if just to let us die?” I do get it. Still, I am taken aback by how God responds to the whiners in today’s OT reading: God sends poisonous snakes into their midst. I cannot imagine why or how God thinks this would be helpful! What happened to the idea that God so loved the world that God would do anything to save it? How can a poisonous snake be an instrument of salvation when it is the very instrument of death from which the people need to be saved?
It seems counter-intuitive, but for centuries, in many different cultures, snakes have been used as religious symbols—often specifically as symbols of healing. Check out the symbol of the World Health Organization or the crest of the American Medical Association some time. They both depict snakes coiled around sticks. Though officially those symbols honor the Greek hero and god of medicine Aesclipius, bronze serpents that seemed intended to be worn as pendants have been found in desert locations all around the Near East. Maybe there is a universal attraction to the fact that snakes shed their dead skin and go on. It really is a compelling image of resurrection, renewal, and new life.
Or perhaps God wants the people to look up at the serpent simply because there is power in facing our fears. Seeing a source of poison for what it really is can be an important step in addressing its impact. Ask anyone who’s been through a 12-step process—the first step is seeing a thing for what it is and calling it by its real name. Then the recovery journey can begin.
I think the sensationalism of the snakes might overshadow the real story of healing in this text, which is more subtle. In a rare moment, the people recognize that they have sinned. They do not curse Moses or the snakes or each other or anyone or anything else. They have hit bottom and can acknowledge they are suffering because of their own callous dismissal of God’s good intentions and providence. They know need to be saved, and that they are powerless to save themselves. They approach their pastor, Moses, and ask him to talk to God on their behalf. They do not ask for forgiveness. They assume it. They ask for deliverance from the immediate consequences of their sin.
If you encounter poisonous snakes, I doubt your first instinct would be to call your pastor. Maybe that’s because we have a rather clinical understanding of healing in our culture. We are taught to think that healing comes through a person in a lab coat who hands us a prescription or arranges a surgery. Even our healing services here at Trinity, which are pretty tame by comparison to live reptiles, are a stretch for some people because they can’t imagine what good it does or how it works.
But for the people of Israel, who believed that their spiritual and physical well-being were interconnected, it was absolutely necessary to them to speak to Moses right away. And it turns out that God does not need CTs and IVs to facilitate healing; God is very good at improvising with whatever is at hand. Because Moses does what the people ask, praying on their behalf, God tells him how to address the people’s pain. And Moses does what God asks, however ridiculous and pointless it might seem to him or to us: he raises up a snake up on a stick and encourages the people to look up at it. When they do, the threat goes away.
How in the world can looking at a snake on a stick provide healing? I do not pretend to know. But isn’t it interesting that this is the very image Jesus seizes upon to describe himself in today’s reading from John? And doesn’t it bring up the same question about Jesus’ means of saving us? How in the world does Jesus’ undergoing the death penalty save us?
I am unwilling to accept the idea that God, who loves the world and wants to save it, requires a blood sacrifice to appease God’s appetite for vengeance. But if God didn’t need a blood sacrifice, why did Jesus die? And why on a cross? Why didn’t he die heroically in battle against the Romans, instead of on an implement of capital punishment reserved for common criminals and political rabble-rousers? God is not constrained by what makes sense to us. The cross becomes the tree of life for us, as weird as that sounds. As weird as a snake on a stick bringing healing.
What strikes me most about the image of terrified people gazing up at a snake on a stick is that it is the opposite of what we would usually do when we are scared and in pain. Our normal reaction to traumatic moments—physically and emotionally—is to curl in on ourselves. To take a fetal position, to cover up. Think of a hedgehog being poked in the belly and you will see what I mean. Poke its tender tummy and it curls up in a little prickly ball, protecting its vulnerable spot.
Interestingly, what God is asking the Israelites is that they NOT do that. Do not coil up into a ball. Do not protect yourself in the face of this danger. Instead, God asks the people to LOOK up. God knows that healing comes through relationship—relationship with God, with one another, and with ourselves. We are invited to open up, not so that we might be slain in the wilderness, but so that we might more completely connect. We are invited to wrap ourselves around the cross of Christ, to cling to it as nothing else. The pillar of God’s salvation allows us to be strong even in our vulnerability and safe in the relative insecurity of freedom. We are set free to live and to love.
So, if we must uncoil to live, and yet we are in bondage to the tendency to avoid that, what now? Remember that the people of God knew instantly that the first step was prayer. When we pray with and for one another, we loosen the bonds of self-absorption. In prayer, we gradually uncoil. Prayer, such as the prayer offered by Moses on behalf of the people of Israel, is a way of unraveling our hearts from around themselves and from around the idols and false securities they are squeezing. Prayer opens us up—our whole selves in all their complexity are laid bare before God, and in that vulnerable position, we acknowledge our need for God, for grace, for freedom from our sin. It sounds invasive, doesn’t it? But opening up the wound is the only way to let the poison out, allowing room to receive the gift of healing.
God is there with us, in our wilderness places, helping us, holding us, saving us. An uncoiled snake may appear defenseless, but God so loves the world that God saves us in our weakness. God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider