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Friday 27 May 2022

This story is another from the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness, and it depicts yet another occasion on which the people become their own worst enemy by rebelling against God. Their complaints against God and Moses succeed in provoking God to punishment.

Numbers 21:4-9

This story is another from the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness, and it depicts yet another occasion on which the people become their own worst enemy by rebelling against God. Their complaints against God and Moses succeed in provoking God to punishment. When they repent of their behaviour God gives them the means to escape the consequences of their actions. As you will have seen, the details of the story are very odd, but the shape and the dynamic of the story should be familiar - those who turn to God are treated with great mercy and grace.

So let’s look at the story a bit more closely. It’s a very odd narrative, one that we probably don’t know terribly well, but it’s chosen as the Old Testament reading for the fourth Sunday in Lent this year because it gets a mention in the Gospel reading (John 3:14-21). In that Gospel reading, the story of the serpent becomes a motif for the saving power of Jesus, the Crucified One. So hold that thought in mind, as the parallels John draws with Jesus are significant. But let’s look at this Old Testament story on its own terms today, and as you reflect on it further you are invited to think about how it relates to Jesus and your experience of his saving love.

The main problem that the Israelites face is a familiar one. It crops up over and over again in Exodus and in the stories of the wilderness experience. Israel had to leave Egypt where they had food and water and shelter, even though they were slaves, and they frequently seem to find themselves in situations where they are worried about their food and drink will come from. The further Israel moves away from Egypt, the more the rose-tinted spectacles take effect. They perhaps seem even romantically nostalgic for the good old days, and they certainly seem to have forgotten the burden of cruelty and abuse that they suffered, for example when they were given no straw to make bricks but were still expected to fill their quota. All they remember seems to be the guaranteed food supply which the Egyptian empire provided for its slave labourers. That romantic, idealised memory contrasts with their present reality - scarce supplies and danger in the wilderness. In verse 4 we read that they become “impatient”, but it seems to be more than that. Their impatience makes them argumentative and grumpy, and even a bit mutinous.

As is characteristic of many of the wilderness stories, while they carry the memory of how good things used to be, they quarrel, they accuse God of being unfaithful to them, and they accuse Moses of being a terrible leader. We can see if we look at many of the psalms that Israel has a very candid relationship with God, and their complaints can be quite harsh and abrasive, but often their accusation and protest results in good things from God. Generally it might seem that the complaint impacts on God and God responds with good gifts for the people. But not this time! In verse 6 we can see what the people get. We’re not told why God doesn’t respond with help. We don’t know why this time God seems harsh and uncooperative. No good gifts are given, but instead the people receive a devastating punishment. The wilderness is already full of dangerous things - snakes and serpents and other poisonous things. These are now apparently sent by God in a lethal response to the complaint.

Abruptly in verse 7 there is a turnaround. Faced with their own even greater suffering, the people who complained become repentant and submissive. And matching the complete u-turn of Israel, the God who had sent death now turns and provides a way for the people to find health. Verses 4-6 portray complaint and failure, but in contrast verses 7-9 give a picture of humility and repentance and the corresponding generosity of God.

In verse 7, when the people realise that they must make amends with God, they ask Moses to speak on their behalf, and they want the poisonous snakes to be taken away (quite naturally). Moses, who himself had been a target of their complaining, does intercede. The snakes are not taken away, but rather God provides a way for the people to find healing and life despite their presence. When the people accuse, God responds negatively, but when they submit, God responds positively. There are other instances in the Old Testament where Yahweh is depicted as holding the power to give life or to cause death and the people are implicitly invited to choose what they want (eg. Deuteronomy 32:39, Isaiah 45:7). In this passage, God (through Moses) produces a bronze replica of the thing that wounds. It sounds a bit like the hair of the dog! This statue is visible to all Israel and seems to function in an almost magical way as an antidote to poisonous snakes.

On the surface this seems like a very odd and perhaps even superstitious solution to the breakdown in the covenantal relationship. Because Israel was rebellious God sent real, destructive snakes. When Israel was penitent, God sent a saving snake. I find this quite an uncomfortable story, particularly as it resonates with the tactics and methods of many tyrannical regimes. In recent weeks we’ve heard a lot in the news about the extreme measures the Myanmar military are employing to quash any sign of rebellion and dissent, and it’s hard to read a passage in which God appears to employ similar tactics. Despite the fact that a cure or antidote is given, that the people can look at the bronze serpent and live (v.9) it’s hard to read that the snakes are apparently sent to do God’s will in the first place. I don’t have a solution for that. It’s one of those troubling things I’m still grappling with. And almost just as problematic is the idea of the magical solution. Particularly in the Protestant tradition, we reject the idea that a sacred object can be the means by which miraculous healing is achieved.

to think about the bronze serpent sacramentally. After all, the claim and the function of the bronze serpent are not in principle so very different from the idea that bread and wine mediate the body and blood of Jesus in saving ways. Both the image of the bronze serpent and our own experience of the sacrament of Communion remind us that God’s life-giving power is given in ways that are not contained or understood by our logic and rationality. If we then turn to the Gospel reading (John 3:14-21), John understands that the lifted-up (elevated) bronze serpent is an anticipation of the lifted- up (crucified) Jesus. And it’s just as much beyond our logic and reason to understand how a crucified (lifted-up) Jesus can have saving power over the whole world for all time. The claim might seem odd, but this lifted-up Jesus stands at the very centre of a redefined existence. This story, particularly in connection with the Gospel reading, invites us to re-orient ourselves, to be re-centred around that gift of new life that Jesus offers to the whole world.

For further reflection…

  • Read through the passage again several times, slowly. Take notice of any words or phrases that stand out for you.
  • Can you think of any times when your nostalgia for the past has led you to grumbling and negativity about the present circumstances? How does this story challenge your attitudes to what you have and where you are?
  • How do you respond to the idea that there may be a parallel with the sacrament of Communion here? Does this help or hinder your reading of the story? How does John’s interpretation of the crucified Jesus as being like the bronze serpent add to your understanding?
  • Spend some time in prayer, offering to God those times when you have lost sight of God’s goodness because you have been looking elsewhere. Invite the healing, life-giving Holy Spirit to fill your life today.