It’s been a while since I’ve engaged in pure, unadulterated biblical commentary, but it is time. So much of life’s chaos and din has been converging on me without pause for so many weeks that I must put it all away—for today—and open the Bible and immerse myself completely in the questions that seem to have nothing to do whatever with the pressing issues of the day and yet endure, somehow, one century after another and nourish our souls and the pressing answers of our days. Today is my time for the minutiae and intricate detail of quiet, timeless concepts. Restful time. Bible study time. And this one starts with everyone’s favorite topic: snakes.
I heard the reading over a month ago, but it kept playing in the back of my mind: Numbers 21. The Israelites are in the midst of their 40-year loopy trek through the desert, from Egypt to the “promised land,” which was originally promised to them but is no longer: just recently God had decreed that this generation would all die on the way. They are scared, tired, and cantankerous, and they keep grumbling, abusing Moses, and losing faith. Wouldn’t you? Probably the only good memory they retain from this miserable life is the smell of a cooking flesh pot, and they haven’t seen one of those since Egypt. Now they are homeless, exhausted, uncertain, eating nothing but never-ending manna, and everybody wants to kill them, so they have to kill back.
Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and 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 loathe this miserable food.”
The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.
(Numbers 21:4 – 9 NASB)
Seems harsh, but then, in physical reality such a story simply doesn’t work—this is pure symbolism, the kind of myth I like best of all.
Serpents and snakes are loaded characters in world mythology, including near eastern. The reasons are pretty obvious: snakes are venomous, cunning, cold-blooded, skin-shedding, and hunt by hypnotizing their prey. They represented therefore in the ancient world from Egypt to Canaan and Mesopotamia to Persia mainly three areas of symbolism: wisdom, immortality, and chaos (sometimes quite malevolent). What fascinates me is the internal tension of a myth in which the agent that wants to kill you is the same that heals you. This is not unique to Numbers 21, of course, because it is such a familiar dilemma in our lives—in the world, in human nature—and (welcome to the topic of this essay) in Christianity. We fight fire with fire—or, in this case, with fiery serpent.
A serpent—the mythical precursor of snakes, exceedingly common in the deserts of the region—is a perfect image for such tension in ancient near-eastern stories. The bringer of chaos and grave threat, it is also the bringer of longevity and immortality. A guardian of secrets, it is also the source of wisdom. Certainly, you don’t think the choice of animal in Genesis 3 was a random one: the first serpent we ever encounter in the Bible seemed to know things well beyond his pay grade, dispensed secret truths to humanity, and instigated a whole lot of chaos. But, of course, for the nation that wrote both Genesis and Numbers, a new layer of symbolism of the serpent was then being created—deeper, more frightening—and it would take their religion to a level they did not at the time understand. In part because so many non-Israelite pagan traditions worshiped serpent gods, the wise trouble-maker snake eventually came to stand for something grander: the ungodly darkness outside the walls, the death and threat of the malevolent Other. In ancient Israel, serpent meant Sin.
Keep in mind that Hebrew Bible does not see in the Genesis serpent any greater force than the serpent himself—certainly not Satan disguised. Satan did not exist in the biblical writers’ minds, nor did any sort of personalized evil, and nothing but an animal, a symbol of human sin and its source, dwelled in the garden of Eden until much later Christians retrofitted the image.
In Numbers 21, the literal plot of the story is so unrealistic that it doesn’t really bother to fit into its surrounding narrative. In other words, the context for or the content of the Israelites’ grumbling doesn’t matter. It only matters that in their loss of faith (read “despair” and “ingratitude”) they fall away from God and, by definition, into Sin. They have sinned: they’ve been stung by the serpent, infected by its essence—and sin is death. We have learned that back in Genesis. Filled with the poison of the serpent, they are suffering and dying and come to realize what they have lost. Craving God’s mercy, they crawl to the feet of the prophet, begging for protection.
This is a fairly surface meaning of the story: a universalism of human failing and repentance. We are led by God on our journeys, but journeys are hard, and so we grumble, hopeless and ungrateful, and fall away and wish we hadn’t given up comfort for freedom or ignorance for meaning. We sin, and only when it seems too late do we realize how full of poison our sin has made us, how painful such a life really is and how lonely, and how close to death—and then we crawl, repentant, to whatever place feels closer to God and beg for mercy. What happens next is the interesting part.
The cure for sin Moses fashions for his people at God’s instruction is none but the image of their very sin, its symbol itself, raised up on display, exposed, on a staff (most likely a long, sturdy tree branch). Anyone who looks upon this symbol, lives. Anyone with the awareness and courage to confront the image of his own sin is saved. God’s solution for this crisis is repentance. It’s therapy. I kind of like that.
You know what else I like? Think of what that staff, with a bronze serpent coiled around it, would look like. Recognize the image? Still the symbol of medicine, health, and healing, the Rod of Asclepius came to us from Greece, but its roots are older than the 4th-century BC popularity of Asclepius’s cult. Older than the story of Moses, too, the first snake entwined around a staff reaches us from unearthed Sumerian pottery, from the 3rd millennium BC. For a long time humanity has appreciated the delicate line between killing and healing, poison and medication. For a long time we’ve been trying to tame danger: venoms to reduce inflammation, narcotics to assuage pain, blood-letting to bring down fevers, amputations to stop gangrene.
We are not new to fighting fire with fire, causing pain to stop the pain. We are familiar with the poignant ambiguity of a snake on a staff: an inoculation by the source of the disease, found out and stripped of its power and mystery and introduced right into our faces, except this one is dead, and we have nothing more to fear.
Speaking of which, I find that a curious development is mentioned later in the Bible, in the Second Book of Kings. While Numbers 21 was most likely written after mid-6th century BC, 2 Kings is contemporary to its narrative much earlier, but in the biblical chronology the story of the fiery serpent predates what happens in 2 Kings by several hundred years. It appears that over time, the bronze serpent made by Moses becomes an object of worship to the Israelites, so much so that they bring offerings to it. Around the year 700 BC (give or take a decade) the great reformer king Hezekiah—this is probably a historical fact—in his pursuit to eliminate idolatry and return to proper praise of Yahweh, breaks Moses’s staff into little pieces. Destroys it, no more.
I think about it and wonder how often we do this in our lives, on a small scale. It’s hard to get away from sin—not the stupid stuff but what really hurts, the dark, agonizing corners of our minds—and we keep going back to the bronze serpent. Because it works. It’s worked before, at least once. Or at least we believe that it works. We return again and again to a snake on a staff, whatever our snake is: therapy, confession, diary, best friend… And we confront our own darkness. But we still have to watch that we not make an idol of the snake, because it happens, and it’s tempting. Therapy becomes a habit, confession becomes a crutch, a diary is posted online. The pain of admitting our wrong, the shame of being judged can feel like liberating penance, and we can start craving more or relying on these things. It happens more than we often think.
Ancient Israel kept coming to the serpent for healing until it worshipped the very image of its sin and brought it offerings. And then Hezekiah broke their dear relic into tiny little bits. I think about that, and about us. And then I think about Christianity.
To be continued…