Continued from “On serpent and the cross. Part I.”
You must admit, one can hardly keep from eisegesis when one is a Christian holding Numbers 21. “Eisegesis” is reading meaning into the text rather than out of it. The authors of the bronze serpent story didn’t have the Christ in mind, but we discern the Christ there anyway. Christians started doing this two thousand years ago: A first-century Jewish sect who believed that the Messiah had come and every prophecy had been fulfilled, they did exactly what the Rabbis and Pharisees were doing—interpreting the Bible—but with a singular purpose: to find the Christ in every verse. And they did. It wasn’t very hard.
This is a picture taken at Mount Nebo in Jordan. This sculpture, depicting Moses’s staff and the brazen serpent entwined round it, reigns atop the ridge, from where you can see the Promised Land lying open to your eyes. Here on Mount Nebo, according to the Torah, Moses met his death. And this sculpture is Christian.
I don’t know what Moses’s staff would have looked like, probably not quite like this—it’s a pretty lofty artistic depiction—but it can’t be too far off. The staff would not be just a stick, it would need at least a branch or two for the serpent to hang on. It would look at least a little like… Like this. It would look like a cross. With a serpent hanging on it. A dead serpent. A symbol of a serpent.
It brings about a counterintuitive feeling. Could this picture really bear any sort of resemblance to the messianic message of salvation, restoration, and unconditional love? Could the symbol of sin be associated in any way with the Savior the tradition declares to be sinless?
It is. It may not have been the first thought for many of us, but one line in the Gospel of John makes us stop and take another, long look at Numbers 21 and see it in a whole new light. In the Gospel of John, Jesus explains to Nicodemus the Pharisee what it means to be “born again,” and he says:
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
John 3:14-15 (NASB)
And then he says:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
John 3:16 (NASB)
In the prelude to one of the most famous Gospel lines, Jesus compares himself to a symbol of sin hanging on a wooden staff.
It is most common for Jesus to be viewed in early Christianity as the new Moses—especially in the “Jewish” Gospel of Matthew. There are numerous parallels in the nativity of Matthew between Jesus and Moses, and more. Jesus is the one who leads God’s people home out of spiritual exile and from the slavery of sin to the freedom of renewed Covenant, the one who delivers the Word of God and the food that nourishes and the water that quenches all thirst—but what he brings will last forever. New birth. New Jerusalem. New Moses. New, everlasting life.
It would be easy to read Numbers 21 and compare Jesus with Moses, except…the author of John doesn’t. The “mystical” Gospel catches on to the most crucial feature of the story both in Numbers and in the Passion of Christ: In the cosmic mystery of salvation, the Christ is not holding the cross; he is hanging on it. And in the myth of Numbers 21, Moses is only an instrument; in the end, the sinful throngs are saved by their personal encounter with that which is hanging on the cross.
In principle, this parallel would feel quite natural to a Christian mind: The suffering Israel, stung by the sin-bearing serpent, raises its hopeful eyes to the cross and receives salvation. What stops us cold and dead in our tracks, what boggles our minds is how the source of salvation borne by the cross can be a snake, bronze or any other kind. How could the Johannine Jesus compare himself overtly to this epitomization of Sin? What was he thinking?
Well… New Moses is not the only role Jesus plays in the early Christian tradition. All over the scriptures—in the traditions rooted in Luke and Paul—he is also New Adam. He is both the antithesis of the first man’s pride and folly and the fulfillment of his human potential, not just man but Son of Man, finally the perfect confluence of divine breath and human nature as they were originally intended, the first man to heal the divide broken open by Adam. As much, therefore, as Adam is identified in a Christian mind with original sin, Jesus is the opposite of it. He is the escape.
Christianity doesn’t speak much of fighting fire with fire, rather the contrary. Go the extra mile; turn the other cheek. We tend to think of fighting fire with water, violence with peace, sin with holiness. We tend to think of the Christ as the One who brought light into darkness, broke the chain of hatred with a sacrifice of love and died for it and triumphed over death by rising into eternal life. But if we stop to consider, we remember that the horror-filled experience of Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday are inseparable from and integral to the Christian narrative of salvation. Those are the times when humanity comes brutally and honestly face to face with its own sin and its consequences.
That Numbers 21, from the point of view of Christian prophecy, would be a metaphoric foreshadowing of the Passion, I think, we have already established. The question I’ve been asking is: can we reconcile the image of a bronze serpent with a metaphor for Christ? And at this point, I say, “Yes. Very easily.”
The image that goes up on Moses’s standard is not of the sinful humanity, it’s not of pride or folly or faithlessness—it’s not really of sin. It’s of the source of sin, defeated and overcome. And facing its horrible consequence—traveling to the depths of despair, to the brink of death and encountering what it looks like when the root of the worst of sin has been fought to the end—is what shakes Israel free, stuns it back to life, makes it painfully aware of what matters and why. Makes it understand and saves it.
That, in essence, is the human story of Good Friday, too. In some very ancient depictions, Christians did not draw a human figure on a cross. They drew, carrying a cross or in front of it, a white lamb. A lamb, the biblical symbol of perfection, innocence, and sacrifice. These are symbolic progenitors of the crucifix, and in a twisted, agonizing kind of sense, a dead serpent on a tree is the crucifix’s flip side. Its darker, honest aspect. Its Good Friday look that must be truly seen for Easter to come. Because Christianity cannot be the tradition of hope, love, and joy without the day when it stands before a wooden cross on which hangs the very image of the root of human sin: murdered innocence. Our crime. Our death. Our never-ending pain. Only if we face it with our eyes open, take it in, recognize our hand in it can we be shaken free, the fire that consumes us burned out with the fire of Passion.
It’s not an easy thing, to see the serpent and the lamb on a cross together, aspects of the same Christ. But only if we recognize ourselves in the deaths of the serpent and the lamb can we rise with Christ to life. There isn’t Easter Sunday without Good Friday. There isn’t the Gospel without Numbers 21.
There’s only one thing we must make carefully sure of: that we not bring our offerings to a symbol on a cross. That we never come to worship an image of our sin. So yet another prophet doesn’t have to come again, and then again, to smash the idols we create in fear and short-sightedness, and shove us yet anew face first into serpent venom and shake us free, and show us what matters. And save us from ourselves.