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Snakes on a Pole

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 11, 2018)
Numbers 21:4-9 – “Snakes on a Pole”

Jesus referenced today’s Old Testament lesson in the passage from John’s gospel Sylvia just read. But before we get to it, I have to be honest in saying that to preach from the Lectionary, on some Sundays, is truly a discipline because there are some odd and disturbing passages in our holy book I’d rather avoid. Some years ago, scholars and preachers began calling these odd and disturbing passages “texts of terror.” This episode from the 21st chapter of Numbers is definitely one of those! You’ll soon see why.

But first, let’s set a little context since this is only one of three times the lectionary includes a reading from the Book of Numbers. Where we are in the saga of Israel is after Egypt, pre-arrival in the Promised Land. God has liberated the Israelites from slavery, led them through the sea, and given them the Ten Commandments, and they are still in the midst of their 40-year season of wandering in the wilderness.

… and it’s not going well. Let’s listen to the story.

They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” So the Sovereign One sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.

The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the Sovereign One and you. Pray to the Sovereign One so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Sovereign One said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live.

This is Holy Wisdom, Holy Word… Thanks be to God.

How terrifying is this story?!

If you count yourself among the roughly ⅓ of Americans who are afraid of snakes, this has to give you the heebie jeebies!

Does anyone know the medical term for the fear of snakes, by the way? It’s ophidiophobia.

For we ophidiophobes out there, especially those who live, hike, walk dogs, or step onto our back porches in Baja Arizona, this is a harrowing text. Can you imagine? Wandering around in the desert for who knows how long. You’re hungry. You’re tired. You’re complaining. Oh the complaining! The “murmuring tradition,” as it’s called in Biblical studies. You/we are murmuring about how slavery in Egypt was bad and all, but not nearly as bad as being stuck out here in this wilderness. We’re complaining about the food and the lack of water—even though the One who broke your chains in the first place continues to provide—because the selection of manna and quail has gotten bland. We’re also complaining about the leadership, or lack thereof, again. Moses has born the brunt of our criticism before, but now it’s against Moses and God.

So what happens?

The Sovereign One sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.

Just imagine that for a minute. Nests of poisonous snakes slithering out from under their rocks, striking at your heels, biting the gaps between your sandal straps.


[On a side note: this is sort of hilarious to me, in a dark way, when I put myself in Moses position. “That’ll teach ‘em,” I’d whisper to Aaron.]

Which makes this text as troubling as it is terrifying, especially to our postmodern ears. It brings up the idea of a vengeful God, one who uses retributive violence to make a point. It’s not only an unsophisticated notion; it’s a destructive idea as well, for reasons we don’t need to go into here.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a noted author and former Chief Rabbi in the United Kingdom, writes this about the hard texts in the Bible:

“Every text needs interpretation. Every interpretation needs wisdom. Every wisdom needs careful negotiation between the timeless and time. Fundamentalism reads texts as if God were as simple as we are. That is unlikely to be true.” [1]

Assuming this portrayal of God can’t be taken at face value, let’s do some interpretation…

The original hearers of the story were of an ancient mindset in which amulets and talismans, objects that had magical, healing properties, were common. The thinking was that one way of being released of a particular evil power was to look upon an image of it.

But what’s with the snakes?

We have a mixed relationship with these creatures, as a species, don’t we? They’re equal parts fear and fascination. Think of Medusa’s hair… and the medical symbol, “the Rod of Asclepius,” which came from Greek culture. Do you know that one? A rod entertwined with a snake that’s a symbol for healing. We’re both attracted to a repelled by images of serpents. Earlier in the Bible, the serpent from the Garden of Eden story in Genesis is thought by later Christian interpreters to be the devil, but in the Hebrew imagination this was not automatically the case. The serpent could personify wisdom itself, too.

Like I said, a mixed relationship.

Even the writers and editors of the Book of Numbers are mischievously toying with the snake idea here. The Hebrew words for serpent and bronze sound very similar: nahash and nehoshet. And the word for poison here, seraph (as in the angel), literally means “fiery.” The emphasis is on the burning sensation of the bite.

All that is to say that the imagery and wordplay in this passage lend themselves to metaphor.

The snakes stand in for that which is severely toxic to us. That which arouses our fear. That which kills us.

And what Moses does (at God’s command, mind you) is equally strange: to fashion an image of the very thing that kills, an image that, if looked upon, heals.

The poison becomes the cure.

Speaking of cures for snake bites, did you know that the University of Arizona has an institute for studying this kind of thing? I didn’t know that until this week. It’s called the Venom Immunochemistry, Pharmacology and Emergency Response (VIPER) Institute. I read in a Washington Post article that “the most common rattlesnake antivenom… involves injecting sheep with snake venom and then harvesting the antibodies produced by the animals’ immune systems.”

The cure for the thing comes from using the thing itself!

Moses tells the Israelites to look directly at the things that harmed them in the first place. The snakes symbolize (and this is my interpretation here) their toxic thinking. Their bitterness. Their defeatist mentality. Their lack of trust in the One who liberated them.

Moses instructed them to face that which is toxic head on by wrapping it around a pole. Look right at it. No, don’t look away!

That doesn’t suit us well, though. We’d rather reroute our way around “the thing.” We’re better at side-stepping, ignoring, minimizing, or denying the harm we do to others or ourselves.

It often takes confronting something head-on—lifting it up, if you will—to get a brutally honest look at the extent of the problem.

And it’s a paradox that the path toward healing goes through suffering. The path toward transformation goes through the old ways, not around, over, or beneath, but through them.

This is true on a personal level. If you’ve ever suffered an addiction yourself or loved someone who lives with one, you may know about “bottoming out.” One has to pass through the lowest point on the way to recovery, through the most intense experience of the poison itself. What’s the fourth step in the Twelve Steps process? “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” To look the problem square in the face.

It’s true on a social level, too. Horace McMillon, a Mennonite pastor in Mississippi, in a commentary on this passage, wrote about how the funeral of Emmett Till, a young African-American man who was killed in 1955 by white supremacists, was a turning point in the struggle for civil rights:

Mamie Till Bradley [Emmett’s mother] would not allow the injustice that had been done to her son to be hidden in the shadows. She took the radical steps of insisting not only on a public funeral service for her son, she also demanded that his body be placed in an open casket. She demanded that the world be forced to see what racism in all its forms, personal, cultural and institutional had done to her son. His image was lifted up, front and center, published in (black) newspapers all around the country… In that horrific viewing many were finally able to fully see, grasp and comprehend the width, breadth and depth of the evil of racism and the sin white supremacy. It was no longer possible to live with the lie that things were not that bad. Redemption and transformation came when people of courage and good will, black people, white people, people of all races, eyes fully opened, began at that moment to live their lives in response to the ugly truth of Emmett Till being lifted up.

We are living in an age in which the “snakes” among us are being lifted up. Whether that’s the evils of white supremacy, or sexism, or greed, or violence, that which has always been so toxic to human souls and human community is being lifted up in ways that are harder to ignore. The internet and other communication technology and media are, in unprecedented ways, forcing us to face the fiery poison in our common life. Think about it… #BlackLivesMatter #MeToo #March4OurLives.

And we as Christians (Christians of racial, economic, and gender privilege) can’t look away, especially in this season of Lent, in this time for reflection and repentance. I think one shade of meaning of the cross and resurrection—why Jesus in John’s gospel weaves together his own suffering with the other story, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up”—is that God transforms symbols of death into symbols of life, not in a way that endorses evil, but in a way that exposes it for what it is.

God sometimes uses our worst to redeem us.

The poison becomes the cure.

Whatever poisons us in our own hearts, in our families and other circles, in our society, let us confess it, look up to it, and live.

[1] Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (2015), p. 207.