Happy Snake Sunday! This story from the Book of Numbers is one of the stranger Scripture stories that appears in the Sunday lectionary. There are LOTS of strange stories in Scripture, but the lectionary avoids many of them!This one made the cut because Jesus alludes to it, in his conversation with Nicodemus in the Gospel of John.Nicodemus is a religious leader who has come to Jesus by night, to learn what this strange prophet from Galilee has to say.
We keep an image of Nicodemus and Jesus’ nighttime talk in a central place in our icon wall, because I know that there are many in this congregation who feel akin to Nicodemus – perplexed, almost embarrassed by being drawn to Jesus, and yet showing up, to sit at his feet and puzzle over his words.
In John’s Gospel today, we are still early in Jesus’ ministry. He has gathered his first disciples. He’s performed – unwillingly – his first public miracle, the changing of water into wine at a family wedding. He’s come to Jerusalem at Passover, the great festival of the Jewish people – and was so offended by the commerce in the Temple court that he set loose the animals and attacked the vendors. It’s during that visit to Jerusalem that Nicodemus seeks him out, for a conversation that probably leaves Nicodemus more confused than ever. I must be born anew? How can a person be born a second time? The wind blows where it chooses and nobody knows where it comes from or where it goes? What does that mean? And who is the Son of Man, and how will he be “lifted up” like the bronze serpent in the ancient story? …
The story of the bronze serpent falls late in the wilderness time, the forty years the people Israel spent wandering in desert wastes between their escape, their exodus, from Egypt, and their arrival in the land where they would settle as their new home. As the Godly Play desert stories remind us, very little grows in the desert. It’s very hard to find food. So God has sustained the people on their long journey with manna – this strange food like sweet wafers that appears on the ground each morning. Bread from heaven. The Hebrew word “manna” means, “What’s that?” A miracle and a mystery. But the Israelites have a tendency to grumble – they started as soon as soon as they left Egypt – and it’s been a long journey now, and frankly, they’re pretty tired of manna. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food!”
I like to say this is not one of God’s best parenting moments, as the story tells it. God sent poisonous – literally, “fiery” – serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many died. Why serpents – snakes? Well – there ARE poisonous snakes in that region, so it’s a hazard the people might reasonably have encountered on their journey. But within the terms of the story, the snake made a different kind of sense: in the Garden of Eden, in the story of the Fall, the serpent was the first creature to propagate fake news and stir up discontent – urging Eve and Adam to do what God had forbidden. So perhaps people understood the proliferation of venomous snake bites as a fitting punishment from God for complaining in the face of divine providence.
The people repent: “We have sinned by speaking against Yahweh God and against you; pray to Yahweh to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prays for the people, and God relents – but not simply by healing the snakebites. Instead, God orders Moses to create a bronze serpent on a pole, and hold it up where people can see it. The people still get bitten by the snakes – the danger remains. But God offers healing IF they look for it – if they choose it. The choice is theirs – life or death.
I’ve talked a little about the Mishnah before. It’s a body of Jewish commentary on the Old Testament scriptures. Much of it was written down in the first two centuries of the common era – the same time our New Testament was being written – but many of the ideas and teachings of the Mishnah are older, passed down from rabbi to rabbi. It’s fascinating and informative to study – not least because Jesus may well have been familiar with these teachings, and so studying the Mishnah may help us understand how Jesus interpreted the Old Testament. The Mishnah says this about the bronze serpent in Numbers: “Did the serpent kill, or did the serpent preserve life? Rather, when the Jewish people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they were healed.”
(Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 29a)
I think that’s very much the sense in which Jesus uses the image of the bronze serpent. Martha Gillette, a friend from seminary whose wonderful sermon on these texts informs my words today, summed it up this way:
“The point Jesus is making to Nicodemus is that as God offered God’s people the means to attain physical life in the midst of the sinful reality of the physical world by raising up the bronze serpent, so God will offer God’s people the means to attain spiritual life in the midst of the sinful reality of the spiritual world by raising up God’s own Son.The choice still remains theirs – and ours – salvation or condemnation, life or death, coming into the light, or remaining in the darkness.”
The point of the serpent – the point of the Cross – is to lift our eyes and hearts and minds towards God. But the afterlife of the bronze serpent reminds us how bad we are at remembering that.
Moses – or somebody – kept the bronze serpent. The people carried it into the Promised Land, and eventually it joined other sacred artifacts as an object of devotion for the people.They care for it and honor it for centuries – until King Hezekiah breaks it.
King Hezekiah was the 14th king of Judah, in the late 8th and early 7th century before Jesus. A couple of hundred years earlier, King David’s once-unified kingdom had split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel, with its capital at Samaria, and the southern kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem. Hezekiah witnessed the fall of Israel, conquered by the Assyrians, its people killed or exiled. He feared a similar fate for his kingdom, Judah – and he feared that God was not protecting Judah, because the people were not faithful to God. Hezekiah called the people back to worship only Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Moses and David, the God of Deborah and Naomi and Hannah.
Hezekiah enacted wide-ranging religious reforms: forbidding the worship of other gods, tearing down idols and hilltop shrines, destroying the objects that were worshipped even in the Temple in Jerusalem – and breaking in pieces the bronze snake that Moses had made.
Wait a minute! This is not some foreign idol! This is an ancient holy object made by Moses himself, AT GOD’S COMMAND, to save the people! Why would the King of Judah, a king loyal to God, break this beloved, revered, symbol of God’s healing and saving power?
Because the people were worshipping it. The text says, “[Hezekiah] broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.”
The people were making offerings to it – as if it were a god. It even had a name – as if it were a god. People had begun to worship the thing – instead of the God for whom the thing was only a tool. Second Kings suggests that far from being cross about the destruction of the bronze snake, God was quite pleased.
Chapter 18 says, “[Hezekiah] did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done… He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. The Lord was with him; wherever he went, he prospered.”
When it was first made, the bronze serpent was raised high, that the people might turn, and look towards God, and find salvation and healing. But over time, the serpent itself became the focus of veneration and prayer. People forgot that, like all holy objects, it was only a symbol, a gesture, towards something else. They gave their hope, their faith, their loyalty to the thing, instead of the greater reality the thing pointed towards.
Well, what can you do? Ancient people were superstitious and ignorant. It’s not a mistake we sophisticated modern people would make. Is it? …
The Old Testament has a number of wonderful diatribes against idolatry – worshiping false gods. And I tell you, friends, some of those passages ring so true to me. You make a thing and you forget that you have made it! You believe it has power to help you, you trust in it, you LOVE it – even though it’s made of wood and stone, silicone and plastic – even though it will break, fail, become obsolete, shatter on the sidewalk.
We have bronze snakes of our own, friends. Even in the Episcopal Church. Beloved, hallowed objects and habits, passed down to us from Moses Himself (probably), that were meant to point us towards God – to open a window to the Divine – but become the focus of our attention instead.
The Episcopal Church is currently talking about prayer book revision. This one is forty years old, and there’s some stuff that could be better. I’ve been reading some of the conversations and commentary about it – and the idea of changing the prayer book stirs up so much fear and rage for some people.
And then there’s the Hymnal. We’re planning Easter music right now; I warn Deanna, our music director, about the songs we HAVE TO SING or it won’t really be Easter.I joke about it as if I weren’t subject to the same yearnings – as if I didn’t have my own inner must-sing lists.
People visiting St. Dunstan’s say, now and then, Oh, do you ever worship in the round, with an altar in the middle? And I say, Oh, that would be nice, I really like the theology of worship in the round, but our high altar is so beautiful; people would really miss it if we weren’t using it…
This is one of the many things Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus:
The tools God gave the people to show the way, to help, heal, guide – the Law and the Prophets, the covenants and the codes – they’ve become ends in themselves, rather than means to an end.
As humans, we seem prone to let the thing become as important – more important – than what it points to. And suddenly we’re burning incense to a metal snake. Anytime we put more emphasis on preserving customs, traditions, things, than on praising, thanking, loving, seeking God. Even the Bible itself is supposed to lead us to what’s beyond it. To be the map, not the territory. The door, not the palace.
We’ve turned the corner in the season of Lent, friends. The Sunday after next is Palm Sunday – when we turn our attention to the Cross, and to Jesus raised upon it. It’s a good moment to think about our bronze snakes – those things to which we cling, because they seem familiar, and concrete, and safe. Those things to which we look for life, rather than looking towards the God who is the Source of life.
As we look towards the Cross, in the weeks ahead, may our eyes not linger there too long, but look beyond, to the gracious mystery towards which it points, the God who is our hope and our healing. Amen.