in Numbers 21, the people of Israel encounter one of those wilderness experiences. Moses has successfully got the people out of the slavery. slavery is bad, right? right?
but slavery also means that there is someone else, someone ‘above’ taking care of the logistics of life, the food, the homes, the jobs – as long as a slave is useful, they are cared for, like any good machinery. yet for generations grown up in slavery, freedom was a dream, an aim, something to strive for. Freedom is good, right?
but freedom means to get one’s own food, and eat what one gets, and build one’s own home, and fight one’s own battles – with others or oneself, with hunger or nature; it means to look for one’s own aim and ideology, and follow this choice without help or oppression.
from the viewpoint of the dream-freedom, wilderness is far better than slavery. from the viewpoint of being hungry in the wilderness… guess what? slavery seems to be the wonderful memory. things get complicated for recently freed people when they enter wilderness.
and the people experienced the darkside – or the dry side – of the wilderness in full. they did not like it, not at all. and they did what slaves do best: they complained. of the shelter, of food, of everything; they needed an ‘authority’ to provide for them, there and then.
the authority heard. and did.
this is where the snakes come in.
in ancient Egypt, snakes were feared (Apep, the chaos snake), or revered (Wadjet, the kingly cobra, patroness of the River delta); snakes were never taken lightly; in other places in the region, serpent was the symbol of fertility or rebirth. in the tradition of the bible, snake is the embodiment of the evil one, the tempter.
so it is rather ironic for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to send the reptiles among his complaining, reluctant worshipers.
the snakes were a sign, clearly – either of the deities of fertility of the places the Israelites had just left (see the true face of the gods of your oppressors), or of what happens when those who have just obtained their freedom want to go renegade (see what happens when you refuse the protection of God your saviour). in any case, they were ‘fiery’ and definitely poisonous. and many, and everywhere.
what kind of god sends snakes to bite his worshipers as soon as they start complaining of life, universe and everything? the kind of God who listens, the kind of God who thinks, and is quick to anger. the kind of God who teaches by object lessons. the kind of God who actually cares.
and the people quickly put the one and the other together (complaining and snakes, and death), and repent. they ask for forgiveness, and they receive it.
God tells Moses to make a ‘fiery’ snake out of copper, and to rise it up on a pole, so that anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed.
the snake on the pole survived long after that – it is destroyed by Hezekiah some 200 or more years later.
so, what of the snake story? what of the wilderness story? how is this relevant to the people of today, who tend to read selected passages of the new testament and would rather put all the unpleasantries of hell off till the latter days, and bask in the mercy of god in the days that are here and now?
this is how it is relevant to us here and now:
when the wilderness of the first exodus became a thing of the past, and the people became slaves to inner drive(r)s, and their souls cried out to god from the slavery of sin, God heard them, like he had in the days of the slavery of egypt.
the sins poisoned the living souls, and many were dead or dying inside. and another healing body was raised up on a pole for those dying to see and be made whole again. the Son of God, God himself stretched out his arms on that cross to embrace the world, to return it to life.
God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
so that we of today, when we feel bitter, when we feel like complaining that life is unjust, and nobody loves me, and all is horribly wrong, and expect, or even demand some ‘authority’ to solve our slave problems for us… so that in our dying inside, we could rise our eyes to that man, to that God … and be healed, and be made well again, and live.