When I was a new third grade teacher I kept a file box of “emergency ideas.” An emergency, in this case, was an extra five or ten minutes to fill after the math lesson was completed, say, and before the class was scheduled to go to the library. Any teacher knows that five minutes of unstructured time in a third grade classroom is deadly. My “emergency ideas” included things like an oral math game that could be shortened or extended as necessary, the title of a picture book that could be read to the class in just a few minutes, a writing prompt. When I was discussing this with one of my fellow teachers she said, “Ask them if they’ve ever seen a snake. Every third grader has a snake story.” I doubted her, but she was right. Ask any third grade class if anyone has seen a snake, and every hand will shoot up into the air—even the hand of the kid who never participates in any class discussion.
The people of Israel have a fabulous, though quite odd, snake story.
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against 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 detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. [From Numbers 21]
This snake story sounds more like magic than like faith, like something done by a shaman instead of by the monotheist who received the Law.
The people have been released from slavery—woohoo! They are on their way to the promised land, but they learn what all of us do: wherever we go, there we are. We don’t leave the bad parts of our selves behind. So, they start complaining about the food. They get impatient. And hateful. And snarky.
God sends a plague of snakes. Poisonous snakes. That gets their attention. When they cry out for help, the plague of snakes isn’t removed, but they are told to look at the bronze serpent and they will be healed of the poison.
It’s a terribly odd story, but it does capture the imagination. It captured Jesus’ imagination, and he used the bronze snake as a symbol of himself lifted up on the cross.
Just what is this wild story about?
Snakes, in ancient cultures, were nearly always the symbol of evil. Think Genesis. So when snakes overrun the camp, we might imagine it as symbolic of the evil that had entered into the camp already. What plays out in this story is the tangible metaphor—snakes—of the poisonous thoughts and attitudes of the people.
For although they thought they could get along without God out there, they’d already forgotten what God had done for them.
We may try to put evil behind us. We move to a quiet town in Kentucky, put our kids in safe schools, drive past horse farms on the way to work. But we cannot escape conflict, disorder, illness and death because they live wherever we are.
Snakes are a reminder that there are things we should be afraid of—our own behavior, for example—but we blithely ignore them. God’s punishment to the people in the desert was to show them what it’s really like to be confronted with our selves, with the evil within and the evil without. Most of the time those things are in check, but here’s what it’s like when they’re not: it’s like a plague of snakes.
Snakes suggest to the Israelites that there is still an unpredictability to life; that survival hangs in the balance between life and death; that God is the source of our help and strength.
God so loved the world.
We cannot on our own banish the snakes of our own bad behavior, the serpents of evil around us, the poison of our own words, shortcomings, failings. We lift our hearts to see the love of God who does for us what we cannot accomplish for ourselves.