Today I am focussing on one of today’s lectionary readings, this strange, disturbing story of the bronze serpent from the book of Numbers.
Have you ever been on a country walk where the person responsible for navigating has messed up the map reading? This has happened to Sue several times since we got to know each other. Only last autumn we were wearily trudging the last few miles after a long day in the mountains of South Western Lakeland. I was the mapreader for the day. The route I had planned cut through a large forest on its way down to the railway station where we would catch a train back to our lodgings. Only when we got to the edge of the forest we found the path was closed for logging operations. Oh no! We would have to make a long detour, and we were already tired and ready for our dinner. In such circumstances there is sometimes a temptation for those being led to grumble about their leader.....
In our passage today we have the people of Israel making a long weary detour to bypass the land of Edom, whose belligerent, powerful people will not allow them passage. Aaron has just died on the journey, and been buried with 30 days solemn mourning, and there has been bitter fighting with a small Canaanite kingdom at Atharim. The thrilling events of the Exodus, when they were rescued by the hand of God from slavery in Egypt, seem a long long time ago, and the promised land is an ever-receding mirage as they tramp on through the heat and dust, on short rations and low on water. Not surprisingly, they start to grumble. If they were British, the grumbling would probably have started much earlier! They have lost hope that they will survive this desert ordeal. They are tired of eating the same food day after day. They are worried about water supplies. And they blame Moses (and God) for ever rescuing them from their comfortable bondage in Egypt.
God’s response is shockingly drastic. He sends a plague of venomous, aggressive snakes into the camp, so poisonous that many of the Israelites die when bitten. Faced with this deadly onslaught they quickly repent of their grumbling, and God tells Moses to make a bronze effigy of the snake that is tormenting them. Whoever looks at the bronze serpent is miraculously cured of the poison and lives.
There are strong echoes in this story of Genesis 3. Israel’s sin of grumbling, which amounts to a failure to trust in God and obey his directions, is essentially identical with Adam and Eve’s primal sin, when they refused to trust in God’s wisdom and providence, and disobeyed his mysterious command to avoid the fruit of a particular tree. And of course the serpent in the Garden who tempts our first ancestors and so brings trouble and sorrow and death into the world, is clearly the ancestor of these fire-coloured snakes who bring pain and death into the Israelite camp.
So we can read Numbers 21 as almost another Fall myth, a striking parable of the human predicament. God’s people grumble and disobey, bringing God’s judgement on themselves. Just read today’s papers - who can deny that there are deadly snakes among us? Terrible things are loose in the world – terrorism, plagues, nuclear weapons, murder, corruption, racism, torture, greed, climate change, habitat destruction, mass extinction, civil wars, proxy wars, the war on terror, wars without end – and we seem to be powerless to stop them from biting us, poisoning us, killing us. But the story also offers us hope that God will provide a remedy.
In Salisbury cathedral there’s a suitably dramatic 18th century window depicting this moment, with a stern, muscular Moses pointing to the bronze serpent on its cross-like pole, surrounded by a writhing crowd of agonized Israelites. The window is set high up, looming over the high altar where the eucharist is celebrated.
In our second reading, from John’s Gospel Chapter 3, Jesus identifies himself with God’s strange medicine, the bronze snake on a pole.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
So Jesus sees Moses lifting up the serpent as prefiguring his own lifting up on the cross of crucifixion. As Son of Man he identifies himself with our sins and sorrows, and by his own suffering brings us eternal life. Paul shines a light on this in 2 Corinthians chapter 5:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
So Christ’s death on the cross effects a substitution – on the cross he identifies so closely with “that old serpent” Satan, with sin and its punishment death, that he paradoxically brings about Satan’s defeat at the moment of his own death, and buys back the human race from sin and its bitter consequences.
Is that all that can be said about this text? Maybe – but in our homegroup we have been studying Lloyd Pieterson’s book “Reading the Bible after Christendom”, and I am learning from him to be suspicious of readings whose implicit message is “shut up and do what you’re told”. So before we go home I invite you to don your anabaptist spectacles and have one more look at this old story from the Torah. Can it be read perhaps as a parable of Christendom?
We have Moses, a charismatic leader who rules in God’s name. Political power and religious authority are united in one man, even more so since the death of Aaron. In this theocratic setup, dissenting voices are most unwelcome, and when questions are asked about Moses’ leadership, then God/Moses responds with lethal violence – death is dealt out indiscriminately by a plague of snakes until the people are brought back to a more compliant attitude. The punishment – painful death on a mass scale - seems disproportionate to the relatively trivial crime of a bit of harmless grumbling.
States often fear dissenting voices, and respond with escalating harshness. It’s a story that’s been repeated many many times in humanity’s sad history. And sadly it carries on today: in Syria protest marches are met with bullets, arrests and torture; in China, the voice of Tibetan Buddhism is being systematically silenced.
The Israelites only find release from their sufferings when they submit in repentance. They are required to look submissively at an image of the instrument of their oppression – the fiery serpent – acquiescing in the right of Moses to wield lethal force against them in the name of God. There is something almost Orwellian about this – the citizen is required not only to obey Big Brother, but also to love him.
So what does it mean when Jesus identifies himself with this story in John 3? Firstly, we should remember that Jesus himself is the archetypal dissenting voice. He loudly and repeatedly criticizes those who wield political power in God’s name. Just watch Pasolini’s wonderful film “The Gospel According to St Matthew” to get a powerful picture of Jesus as the angry young man. Jesus threatens the uneasy status quo, in the process undermining the compromised position of the Temple authorities and their accommodation with the Roman Empire. So they decide he must be silenced. Once more the state will employ lethal force to safeguard its position.
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” (John 11:49-50 ESV)
So on the cross, Jesus meets and absorbs in his body the state’s lethal violence.
I’m no theologian, but Sue tells me that Girard’s theology of the atonement revolves around the idea of truth-telling. Human societies maintain the status quo by means of scapegoating, deflecting their dangerous hostilities towards a guilty outsider. The death of Jesus exposes the scapegoating mechanism for what it is.
Violence is unable to bear the presence of a being that owes it nothing – that pays it no homage and threatens its kingship in the only way possible. (Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World)
So in the death of Jesus we are confronted with our own violence and the violence of the state. We see clearly that there is nothing we will not do to protect our own position and privileges, no-one we will not kill to keep them quiet – even God. More than that, we see that Jesus is there alongside every political prisoner, every Syrian shot or tortured for speaking out against the regime, every jailed or forcibly resettled Tibetan.
So, an ancient tale from the Torah, and two quite different readings:
Sin and punishment, substitution and atonement.
Or Christendom and dissent, violence and truth-telling.
Mutually exclusive readings? Well I’d be reluctant to lose either of them, and I hope they both shed a little light on the central mystery of our faith as we approach Easter.