Why’d it have to be snakes?

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 14, 2021

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

On the Friday before the Big Freeze here in Texas, I was standing outside, waiting to pick up my youngest son at the end of the school day. It was already pretty cold. So I turned up the heat after we got in the car, and that’s when my son immediately noticed a thin crack in the front windshield.

I had noticed it, too, earlier that day. And upon closer inspection, I could see where it started — a little round chip, like a small crater on the surface of the moon. I have no recollection of when that happened. I don’t remember a piece of gravel, or whatever it was, bouncing off my car with that distinctive sound that makes me wince for just a second or two. But that’s definitely where it started before stretching to the left and to the right across most of the breadth of the windshield. And then, as temperatures continued their descent into hell, the crack traveled in multiple zigzag directions.

That serpentine crack came to mind as I read this puzzling story about snakes from the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament.[1] Many Christians have never read this book or never made it to the end if they tried to read it. And rarely do we hear its words spoken aloud in public worship. There’s a beautiful blessing that the Lord, through Moses, gives to Aaron and his sons to use as priests to bless the Israelites. So we hear about that, we hear a strange story about prophecy, and we hear this weird memory of snakes in the wilderness. But that’s all we get if we’re just listening on Sundays.

Here the Israelites have been delivered from Egyptian slavery by the Lord’s hand. Food has also been provided for them so they’ll live. That food, called manna, is a daily miracle in the wilderness. This isn’t too hard for us to picture, right? We have been walking through a wilderness of restrictions.

Yet in the midst of that, the Lord has set a Table for us. Looking back, we can say that the Bread of Heaven hasn’t ceased to appear in this church, and it hasn’t ceased to be received by God’s people at our in-person services with Holy Communion over the last six months. That which gives life to the world is waiting to be given to you and other Christians as more and more of us feel we’re able to return safely with the measures we have in place. It’s as if a beautiful flower is about to start blooming through the rest of the year.

But the Bread of Heaven? It’s been here all along, and it’s available now.

That was true for the children of Israel, too, although the food provided for them was for physical sustenance rather than spiritual strength. But they complained about it. Yes, it was a miracle, but they complained nevertheless. At one point they yelled at Moses about not having meat, and the Lord gave them quail in abundance. Now they’re grumbling against Moses and God, basically saying, “These two? They don’t know what they’re doing. And this so-called food they keep giving us? Disgusting!”

What happens next is probably, for most of us, the unsettling part of this distant memory. It’s like that little chip in my windshield. I wasn’t exactly sure how it got there, but it just got worse and worse over time, to the point that someone with skills far beyond my own was needed to do something about it. There’s absolutely no way I could’ve fixed that problem myself.

Our translation of this text from the NRSV says “the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”[2] It implies that God was the direct source of a deadly judgement in response to their prickliness — a harsh sentence for a sour attitude.

At least one Jewish translation takes a step back, saying passively that “[the Lord] let fiery snakes go among the people.”[3] Maybe if they had respected venomous snakes a little more than they respected both God and Moses, they wouldn’t have been harmed. Maybe their carelessness wrought that.

Some folks take two steps back, saying these snakes are really a metaphor. Perhaps in the midst of a temper tantrum these wanderers in the desert began striking one another verbally with sharp tongues, infecting everyone with the all-too-deadly human poison of rumors and back-biting.

Whatever brought that about, whatever caused that chip in the glass, things got worse.  Those cracks began to spread, and people were suffering, people were dying. They needed something beyond their own abilities to help them, to heal them. Only when they were able to see that, and finally open their hearts, did they ask Moses to plead to the Lord on their behalf.

Now we would probably want this painful scene to be ended quickly through something like a healing wind from God that comes over the encampment. But in the pages of the Bible, the important part is also the weird part of this story. Moses is instructed to make a serpent of bronze and set it on a pole so that those who’ve been bitten by a snake can look at it and live.

How primitive! Can you seriously imagine walking into a doctor’s office in the 21st century and finding an image of a snake wrapped around a pole?

Wait a second . . . you can see snakes wrapped around poles throughout the Texas Medical Center. Whether it’s the Hebrew symbol of the bronze serpent of Moses or the Greek symbol of the rod of Asclepius, that image has represented healing and medicine for millennia and still does today.

Perhaps it’s related to taking something that can be dangerous and making it, counterintuitively, into something else that brings health. Think of snake venom being used to create a medicine, a scalpel being wielded to remove a tumor, a pathogen being transformed into a vaccine, or merely information about a virus being used to make an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

I don’t know what bronze-age people knew about snakes and healing. But I do believe God has been just as much at work in all these things, even in our own day, as God was when Moses lifted up that serpent in the wilderness.

And we have experiences of this healing in many other ways too. Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Christian philosopher who comes from a small town in Minnesota. He was one of my professors in divinity school. A couple of years ago, he said the most moving experience of teaching he’s ever had came not in a classroom at Yale University or inside a church building but at a prison.

Wolterstorff is mostly known for a small book called Lament for a Son, an unvarnished reflection on the death of one of his adult children. He says he had a curious sense while writing it that the words came to him, that he wasn’t searching for them, that they were plucked from the air, as it were, reminding me this week of Moses receiving something from God.[4]

Anyway, a group of prisoners was reading that book. And because he lived nearby, they invited Wolterstorff to come speak to them. So he did, talking for a few minutes and having them respond. This is how he described it:

Twenty guys in the room. Seventeen of them are in for life. . . . For ten minutes I’m utterly perplexed by what’s going on. They read a passage, and then make some comments. And I saw no connection between the passage that they read and their comments.

And then it occurred to me: Oh, they’re not reading this as Nick Wolterstorff’s lament for his son. They’re reading this as their lament. They were using my words for their lament. That’s what was going on. . . . And they were open. They didn’t conceal the fact that they had murdered their best friend, and that they ruined all their relationships. . . .

[They] could use my words to express [their] grief.[5]

The healing power of God was present inside that prison in the same way it was present in the wilderness when Moses lifted up the bronze serpent.

Now there are two footnotes to this snake story. The first comes centuries later in the Old Testament’s Second Book of Kings.[6] Apparently this bronze serpent, a symbol of healing, was preserved by the Israelites and later erected in Jerusalem, perhaps in the Temple itself. King Hezekiah had it destroyed finally because the people had been burning incense to it. So the material object through which the Holy One of Israel healed them had been turned into a kind of graven image forbidden in the Ten Commandments.

When I dropped off my car to get the windshield replaced, they very cleverly gave me a brand new car, same model, to drive around for a few days. It had an updated navigation system with a 3-D map. Here and there a random building was raised up on that map to use as a landmark. Memorial Hermann Medical Plaza, across the street, was the one of them. And just like in real life, day or night, I always know where Palmer is when I see it.

On a spiritual 3-D map, we might choose to raise up our church building instead. That would be a great landmark, a place where we are reoriented in a broken world and rediscover our relationship to God as beloved children.

The key is not to worship the building itself, forgetting that its beauty, like the beauty of the music that fills it and the rituals that animate it, creates a frame around the source of all of that beauty, which is nothing less than the presence of Christ — in the Word proclaimed, the Sacrament received, and the Body of Christ gathered, whether we are inside or outside its walls.

And that brings me to a second footnote from the New Testament’s Gospel of John.[7] We heard it in the words of Jesus this morning. He said, “Just 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.”[8] Jesus also said he had come not to condemn the world but to save it.

Jesus would be lifted up on the cross in another godforsaken place, so that all those suffering in a different kind of wilderness — all of us — can be healed. So look up to him, and know there’s mercy for each of us . . . today.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Numbers 21:4-9.

BACK TO POST Numbers 21:6.

BACK TO POST Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah with a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text (New York: HarperOne, 2003) 499.

BACK TO POST Nicholas Wolterstorff, interviewed by Scott Jones on “Episode 151: In this World of Wonders, with Nicholas Wolterstorff,” Give & Take Podcast, October 1, 2009.

BACK TO POST Wolterstorff.

BACK TO POST II Kings 18:1-4.

BACK TO POST John 3:14-21.

BACK TO POST John 3:14-15.