07 March 2012

Serpents of bronze and the gift of life (Numbers 21: 4-9)

Moses and the serpents … an image in stained glass

Patrick Comerford

The readings provided in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Sunday week, 18 March 2012, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, are: Numbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2: 1-10; John 3: 14-21.

There is a typographical error in the Church of Ireland Directory 2012, which gives the Old Testament reading as Numbers 21: 4-9, although the correct reading is given in The Book of Common Prayer (2004) (see p. 36), and on the Church of Ireland website.

However, there are other provisions for that Sunday. The lectionary provisions for Mothering Sunday (Exodus 2: 10 or I Samuel 1: 20-28; Psalm 34: 11-20 or Psalm 127: 1-4; II Corinthians 1: 3-7 or Colossians 3: 12-17; Luke 2: 33-35 or John 19: 25-27).

I am enough of a realist to realise that many parishes are going to opt for those readings, and some may even use the readings provided for Saint Patrick’s Day (17 March), which falls the previous day (Tobit 13: 1b-7 or Deuteronomy 32: 1-9; Psalm 145: 1-13; II Corinthians 4: 1-12; John 4: 31-38).

But if either of these sets of readings is used, then we miss the opportunity for continuity in our Lenten readings and the opportunity for continuity in Lent itself. So, for our Bible study in our tutorial group this morning, I have prepared notes on the Old Testament reading provided for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Numbers 21: 4-9), and we shall be using the RCL readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent in two weeks’ time at our Community Eucharist on Wednesday 21 March, when the intern deacons are back here for a residential week.

Sunrise on Mount Sinai (Photograph: Richard Beck)

Numbers 21: 4-9

4 Καὶ ἀπάραντες ἐξ ῍Ωρ τοῦ ὄρους ὁδὸν ἐπὶ θάλασσαν ἐρυθρὰν περιεκύκλωσαν γῆν ᾿Εδώμ· καὶ ὠλιγοψύχησεν ὁ λαὸς ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ. 5 καὶ κατελάλει ὁ λαὸς πρὸς τὸν Θεὸν καὶ κατὰ Μωυσῆ λέγοντες· ἱνατί τοῦτο; ἐξήγαγες ἡμᾶς ἐξ Αἰγύπτου, ἀποκτεῖναι ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ; ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν ἄρτος οὐδὲ ὕδωρ, ἡ δὲ ψυχὴ ἡμῶν προσώχθισεν ἐν τῷ ἄρτῳ τῷ διακένῳ τούτῳ. 6 καὶ ἀπέστειλε Κύριος εἰς τὸν λαὸν τοὺς ὄφεις τοὺς θανατοῦντας, καὶ ἔδακνον τὸν λαόν, καὶ ἀπέθανε λαὸς πολὺς τῶν υἱῶν ᾿Ισραήλ. 7 καὶ παραγενόμενος ὁ λαὸς πρὸς Μωυσῆν ἔλεγον· ὅτι ἡμάρτομεν, ὅτι κατελαλήσαμεν κατὰ τοῦ Κυρίου καὶ κατὰ σοῦ· εὖξαι οὖν πρὸς Κύριον, καὶ ἀφελέτω ἀφ' ἡμῶν τὸν ὄφιν. καὶηὔξατο Μωυσῆς πρὸς Κύριον περὶ τοῦ λαοῦ. 8 καὶ εἶπε Κύριος πρὸς Μωυσῆν· ποίησον σεαυτῷ ὄφιν καὶ θὲς αὐτὸν ἐπὶ σημείου, καὶ ἔσται ἐὰν δάκῃ ὄφις ἄνθρωπον, πᾶς ὁ δεδηγμένος ἰδὼν αὐτὸν ζήσεται. 9 καὶ ἐποίησε Μωυσῆς ὄφιν χαλκοῦν καὶ ἔστησεν αὐτὸν ἐπὶ σημείου, καὶ ἐγένετο ὅταν ἔδακνεν ὄφις ἄνθρωπον, καὶ ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὸν ὄφιν τὸν χαλκοῦν καὶ ἔζη.

4 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. 5 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.’ 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 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. 8 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.’ 9 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.


Throughout the Sundays in Lent, the RCL Old Testament readings this year (Year B) focus on covenantal relationships with God:

● On the First Sunday in Lent (26 February), Genesis 9: 8-17 was the story of God’s covenant with Noah, his descendants and “every living creature of all flesh.”
● On the Second Sunday in Lent (4 March), the reading (Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16) looks at God’s covenant with Abraham and his “offspring after you throughout the generations … an everlasting covenant.”
● On the Third Sunday in Lent (11 March), the reading (Exodus 20: 1-17) looks at the Ten Commandments, the symbol of that Covenant given in the wilderness in Sinai.
● On the Fourth Sunday in Lent (18 March), the Sunday reading we are looking at this morning, we hear the story of the rebellion against that covenant and the serpent of bronze which we interpret as a symbol of the promise of Christ’s coming (Numbers 21: 4-9).

These readings are followed up in the Sundays that come next with:

● On the Fifth Sunday in Lent (25 March), the promise to Jeremiah of a new covenant that will be like the covenant between a husband and wife and that will be written in the hearts of the people (Jeremiah 31: 31-34).
● On the Sixth Sunday in Lent (Palm Sunday, 1 April), the theme of rebellion against God is addressed once again, with the promise of new covenant ushered in by the suffering servant (Isaiah 50: 4-9a).

So, on the Fourth Sunday in Lent (18 March), the Old Testament reading looks at the rebellion against Covenant in the wilderness in Sinai, just as the people were within reach of the Promised Land, and a response that is often see as a precursor or forerunner of the Cross.

During this journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, there are eight rebellions: six by the people against their leaders and God, and two by their leaders against God. The rebellion stories tell of a lack of trust in God – which led to all those of the generation that left Egypt (including Moses) dying before Israel entered the Promised Land – a punishment for lack of faith, and an example for later generations.

These stories tell too of the issues of human leadership: its qualifications, manifestations and limitations, and how really has to struggle to be an effective leader.

The setting:

The Children of Israel have come to the borders of the Promised Land. Twelve spies are sent across the river, but they return with reports of the land that are not very promising. Ten of the scouts tell them there is no way that they could conquer, much less evict, the people who live there.

On the other hand, two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, submit a minority report, saying the people must cross over and enter the land. Ten outvote two, in any counting system, and the people return to the desert.

After forty years in that desert, their children’s children, along with a surviving Moses, Joshua and Caleb, are back near the Promised Land once again. But the second generation begin to have doubts too: “Let us go back to Egypt. At least there we were fed, had homes we could live in one place … Who of us has seen God? To which of us has he spoken? Who among us can say he or she believes all the tales our fathers and mothers left us? Who?”

Travel through the Desert during those many, long years, they grow impatient frequently, and they murmur or complain against both God and Moses whenever they are unhappy. Often we hear them cry, “Why did you make us leave the safety of Egypt in order to die in this awful desert? We never have bread and there is hardly ever water…” and so on.

The people sin by speaking against God and against Moses. When God punishes them, they repent and ask Moses to intercede for them. When Moses intercedes on behalf of the people, God forgives them and provides a tangible way in which they can now be obedient to God and receive healing benefits from God.

The details of the account are probably based on experiences with poisonous snakes in the Sinai Peninsula and in the southern Negev region and on the popular belief that the creature that causes pain and death should also be the creature through which deliverance from pain and death are found.

This may appear like superstitious thinking to our modern ways of thinking, yet this is a principle that is similar in some ways to what happens in medicine with immunisation, and to a greater degree with homeopathy.

Saint Catherine’s monastery on the slopes of Mount Sinai (Photograph: Nick Leonard)

Looking at the reading

In this reading, the freed people of Israel are now in the desert in the Sinai Peninsula, probably near its north-east edge, south-west of the Dead Sea.

Having arrived at this stage in the Biblical narrative, it is difficult to imagine that the people have still not learned to appreciate the grace and generosity that God has bestowed upon them. At the very least, we might think, they ought to realise that their murmurings might provoke negative reactions.

In this reading, the people rebel against Moses and God. They are “impatient” (verse 4) or “short-tempered” because Moses has refused to engage Edom in battle and, (after being attacked) Israel, with God’s help, has won a military victory over the local Canaanites.

In criticising the manna they are receiving as detestable “miserable food” (verse 5), they are resenting what God gives them freely. So God sends “poisonous” (verse 6) or fiery “serpents” – fiery possibly because the bites become inflamed before the victims die.

The people repent, and they ask Moses to intercede or “pray to the Lord” for them (verse 7). God replies that he will heal through a symbol, a bronze snake on a pole. Those who believe in God will be healed.

The bronze serpent was preserved and honoured. But when it became a symbol of worship, separate from the worship of God, it was smashed during the reign of King Hezekiah, in the late 700s BC (see II Kings 18:4).

This story is surprising, for culturally we associate the serpent either with the temptation of Eve in Eden, or you may know of the serpent was a Canaanite symbol. Some scholars connect the snake goddess of the Minoans of Crete with the Phoenician Astarte. She was the goddess of fertility and sexuality and her temples were decorated with snake motifs.

However, remember how the staffs of Moses and Aaron were turned into snakes.

In the (Apocryphal) Wisdom of Solomon 16: 6-12, we find the bronze serpent described as a symbol of salvation. There it is said that those who gazed on the serpent were saved from the effects of the poisonous snake bites, not by the power of the bronze snake but because they were obedient to the word of the Lord given through Moses.

The Mishnah rejects any simplistic magical interpretation of the story: “Does a serpent really hold the power over death or life?” it asks. And the reply comes: “Rather, as Israel lifted their eyes and gazed upward, they would submit their hearts to their Father in Heaven – and this would bring about their cure.”

Today, an image of two intertwined serpents on a staff flanked by wings is the symbol of the medical profession. This symbol, the caduceus, is the symbol of the cult of Aesculapius. In classical Greece, healing and medicine were associated with the cult of Aesculapius, and Hippocrates, who is regarded as the father of western medicine, was a 20th-generation member of the cult of Aesculapius. And there lies a connection with what I said earlier about yet this is a principle that is modern medicine, immunisation, homeopathy and snake bites.

Making connections:

Nicodemus comes with myrrh to Christ at his burial (John 19: 39) … a window in the chapel of Saint John’s College, Cambridge

In the Psalm (Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22), the psalmist exhorts the community to “give thanks to the Lord.” The community is “redeemed” from an unknown foe (verse 2). God has “gathered” this community from diverse lands (verse 3). Verses 17-18 recall our story from the Book Numbers. In the ancient world, people thought that sinfulness led to sickness. The people turn to God in their distress. He hears them, heals them, and restores them to life (verse 20), and in response they “offer thanksgiving sacrifices” (verse 22) and proclaim God’s power joyfully.

In the New Testament reading (Ephesians 2: 1-10), the Apostle Paul reminds the members of the Church in Ephesus of the time before their conversion, when they were “dead” spiritually through sin and rebellion or transgression (verse 1) and disobedience, following the “ruler of the power of the air” or the devil. But, despite this, God loves us greatly, so greatly that he brings us to life together, raised us together and enthroned us together “with Christ” (verses 4-5) – note that the Greek verbs here, with the use of the prefix συν (syn), emphasise that this is a collective experience, experienced together. We have a new status, a new life, and a new freedom so that we may be channels through whom God shows his gifts through us to the world. This salvation is a gift from God, rather than a result of our efforts or “works” (verse 9).

In the Gospel reading (John 3: 14-21), Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, comes to Christ, recognising that he “has come from God” (see verse 2), to ask: “How can anyone be born [again, or from above] after having grown old?” (verse 4). Notice, however, how often this passage is misused. Christ says tells Nicodemus: “You must be born from above” (Δεῖ ὑμᾶς γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν, verse 7), ὑμᾶς is plural – just as the experience of God’s mercy in the wilderness is one that is experienced together, and the Apostle Paul speaks to the Ephesian Christian in Ephesus of a collective experience, here too we are invited to a collective experience.

Nicodemus fails to understand what Christ tells him, even in earthly terms. Christ then refers to our Old Testament reading, and recalls how Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the Desert (verse 14), so Christ is being held up so that we may be trust in God and be saved and have eternal life (verses 14-15).

This Gospel reading also contains what I am sure is most people’s favourite verse in the Bible: Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵναπᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3: 16).

The word κόσμος here means the whole created order, a Pythagorean concept that goes far beyond the limitations of “world” [NRSV, NIV, AV] or, still less, “humanity” or “man” – which I have seen in Chinese.

But, whatever difficulties Nicodemus has in the third chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, by the time we get to the third last chapter of Saint John’s Gospel (Chapter 19), he is no longer afraid to claim Christ in the dark, and is longer unable to understand the truth of the Cross. Instead, he says Amen to the Body of Christ when he goes to anoint him after his death on the Cross (see John 19: 38-42).

That perhaps is why this Old Testament reading and part of this Gospel reading are also provided in the RCL and in the Church of England for 14 September, Holy Cross Day, one of the earliest annual celebrations of the Church, commemorating the elevation or discovery in 320 AD of what was said to be the original cross on which Christ was crucified (Numbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 22: 22-27; I Corinthians 1: 18-24 or Philippians 2: 6-11; John 3: 13-17).

Sunset on Mount Sinai (Photograph: E Zarwan)

Some questions for discussion:

In the spiritual wilderness, is it easy to rebel and to seek quick solutions and quick cures?

Do we blame the sickness of others on their sinfulness?

Is it possible that sinfulness leads to sickness?

If the life-giving snake on the pole counters the life-killing snakes on the ground, how do we use this image to talk about Christ’s life-giving work?

Can you draw parallels between the forty years in the Wilderness and the forty days of Lent?

Are there some aids to worship from the past that have become barriers to worship in the present?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study on Wednesday 7 March 2012 with MTh students in a tutorial group.

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