“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.” (Number 21:4-9)
I am not sure how this is biologically or medically – actually, it makes no sense for either science. You can’t just look at an image of a poisonous snake and survive. Especially when there are no anti-venom or transfusion, or anything like that. But if you succumb to something evil and poisonous to your spirit, and then recognize your error and sin – then you can be cured! I am not saying that there were no poisonous snakes or they were not as dangerous as the writer of Numbers has told us. I am not doubting there were snakes, nor that Moses put a reminder of them up on a pole, nor that the Hebrews were not saved.
I think this passage from Numbers has something to say to us, and we can glean just as much meaning from the metaphor as from the actual. What we can learn is this – when you are in a desert and your faith is being built up and tested, it is not a good idea to complain and gripe about the lessons you are to learn, and the period of time of the testing. Something worse may come along and “bite”you; then you will really know what suffering is. The only way to survive this experience is to realize what you have done, and confess the sin and error realizing that it is all part and parcel of the testing and learning experience.
The season of Lent is often characterized as a “desert” experience. That is, there are tough lessons to be learned and the resources that you might have are meager. Many people, in the past and in the present, give up something for Lent or take up an extra challenge or task for the Lenten season. This practice had deep roots in Christian history. I have not said much about it because many of the scripture passages used during Lent do not speak directly to this spiritual practice. And it is not always a spiritual practice that melds well with our contemporary life. Indeed, it takes a deliberate decision, best done at the beginning of Lent, to “deny” ourselves something or add something to our daily practices. So, I will not ask you, beloved reader to take on any additional practices. This week we will look at the issue of sin, and together we will glean what lessons there are and how the metaphor of the snakes might be used again. Shalom!