For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 4 – Numbers 21:4-9
Our Sunday lectionary only ever gives us three passages from Numbers, so today is a rare treat, and also why I have chosen to deal with it today rather than the alternative readings for Mothering Sunday. The story of the bronze snake is one which repays some attention, not least because of the ways in which the story is used later on in the Bible.
The first thing to say is that when set in its wider context this passage (if we include verses 1-3 with it) provides a close echo of Exodus chapters 14-15, and I think we are meant to get that reference. The patterns in both cases is this: God gives a great military victory to his people (the Red Sea, the conquest of Canaan), they encounter hardship (no drinking water, boring food), they get angry (with Moses, with Moses and God), punishment follows, Moses intercedes, and the people get a way out. In fact this is a very common pattern in this period of their history, and what I think we’re meant to get from it is that this story isn’t about a nasty, impetuous God who dishes out deadly punishment at the slightest hint of sin. Rather it is about a God who, like the people in v.4, becomes impatient with the repeated faithlessness and grumbling of the people who can’t see past their own stomachs, and quickly forget what God has done for them when he doesn’t instantly do what they demand next.
There is an interesting twist here, though. The people, quite naturally want the snakes to just go away, and that’s what Moses prays for, but the Lord’s answer is not what they want. Instead of getting rid of the snakes, Moses has to make one more, but this time out of bronze, and lift it up on a pole so that anyone who looked to it would be healed. They were still getting bitten, but with a glance they could be healed. Many Christians believe that if only they could be free from temptation or suffering everything would be fine: God’s way was to provide a cure for, not to remove the possibility of sin. That’s exactly what Paul agonised over in Romans 7, and that’s what we struggle with on a daily basis.
But as we look wider than just this passage, we find a couple of significant references to the snake. The first is that it becomes an object of idolatrous worship; the second is that it becomes a picture of Jesus’ death on the cross. John 3:15-16 refer back to this incident, and make the point that in a world of sin God showed his love towards the human race by lifting up his son on a wooden cross in order that those who chose to turn and look to him could be set free from the richly-deserved punishment for their sin. If you haven’t already found them, you might be interested in my series of four podcasts on John 3:16, which you can find here. But the first reiteration of this story is far more sinister. 2 Kings 18:4 tells us that the bronze snake had been given a name (Nehushtan) which means ‘The Great Serpent’ (or possibly ‘The Great Brass’, but in either case it’s ‘great’). It had also become an object of worship for the Israelites, who had been burning incense to it, in direct contravention of the second Commandment (Ex 20:4-5). So it had to be smashed up in order to prevent this idolatry.
What is interesting here is the fascinating reversal by which people moan at the true God, in an escalation of past stories where they only moan at Moses, but then go on to make a false God to worship. There is something deeply human about this. We love to put down God, and those who worship him, through posters on the side of buses, through the way we blame him for whatever goes wrong in our world, and through our failure to give thanks to him for what he has given to us (Rom 1:21 – the subject, by the way, of a series of podcasts coming to revjohnleachblog soon. That’s enough shameless plugs. Ed.). But then we do actually need objects of worship, so we create other things like the latest car, the next computer game, that long-awaited holiday, or our lottery tickets, to do what idols do, which is to rivet our attention, centre our activity, preoccupy our minds, and motivate our action. And of course even Christians aren’t immune – Israel was after all God’s chosen nation. It can be so easy to make that which is meant to turn us to Jesus into an object of worship in its own right, whether that be a particular style of worship, our favourite Prayer Book, the singing of worship-songs, the bread and wine of Communion, the furniture and equipment of our churches, a ‘lucky’ cross, or our favourite preacher on the God Channel. It’s all so easy, and all so tempting. This story reminds us that no bronze snake, nor any man-made stuff, can save us from the sin which is so viciously out to get us. Only looking to Christ crucified can do that. In a couple of weeks’ time we’ll have a special opportunity to gaze at Jesus on the cross, as we celebrate Passiontide. Let’s not see other things instead.