Scripture: Numbers 21:4-9
This story is so odd it makes me want to stop and have a good look at it – just like the people in the story are told to stop and have a good look at the terrifying bronze serpent if they want to be healed.
Things have not been going well … at least, not as the people want … again. So they are unhappy and complaining … again. Except this time not just against Moses, but also against God. And before we judge them too harshly, do we not know what it’s like (and what we’re like) when a promised rose garden turns out instead to be a horrible bed of weeds and thorns?
A normal first reaction is to complain to management and ask that the situation be fixed, and in the past that approach worked. When they complained of bitter water, God arranged for it to be sweetened (Ex 15:22-25). When they complained about no food, God sent some (Ex 16:2-3). When they complained of thirst, God led them to water (Ex 17:3; Num 20:1-13). When they complained of no meat, God provided it (Num 11:4-6). When they were afraid of a fearsome enemy, God gave them victory (Num 14).
This time, though, when they complain of just about everything being wrong, instead of fixing it God sends snakes to bite the people and make them start to die.
Is God fed up? Is this punishment? The story doesn’t really say. We assume it’s punishment, which makes us realize (somewhat fearfully maybe) God may have more backbone than we sometimes think.
But I wonder if instead of punishment, the snakes are instead a revelation - God’s tough-love, maybe therapeutic way of showing the people what they are really like and how they are acting - of helping them really see and feel the serpentine unhappiness that is biting them, eating them up, and poisoning their journey from the inside?
And when the people beg to have the snakes taken away (where is St Patrick when you need him, to clear our lives of the snakes that infect and infest us?), God says the way to be healed and to live as they want to, is not to make the snakes disappear, but to look at the snake face to face in all its fullness (apparently in Hebrew the words used for “serpent of bronze” come out sounding like super-snake, a super-copper copperhead, or a super-serpenty-serpent) – in other words, to finally come to terms with all that’s inside, and find new life beyond our fear and repulsion of what we see and feel.
I assume it’s significant that this incident is the last bit of complaining the people do on the way to the Promised Land. I wonder if they simply dared not complain again? Or if they really did see, learn and grow into a new way of being and of moving ahead from looking at the serpent dead-on?