Does anyone else find Sunday’s Old Testament lesson (Numbers 21:4-9) to be completely strange? In this passage the Lord gets angry at Israel’s grumbling, so he sends poisonous snakes to bite and kill them. Moses prays for the people, and the Lord commands him to make a poisonous serpent out of bronze and set it on a pole. If someone was bit and then looked upon the serpent, she or he was healed.
This story is bizarre, of course, because of the method of the healing. What does it mean to look upon the image of a serpent and be healed? But, at a deeper level, this story is beyond weird because of the strong prohibition of making graven images or idols that was central to Israelite culture. In this story, God essentially asks Moses to make an idol that will have power to save the people. Well, sort of, but, of course, that’s not the whole story.
For starters, let’s jump ahead and see what happens to this bronze serpent. Centuries later, when Hezekiah the great reformer king of Judah came to the throne, “he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (2 Kings 18:4). Indeed, the strange source of healing—like all graven images—became an object of worship. The message is that if you give human beings long enough we will worship whatever we see. So this temporary answer ended up being a problem for God’s people. Maybe I’ll post later this week on how the cross has become a graven image for some Christians. (Oooh, controversy!)
But my real focus on the Numbers passage is the nature of the image that was made for the people’s healing. God did not command that a butterfly be made. God did not command that Moses make a beautiful flower or a moon or a star or a lion or a calf or anything else…except a serpent. God asked Moses to make an image of the very thing that had been the source of Israel’s punishment. Those who looked upon it—those who stared the consequences of their sin straight in the face—were saved. Presumably, those who turned away and refused to confront their mistakes were not.
There’s a message of repentance here. Those who look upon the consequences of their sin find salvation. Those who turn away and pretend their sin does not exist or does not have consequences in their lives cannot find salvation. If we are going to be saved, we must look at our sin, behold it, and let the act of confronting it become our real healing.
As I work toward Sunday, I’m looking for a way to convey this message of repentance in the context of John 3 and Jesus’ words to Nicodemus.