Monday, March 5, 2018

Really Strange Theology

Passages like the Old Testament reading for this coming Sunday (Numbers 21:4-9) are the reason that many Christians wrongly believe that the God of the Hebrew scriptures is different from the God of the New Testament. They are also some of my favorites. There are so many layers of questions to ask. What does it say about God that he would send poisonous serpents to bite and kill the Israelites who grumbled yet again in the wilderness about their mediocre food rations? What does it say about God that he would command that a bronze serpent be made and placed on a pole so that, in an act of near idol worship, those who were bit by the snakes might be saved? What does it say about the people of Israel that a story like this, which takes place after the prohibition against idols was issued in Exodus as part of the ten commandments and which gets revised into its current form long, long after that prohibition had become primary in Israel's theology, gets preserved in scripture?

I love the Bible. I love its complexity. I love that it doesn't make sense. I love that, centuries later, when Jesus is speaking to a learned leader in the Jewish community in John 3, he cites this bizarre story from numbers as an interpretive lens for his own death. That suggests to me that rabbinical scholars in Jesus' day were still wrestling with this strange story. What does it mean? How do we make sense of it? What is it supposed to teach us?

We can't solve all of the questions that this passage presents. A preacher who attempts to tidy this up into a neat little homelitcal passage will do his or her congregation a great disservice. It's messy, and it's supposed to be. What does the preacher do with Numbers 21 except, perhaps, ignore it? Maybe there's a sermon about gazing upon the magnitude of one's sin--whether staring at the serpent on the pole or beholding the crucified Son of Man--as the key to understanding salvation. Or perhaps one might preach about the clarity of hindsight--that it sometimes feels like God sends poisonous serpents to punish us when we deserve it, but, in fact, he's the one who makes even an illogical path for our salvation. I don't know. I'm not preaching this week, and I'm starting out grateful for that.

In the end, stories like Numbers 21 are a problem and an opportunity. Stories about God punishing his people are hard to digest. But they are also a chance for us to remind the world that our sacred stories are written as self-contained packages to be consumed like a sitcom or an episode of West Wing. Even after centuries of study, we might not understand exactly what happened or why it occurred. And still they are given to us as objects for wrestling and scrutiny and, eventually, our formation. That's a different way of dealing with a narrative than the ways to which we have grown accustomed. We live in a culture of "fake news" and political spin. There aren't many voices out there that invite people to struggle with a story until its deep meaning becomes clear while also acknowledging that it may never be fully clear. That sounds like the kind of story I want to encounter. That's the kind of community in which I want to take part. I bet many in the unchurched community would, too.

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