Sunday, March 11, 2018

Moses, Jesus, and the Magic Snake

During the summer between first and second grades, I went to the Horry County Memorial Library in my hometown.  Little church mouse that I was, I perused the room with the Dewey Decimal .220 collection in it, full of Bibles and storybooks, located next to the children’s section.  I checked out a great big fat brown illustrated book of Bible stories for children, probably printed in the 1920’s. I brought it home and began reading.  I could hardly put it down.  That is where I first learned much of what is in the Bible.

I don’t recall, of course, exactly what I thought when I came upon a story such as the one in Numbers today, where Moses fashions a serpent of bronze and sets it up on a pole so that all the snakebite victims among the Children of Israel could look upon it and be healed.  But I am sure of one thing.  I did not approach the story critically.  I did not wonder how the serpent worked healing powers, nor why Moses did not get blasted for such a thing when a few chapters away his brother Aaron gets roundly trounced for fashioning a calf out of gold.  I don’t think I took the Bible stories as if they were just some other interesting stories, such as Uncle Wiggly and Nurse Jane.  I think you could say without stretching a point that I read the stories naïvely.   They conveyed to me a sense of the Presence of the Holy One of Israel, with whom I had a complete fascination.  To my boyish mind, nothing seemed beyond God.  And yet I don’t recall ever being afraid of God—don’t ask me why. 

"So Moses made a serpent of bronze."  —Numbers 21:9
Not until I hit adolescence did I begin to sense some dissonance between some of the Bible stories and the world around me.  But even then the dissonance did not pose a crisis for me.  In high school I had the good fortune of having a teacher who taught the Bible as literature.  She taught me how to ask critical questions in a way that led me more deeply into the meaning of the texts.  The process continued in college.  I learned to plumb the scriptures and the layers behind the scriptures to understand things like the culture that produced them, the language that expressed them, the meaning they probably conveyed to the first generation of readers or hearers.  At such a place in my development, I would have appropriated the story from Numbers about the bronze serpent as perhaps a piece of pious folklore, or perhaps the signature story of sympathetic magic, a spin-off of some Egyptian serpent-magic captured in the famous headgear of the Pharaohs with its protecting cobra.  I might have made the connection between the bronze serpent Moses fashioned and the story about how that very artifact was destroyed by the reforming King Hezekiah, centuries later, who smashed it in the Temple of Jerusalem where people had developed the custom of making offerings to it. 

Then one morning, a few years after I had become a priest, from the Old Testament (which is the name we Christians give to the Hebrew Scriptures for theological reasons, not because “old” means inferior), —I was reading a story about how the prophet Elijah was fed by ravens, and I realized some minutes after finishing it that I had made it through the entire story without having once questioned its veracity.  Instead, I had pondered the many unlikely ways in which God providentially fed me.  Elijah’s ravens had become signifiers to me of experiences—maybe physical, maybe spiritual—in my own life.  That was an incredibly important day in my life, because on that day I was aware for the first time that I entered what I later learned the philosopher Paul Ricoeur called “the second naïveté.”  My “first naïveté” belonged to my boyhood in which I took bronze serpents and food-bearing ravens at face value and the stories about them quite literally.  The second naïveté, however, was made possible because by then I had learned to question, to probe, to think analytically, in fact to doubt.  Although I never had gone through an atheistic phase, I can readily appreciate those who do, for it clears away tons of baggage, liberating people from taboos and superstitions that have nothing to do with God but everything to do with social control.  Freed from literalism, I could engage the symbols and the stories on another level.  In that way, the serpent became to me a life-bearing symbol, which I could experience as (let me put it this way) a messenger of something divine.  I say “divine” because I have come to believe, and take responsibility for believing, that God is in fact True, and reaches out to me—to us—using the very data of our everyday lives (including what we see, read, and meditate upon) as ways of opening us to layers of Reality that sustain and nourish our souls, help us to grow, enable us to evolve into the persons we have the potential of becoming. 

Now this is where the bronze serpent story gets really interesting.  In this “second naïveté” I could, as I did with those ravens feeding Elijah decades ago, simply imagine the poisonous reptiles to represent the darts and arrows and venomous stings that arrest me in the middle of my self-absorbed ranting and griping, just as apparently snakes did to those Israelites in the desert.  That would be a fairly good discipline for me, I’ll warrant.  But the story is more than that.  On what, please tell me, may I look and find healing?  Ah!  Before you jump the gun and point me to Jesus on his cross, an obvious reference in the gospel story wherein he talks to Nicodemus using this very image of the bronze serpent, hold on.  Stick with the old story about Moses and the pole for a moment.

The story says that Yahweh God said to Moses to “make a poisonous serpent” and “set it on a pole,” so that “everyone who is bitten” might “look at the serpent of bronze and live.”  Remember that this is the same Yahweh who, the story says, sent the poisonous serpents among the people in the first place, snakes whose bites killed numbers of the people.  It happens that the word for “poisonous or fiery” [serpent] comes from the same root as the word seraph, and the seraphim, of course, are first-class angels in Hebrew vocabulary.  They burn.  So these fiery serpents stinging the fire out of Israel mean something more than ordinary desert reptiles.  They are divine messengers (that is what angels are) that ironically wound and heal. 

Deep in the consciousness—really the unconscious—of humanity is this ironic marriage between wound and healing.  All over the world there are stories about how the hero who delivers and saves must first taste the bitter pain of being wounded.  If this is beginning to sound familiar, that is because it is.  You know that truth on two levels.  One is your own personal life.  You know the irony that the wounds you bear, from the gashes carved into your soul by rejections, to the stigma and shame you carry in your body or your mind about your body or your mind, is exactly where you meet the ultimate questions of self-worth.  Your wounds are the battleground itself where you either have found or will find grace and strength, a widening of your compassion, and a deepening of your capacity to love.  The struggle for your destiny is won or lost there.  The other level on which you know this truth, or will know it, is that the life-giving story of Jesus is precisely the thing that opens us up with decisive intensity, deflating our puffed up egos, bidding us take us off our defensive armor piece by piece.  At the same time, Jesus is the one whose wounds and indeed whose death is the balm that heals us, the salve that soothes us, the medicine that ultimately makes us whole and sane. 

Having been bitten by a copperhead at age ten, I have a short list of things I don’t particularly like to think about and looking on a replica of that fiery serpent is on the list.  I don’t particularly relish the idea that Jesus is in any sense a snake.  But there is a deep connection between what we most fear and what gives us life. This strange story from the desert wanderings of the Israelites tells us that the divine is somehow at work in even the most hideous of circumstances, working to bring about a realignment of our purposes and God’s own.  I can see, not just in a snakebite but in the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, a God whose saving purposes are running through my life, my words, my fears, my self-doubts, ultimately bringing me together with all humanity into a land flowing with milk and honey at the other side of whatever desert it is that we happen to be passing through.

So it is not with a simple naïveté, but rather with a second naïveté that, encountering Truth on a whole new level, we can look upon the Son of Man, lifted up on the cross, and have eternal life.  We can see in his story the outlines of the old incident told in the tales of our forebears’ wandering.  He rattles our cages, overturning the tables we depend upon in our economies and in our temples; he is toxic to our systems of denial; he strikes out relentlessly against our penchant for oppressing others; he recoils at our hypocrisies; he calls into question our own retreat into self-loathing and exaggerated notions of worthlessness.  Human beings, as a rule, even the self-proclaimed religious among us, cannot stand him, and join with the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov telling him to go the hell back where he came from and leave us alone.  Over and over again the Christ in flesh and spirit is tacked up on a pole, crucified, a horrifying sight to any with the guts to look at him. 
Graham Sutherland, "Crucifixion," 1946
But look at him we do, our eyes unable to avert a sight so compelling.  Look at him we do, and see our paltry efforts at being like him nearly laughable.  Look at him we must, and see in his wounds, his hands, his feet, our own wounds.  How does it happen, we wonder.  How can it be that this broken body seems to strengthen us, seems to say to us, “You are forgiven, though you know not what you do”?  How can it be that we feel ourselves taking courage from him precisely at the moment we are ready to call it quits?  How can it be that we can look on him and know ourselves to be healed in the only way that matters?

Never mind how.  The answer to how is yes.  We don’t have to figure it out because we can’t.  All we can do is look:  look at his young naked body posted on the hard wood of his cross. 

Behold him, all ye that pass by,
The bleeding prince of life and peace.[1]

Edward Knippers, "Road to Golgotha," 1992
See him with your mind’s eye.  Feel him at the bottom of your heart.  Let your soul wander through the deserts until it finds rest beneath that cross.  And allow the Healer on the pole to make you whole.


A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018, previously published in an earlier form on this blog under the title, "Second Story."

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012; revised 2018

[1] Charles Wesley, "O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done?" First published in Hymns & Sacred Poems, 1742. 

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altar Piece, 1512-16

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