Deliverance (A reflection on Numbers 21.4-9)

The Hebrew Bible text assigned for today presents a curious story. Moses is leading the people from slavery in Egypt through the wilderness to the land of Canaan. The journey is hard and the people are complaining. As a result of their complaints, they are beset by venomous snakes until they cry out for help. In the end, God instructs Moses to make a staff, wrapped in the image of a serpent, that would heal people from their snake bites when they looked at it. A curious story indeed. So what can we say about it? Or rather, what might it be saying to us? 

As I was thinking about this story, my first reaction was to be a bit annoyed at God. My day job is basically to solve problems. When an issue comes up, I try to find its root causes so that I know the right problem to solve. And so, at first thought, God’s solution in the story doesn’t make much sense: when the people ask for help, God doesn’t take away the plague of snakes; he just gives the people a way to survive it. This seemed like a classic case of treating the symptom instead of the cause. 

But then I realized that while it’s true that the venom isn’t the root cause here, neither are the snakes. If we did a “Five Whys” analysis of the situation, I think the fifth “why” — the root case — would actually be relational, something like: “Because they have forgotten that the God who delivered them from slavery is still with them.”  So the solution — to give them something to remind them to look to God once again for their deliverance — does actually treat the real root cause. 

The snake motif in the story is also interesting. The snake is a symbol of confusion and deceit in the Hebrew Bible. The snakes plaguing the Israelites were symbolic of the lies and willful misinterpretation of the facts were already rampant among them. Just look at their claims: First they say there is no food and then in the next breath it’s that they don’t like the food they have. (They sound a bit like a teenager staring into a full fridge complaining there’s nothing to eat!) They also claim that the Exodus — their miraculous deliverance from slavery — was a conspiracy between Moses and God designed to kill them. Slippery and slithering venomous words indeed. All perspective and judgment has been lost. And so, by giving them an image of a snake to look upon, God is reminding them not only of God’s goodness to them, but also of the worst aspects of their own nature. In order to be healed, they have to look the beast in the face.

As the rabbis remind us, in the end it is not the staff that saves the people but their act of looking up. 

While this is most of what I wanted to say today, this reading of the passage is also helpful in teasing out the meaning of the strange liturgical celebration on the Christian calendar today. Today is the commemoration of the Holy Cross. The cross is a paradoxical symbol, being simultaneously an implement for torturing and murdering political prisoners and an instrument of our salvation. In a way that’s reminiscent of those snakes that symbolized the snapping backbiting of the Israelites in the wilderness, the cross reminds us of the worst sides of human nature — our tendency to lay blame at others’ feet and to silence those who dare to speak uncomfortable truths. But, like Moses’ staff, in looking up at the cross, there is also salvation for us. As Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3.14). By looking at the worst of human nature, we see the truth and repent. And in this we find deliverance.

Yet I can’t help but see more in these words. They can and do certainly apply to the cross, but they could just as easily apply to the Ascension, when we remember not the worst of human nature, but the best — the humanity that will forever sit at the right hand of the throne of God. 

I like the imagery of this double-reading. Like the Israelites of old in the wilderness, we as Christians are called to look up. But when we do, we are confronted with the truth not just of the worst in our nature, but also the best. God calls us out — to repent, to do better — but this same act is also God calling us up to become more fully ourselves, more fully human in the best possibilities of what that can mean.

The point of all this remains the same. It’s easy to get caught up in the muck and mire of life, in our frustration and anger at how people treat us, and guilt and shame for the stuff we’ve done that we regret. The beautiful thing is that when we get too caught up in all this, we can look up, see clearly, and be free.

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