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Read Numbers 21:4–9

I find Numbers 21:6 problematic. Actually, it’s just three words of that verse that cause me interpretive indigestion: “The Lord sent.” Here’s the verse in full: “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died” (v. 6). Did God really send those snakes to kill the people? Is that the way God operates? Well, it’s in the Bible, so it must be true, right? But how does that picture of God square with Jesus’s depiction of God as a benevolent, caring parent? Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 7:9–11: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child … asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” So when God’s children ask for food in the wilderness, does God really give them snakes instead?

The ancient Hebrews were monists, not dualists, which means they did not have the luxury of blaming a devil or other evil power for the bad things that happened to them. God was their one and only go-to deity, and as a result they interpreted all good things as blessings from God and all bad outcomes as punishments or judgments from God. If they were defeated in battle, God for some reason had failed to fight for them. If a plague came, God was punishing them for some infraction. And if they stumbled into an area infested with poisonous snakes, God had sent them as a judgment on their sin. That was the ancient Hebrews’ ancient worldview.

Someone has said that Jesus was God’s way of getting over a bad reputation. Jesus came along with a very different interpretation of how God acts in the world and in relation to God’s children. He could still talk about God’s judgment, and it could sound pretty severe, but those judgments most often had to do with infractions that hurt other people. For instance, when Jesus said it would be better to have a millstone hung around your neck and be thrown into the sea than to fall into God’s hands for judgment, it was because you had caused one of God’s little ones to come into harm. Jesus pictured God’s judgments as a function of God’s compassion for the weakest and most vulnerable of God’s people, not as a petulant response to complaints or grumbling.

In one sense it doesn’t matter whether you believe God sent the serpents to bite the complainers or that the people later interpreted this misfortune as God’s judgment on their complaining, because God does provide a solution to the problem. According to the story, when the people finally realize their sin, they repent and ask Moses to pray for God to take away the snakes. God’s response is curious. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live’” (v. 8).

This is a bit of a head-scratcher, if we accept that God did indeed send the snakes in the first place, because why wouldn't God have simply removed the threat, which, after all, is what the people pray for? Why this convoluted approach, with a bronze serpent that will heal them, but only because the snakes are still around and the people are still getting bitten?

Maybe it’s because God did not actually send the snakes as a punishment, and so God’s role is not to eradicate the snakes, who were probably living there quite happily minding their own business until all these people came tramping into their territory, but simply to provide a gracious opportunity for healing. God knows that there are a lot of snakes in the world, a lot of dangers we can’t reasonably expect to escape. God knows that from time to time we will still trespass into the wrong places and stumble into situations that will get us snake-bitten. And God is always ready to heal and forgive us in those instances, but for us to receive that forgiveness and healing, we have to face what we have done. In this story, the Israelites must literally face the serpents (or a bronze representation of the serpents, anyway) in order to receive healing. For us to be forgiven and saved, we have to figuratively face up to our pride, selfishness, deceit, lust, or whatever it is that has bitten us with its poisonous fangs.

What do you have to face up to today? What image would go on the pole to symbolize your failings? How can you, during this Lenten season, get relief from your snakebites?

Grace and peace,