Brazen Serpents*

Reading: Numbers 21:4-9

4 And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. 5 And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for [there is] no bread, neither [is there any] water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. 6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. 7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. 9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.
The passage that we read this morning from the Book of Numbers is one that has caused no end of difficulty for the Jewish commentators who have studied it.

Having arrived at this stage in the Biblical narrative we find it difficult to imagine that the people have still not learned to appreciate the grace and generosity that God has bestowed upon them. At the very least, they ought to have realized that their whinings tend to provoke reactions that can be injurious to their health.

And then there is the strange instrument of chastisement: --serpents. Is there some symbolic appropriateness in the pairing of that punishment with this crime?

And what are we to do with that utterly heathen-sounding prescription for their affliction: gazing at a graven image? Historians have justifiably pointed out the parallels between Moses' bronze serpent and the "caduceus," the mythological symbol of the Greek god Asclepius that still decorates hospitals and ambulances. This seems terribly out of place in the Bible.

I would like to share with you some insights from the Jewish exegetical tradition that might furnish solutions to the above puzzles, while suggesting some lessons for our own situation.

Let me begin with the issue of the Israelites' murmuring:

Is what is described in this passage just another occurrence of the tedious grumbling that has typified the people's behaviour since the Exodus? A fourteenth-century Spanish Jewish exegete, Rabbi Bahya ben Asher was bothered by the same difficulty with which we have been struggling. In fact, his dilemma was rendered even more acute by the fact that he read the story of the Israelites' sojourn in the wilderness in the light of the numerous legendary embelishments that had come to surround the story in Jewish tradition.

Seen this way, it was supremely unfair of them to dismiss their rations as "miserable fare." Quite the contrary, what they were eating was mannah, the same wondrous food that the Psalmist designated "the bread of the angels" (Psalms 78:25). The rabbis lovingly embellished the mannah's miraculous qualities, including its reputed ability--like some primordial tofu-- to take on the flavour of any food that a person might crave.

[I know of a cartoonist who used this idea as the basis for a pictorial representation of the "Sinai Supermarket," whose shelves were stocked to the brim with an ample selection of mannah-flakes, manna soup, manna rolls, mannah Stroganoff, diet mannah and... Well, you get the picture.]

The water that they were issued in the desert was also from a supernatural source. The ancient rabbis spoke of a marvellous spring that accompanied the people in their wanderings, by virtue of the righteousness of the prophetess Miriam.

And if these legends should strike you as fantastic, then you should at least be aware that a certain first-century Pharisee from Tarsus was also familiar with the image of how the Hebrews "all ate the same supernatural food and all drank from the same supernatural drink...that accompanied their travels" (1 Corinthians 9:3-4)--using these legends as the basis for his own christological homily.

Seen in the light of all this splendid benificence, says Rabbi Bahya, how can we make any sense of the people's emphatic dissatisfaction with their diet?

He proposes that their distress stemmed from more profound reasons. It was precisely the unnaturalness of their lives that was bothering them. For when they looked around at the other nations of the world, they discerned no correlation between economics and spirituality; food and drink are distributed with no connection to the recipient's moral quality.

Not so the people of Israel. Throughout their desert excursion, their sustenance was directly in the hands of the Creator. They had to have faith that their wants would be provided for from one day to the next, for mannah could not be hoarded or stockpiled. Even their water supply was subject to religious regulation: Talmudic legend related, for example, that the above-mentioned spring had been temporarily disconnected following the demise of its patroness, Miriam.

Living their entire lives under that kind of scrutiny made the Israelites exceedingly uncomfortable.

Nor was the problem due to disappear with their entry into the Promised Land. As Moses would later make quite clear to them (Deuteronomy 11:10) "The land that you are entering to inherit is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come, where after sowing seed you irrigated it by foot like a vegetable garden. But the land which you are crossing to occupy is a land of mountains and valleys watered by the rain of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God tends and on which his eye rests from year's end to year's end."

The upshot of this is that for Jews living on their ancestral soil, economic prosperity would invariably be linked to their nation's religious behaviour. This is a theme that is hammered home throughout the Bible. And the situation has not changed signficantly since those days. I think that there is a large measure of truth to that ancient perception that there is something in the very physical ecology of the Land of Israel that promotes a religious consciousness.

As Rabbi Bahya was well aware, the point of this whole story was that the Israelites' complaints were ultimately unacceptable to God, who saw the rejection of "specialness" as a violation of the covenantal mission for which they had been chosen.

As a dutiful Jew, I must accept that verdict, though as I have pondered the episode over the years I have never completely succeeded in stamping out that little voice from within that emerges from time to time and whispers (with intonations that sound uncannily like Tevyeh the dairyman in "Fiddler on the Roof"): O Lord, it is an honour to be the "chosen people," but why can't you choose somebody else for a change?! Why indeed cannot the rest of humanity enjoy the honour and pleasure of seeing the direct correlation between their own behaviour and the state of their physical environment?

Well my wish has finally been granted! The entire world is now in the same metaphoric lifeboat that was once the distinctive lot of the Jewish nation. The rapid shrinking of our world, and the huge leaps in our industrial and technological abilities, have brought humanity to a state where we can see the fruits of our actions immediately reflected in the climate, economy and social health.

While it was previously possible for people to dwell in comfort in lands blessed by the Lord with boundless richness, while we despoiled resources and natives on far-away shores, we have now discovered that unchecked greed has come back to our very backyards and kitchens in the form of unbreathable air, poisoned water and deadly radiation.

This is no less true in the social realm: It might have been possible once upon a time to pass our lives in sanitary, safe suburbs, with only the vaguest awareness that somewhere across the tracks there exist pockets of privation, in which dwell individuals and families who have been disadvantaged by bad upbringing, unexpected illnesses and financial downturns. There may have been a time when that other world need not impinge on our own, but that time is long gone. Their suffering penetrates our protected world in the guise of crime, disease, drugs and unwalkable streets strewn with the homeless.

Yes, the world around us reacts quickly and immediately to our abuses, to our unrestrained avarice and insensitivity.

And how can we respond to this situation?

Let us return to the Book of Numbers, and to the bizarre symbol of the bronze serpent.

Now, the serpent has some well-known associations in the Bible. Several of the the Jewish commentators have tried to explain its appearance here by invoking the tale of the Garden of Eden.

To appreciate the significance of this symbol, we need to recognise that the traditional Jewish reading of the "Garden of Eden" story differs from the classical Christian version. While the serpentine tempter has often been identified in both faiths as Satan, Jews have never understood Satan to be a being outside of God's command, or a rebel against divine authority. In his role as a sort of cosmic prosecuting attorney, Satan is entrusted with the jobs of testing, entrapping and testifyng against us before the heavenly court. It's a dirty job--and he sometimes strikes us as performing it with excessive zeal-- but it must be done to maintain order in the world.

The ancient rabbis equated both the primordial serpent and Satan himself with a force known as the "yetzer ha-ra." This Hebrew expression is often translated as "the evil urge," but this translation is dangerously misleading. According to the Jewish understanding, the good Lord implanted into every human being this yetzer ha-ra, a drive that combines features of ambition, greed and sexual desire.

An extraordinary myth found in the Talmud relates how the Jewish sages, shortly after the Babylonian Captivity, were determined to put an end to this formidable threat. Encouraged by their recent success at eradicating the "urge" to worship idols (an urge that had been such a constant stumbling-block to earlier generations, but which no longer held any appreciable attraction to the Jews of their time), --these sages now felt (understandably) that they were "on a roll." So they decided to seize the opportunity to capture and destroy the "yetzer ha-ra" itself. And they were successful. They caught the beast and bound it in chains, eagerly awaiting the moment when they would remove it from the world for all time.

But soon strange reports started arriving: Nobody was showing up at work anymore. No one wanted to marry or raise families. The chickens were not laying eggs!

Now these sages came to the realisation that they had misunderstood the nature of this "evil urge." For the drives represented in that faculty are essential for the proper functioning of humanity as God planned us to live our lives. The urge is not "evil" in any absolute sense, but only when it is allowed to trespass beyond its legitimate domain. Sexuality is a wonderful gift when invested in a loving marriage and family, but can be perverted into a force for hatred and abuse. And ambition can be an admirable quality when it is channelled towards spiritual creativity and service of humanity, but is a fiery scourge when it is twisted into unrestricted covetousness. It was this failure to set limits to the "yetzer ha-ra" that was represented by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. This made the serpent a suitable instrument of divine punishment--but also of healing.

The conclusion from all this is that our role as humans is not to eliminate the "serpent," the yetzer ha-ra, but to keep it under control and direct it to a productive course. Jews believe that this is best done by following the values and way of life set down in the Torah. Christians try to achieve it through their faith in Jesus.

Following from the ideas that I have just sketched, allow me to propose my own way of understanding the symbolism of the brazen serpent.

The Mishnah, that eminent compendium of Jewish oral traditions, has explicitly rejected any simplistic magical interpretation of the story: "Does a serpent really hold the power over death or life?" it asks rhetorically. "Rather, as Israel lifted their eyes and gazed upward, they would submit their hearts to their Father in Heaven --and this would bring about their cure."

Perhaps, the meditation on the serpent image was intended to teach them something about their roles as a special, holy people. Living under the direct scrutiny of the Almighty does not require that they relinquish the normal, healthy human drives which he has given them. God, as a loving parent, wants nothing more than the happiness of his creatures. Let the serpent remind you of this basic truth, that holiness will be achieved through perfecting your humanity, not by denying it or seeking to transcend it.

I believe that this modest insight might help us find direction in our current dilemmas on the social and global planes. Sometimes we are led to believe that there is something in our very humanity that puts us at odds with God's plans, and that in order to live in harmony with nature and with the world community we are being called upon to reverse out human natures. The image of the bronze serpent can serve us as a reminder that those basic drives to improve our lot and to provide material comfort for our families are not in themselves evil. However they possess a formidable potential to be turned to evil if they are permitted to exceed their legitimate spheres of activity, when they are emptied of compassion and social or environmental responsiblity.

Somewhere between these extremes we must learn to respect those limits.

And speaking of limits--let me respect my own limits, and those of your patience, by concluding right here. Thank you so much for listening to me.

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*Guest sermon delivered at St. Cyprian Anglican Church, Calgary, March 9 1997