Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent
Weary and Agitated
The people wandering in the desert are weary and agitated. The Book of Numbers describes them as qāṣēr, which the NRSV translates to “impatient.” This word, however, means so much more. Literally, it is more often used to mean “to shorten or diminish.” A humorous, though apt, example is found in Isaiah 28:20, where the author speaks of a bed that is too short to stretch out in. This image, of a short bed, describes the situation of the Hebrew people. They have been wandering for a long time looking for rest. Much like sleeping in a cramped space, they can’t get comfortable. They try this way and that, moving around, and adjusting the blankets; nothing works. So they become agitated. They complain against God and Moses. Their complaint is relatable and deeply expressive of the human condition.
Couldn’t we have died just as easily in the land of Egypt? At least we had food there. It is hard not to laugh and sympathize. However, it reveals a lack of faith and hope in divine providence. The LORD has recently released them from 400 years of slavery and misery. They miraculously escaped the clutches of Egypt with many signs and wonders, yet still, they doubt. This, as is often the case in the Hebrew Bible, does not sit well with the LORD.
In response to the complaints of the Hebrews, the LORD sends a plague of
poinsonus serpents, as the NRSV translates Numbers 21:6. Some translations choose
fiery serpents, which is preferable. The NRSV, to its credit, notes the alternative in a footnote.
Fiery is preferable because the Hebrew word is seraphim. It is the same word used to describe a class of the angels, the highest rank of angels according to varied traditions. The seraphim were thought of as beings of fire, see Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews for examples. Fire is the most rarefied of the four basic elements; it is the most like spirit. It is also a consuming and dynamic reality. A being of fire is a being of power and dynamism. It is like God in many ways. Therefore the serpahim which attack the Hebrews should be seen as spiritual, not natural, creatures. Hence preferring the translation
The Punishment is the Medicine
After punishing the Hebrews, God issues an unusual command to Moses: make a serpent and place it on a pole. This is shocking given the numerous aniconic statements of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrews should never create graven images and look to them for salvation. Yet, it is the LORD who commands it. The bronze serpent was surely a frightening and bizarre image. It likely would have taken the form of a fiery dragon. Merely looking upon this image brought healing. Why? Why would a bronze image of the creature which is inflicting suffering on the Hebrews be a source of healing? The answer to this question is the central theme of the scriptures. God is not bound by the evil of human choice. The misuse of human freedom does not frustrate the LORD's will. Rather, the God of Israel transforms evil into good. He repurposes or redirects the evil so that it gives rise to good. The Hebrews were punished because of their lack of faith, but the punishment gave them faith. In suffering under the terror of the seraphim the Hebrews were reminded of their need for the LORD. They were confronted by the inherent dependence they have upon him. Which is to say, through their sufferings, they return to the LORD. The bronze seraph is a physical embodiment of the spiritual reality. It is the sign that their punishment is true medicine. In the ancient world, medicine was expected to make one ill. It harmed so that healing could be brought about. In a sense, it took away all those elements which stood in the way of healing. The seraphim function similarly for the Hebrews. Their selfish desires, impatience, and weaknesses are burned away and their fidelity and dependence upon the LORD is revealed.
The Cross, the True Bronze Serpent
This scene from the Book of Numbers is picked up in John 3:14-15. Jesus has become the new bronze serpent. To gaze upon Jesus crucified is to have life. Even though the Gospel of John explicitly references the bronze serpent, the parallels are not on the surface. Humanity was not punished by God with crucifixion, so looking at a crucifix for healing makes no sense. There is a deeper image here. In the Garden of Eden, it was a snake, a seraph, who tempted Adam and Eve. According to many traditions and legends, Satan belongs to the order of seraphim. He is placed among the highest-ranking of the angels. It is by his free choice that humanity is tempted into the misery of sin and death. When Adam and Eve voluntarily submitted themselves to the serpent, they chose death for the cosmos. In the crucifixion of Jesus, this choice is transformed. Death, the punishment of humanity, becomes the means to salvation. God, in the humanity of Jesus, submits to death and so makes it into the passage into life. Jesus on the cross is the true and everlasting bronze serpent. To gaze upon Christ crucified is to take in the medicine of immortality. It is to behold the greatest work of God which makes Satan’s and humanity’s sin into salvation.
Let Us Pray
God of limitless power, our sins are not a barrier to your love. You can transform every evil into our good. Pour out on us your mercy, lift us up from the misery of sin and death, and let us behold your love, our medicine, in Jesus crucified. Per eundem dominum…