Numbers 21:4-9From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And 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.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
I imagine many of you have seen TV ads for new drug products, in which they make the claims for what the drug can do, and they show some person acting like the drug has made a big difference — but then the ad continues, often for some time, detailing the potential side effects.For example: “Side effects may include: severe hair loss; premature aging; drooling; bloating; uncontrollable stuttering; or bad breath.See your doctor if you develop a sudden desire to walk like a crab, use your head as a golf club, or shop at Walmart; OR, if your skin changes colour repeatedly, your head shrivels to the size of a grapefruit, you develop a craving for mustard, and you find yourself involuntarily shouting obscenities, you may need to change your dosage or look for another miracle drug entirely.”You get the picture – there is some good news, but it’s the potential side effects you need to worry about!
I want to suggest that there are potentially harmful “side effects” when we read certain passages of scripture.I have to admit that I really struggle and sometimes even cringe when we hear a line like we did last week, the line about God “punishing the children” – it’s like a kick in the gut that can make it very difficult to hear anything else in the reading (and sometimes in the whole service).
A few years ago, I was a university chaplain, and one of the readings for the weekday Eucharist was one in which St. Paul was offering advice about how women should be submissive, or silent in church (I forget exactly which passage – unfortunately, there are several).It was the appointed reading, and I thought of changing it, but then I thought, No, I’ll preach about how that attitude toward women was culturally conditioned, how scripture reflects its own time and is a human vehicle, and that we as Christians have moved to an attitude which suggests complete equality between men and women.The lesson was read and I preached that sermon, and afterward one of those in attendance came to me (she was a professor) and told me she had appreciated the homilyand the intention behind it, but that once that lesson was read, its content was so offensive that she found it difficult to hear anything else – that when we read something like that, and then say something like “the Word of the Lord,” we give it a tremendous power to affect people and you can try to explain the offensive aspects away but the damage is already done.
When you’ve heard the words that speak of God subjugating women or “punishing the children” or (as in this morning’s first reading) sending serpents to poison people when they’ve done something wrong, the damage is hard to undo.You are still reeling somewhat, so the explanation is drowned out by the roar of believing that somehow this is how things are – this is how God is because of that sense of authority that comes from a reading that we deem to be “sacred.”So I look at a reading such as our first reading this morning, and I think largely in terms of “damage control.” I think of what newcomers unfamiliar with the Bible or the church will think of such a passage.Above all, I wonder about the damage and distortion such a lesson creates for people in trying to relate to God.
At one time people just accepted that that was how things were – that if you did something wrong God would harm you in some way.That’s a pattern that may have worked for the religious leaders of ancient times (and subsequently for the Church), but I think it is hugely unsatisfactory for people of our time, and really misleading about the nature of God.
I don’t happen to believe God has little tantrums in which he/she unleashes violence and destruction upon people when they deviate slightly or don’t cooperate perfectly.In fact, I have known way too many people who have just abandoned religion entirely because we have persisted in offering such a perverse and distorted conception of God and how we are in relation to God.
Why use it at all?Why not eliminate it?Well, I think it’s important to take Scripture seriously, and we don’t want to fall into the habit of “cherry-picking” my favourite pieces of scripture while avoiding things you might find uncomfortable, and I certainly don’t want to take a “father knows best” approach of deciding what I think you’re capable of hearing, but certainly there are very contradictory impressions about God that come up in scripture and just like any teaching program or curriculum,the Church has some decisions and changes to make about the lessons we put in front of people on a Sunday by Sunday basis.I think some serious changes need to be made to our public liturgical repertoire, while leaving certain passages for private reading and study.I am not keen to start making those changes unilaterally, but at times, I will use my discretion about substitutions, when I am convinced that a passage is just too awkward and requires more explanation than is appropriate.
Don’t get me wrong!I believe there are powerful lessons to be learned from the ancient stories – the story of Adam and Eve, or Noah and the Flood, or Jonah and the whale, for instance.But when you are obliged to treat these stories as if they were literally and historically true, then you render them unbelievable and virtually useless.People end up wondering more about extraneous details such as what kind of voice a snake would have, or how Noah managed to catch the mosquitoes, or how someone could survive within a fish, underwater, for that length of time.Or they simply dismiss the entire thing as irrelevant nonsense.
As we have been leaning over the last generation or so, much of the Bible involves myths, which were stories about the great realities and truths of life, using a human backdrop.We would get more out of certain biblical stories if we were allowed to treat them as myths – that is, as stories which speak of deep truths about God and the human condition, in which the historical details are largely incidental. They may well have a basis in history, but if so, have often been embellished and re-invented to explain some faith issue or question. Myths are stories that are “larger than life,” and involve much more than merely knowing the facts, historical or otherwise.Myths are themes, and they have to be free enough of circumstance and historical specifics that they can point to truths beyond the immediate event, and speak to universal meanings.
Myths, if we let them, help us to unravel the deeper meaning in the things.As someone has wisely suggested, if you look at the creation story in Genesis in terms of HOW things happened, you will end up confused and disappointed.As an attempt at explaining WHY things came to be, it serves a deeper purpose.But to be stuck with the idea that some scribe was present 14 million years ago (or whenever the earth came to be), faithfully jotting down the details of creation, as they unfolded, seriously reduces your capacity to relate to scripture in a mature way, and requires you to remain as credulous as a three year old listening to your weird uncle telling you fanciful stories about life.Just the fact that we know human beings have only existed for millions (not billions) of years, and that human beings have only had the ability to communicate by writing for several thousand years, would be an immediate and convincing clue that Genesis is speaking in the language of myth and belief, rather than the language of hard data.
We have been limited in our ability to understand the wisdom and insight of these stories because we have felt obliged to deal with them literally, as actual events, as factual andhistoric, and many Christians have simply circled the wagons against reality – against anyone or anything suggesting otherwise – keeping the world’s growing insights out of the picture.So we have carried on as if we are supposed to believe in talking snakes and magic wands and 960 year-old men and boats that can hold the entire population of the planet, etc.And many churches have carried on believing that slavery and racism are OK, that beating your children is good for them, and that women are inferior beings. This of course has led to a more and more isolated and distorted picture, and way of perceiving, and Christians have less and less ability to speak convincingly to a world which has moved way beyond the magical and naive mindset in which some churches choose to remain stalled.
The serpent on a pole indeed suggests a very primitive approach to God and religion.We look at scripture and at faith through different eyes than people 2000 years ago, and we interpret scripture through the lenses of scholarship, and of Science, as well as the lenses of faith and belief. The Bible is no longer considered adequate as a self-referencing guide to everything from astronomy to medicine to diet to social structure and religion. We need to be free to say, that’s how people of that time interpreted the event – for instance, that the serpent raised on a pole was a way of using symbolism as a sign of hope, and how their belief in God transformed a potential tragedy — rather than continuing to insist that people have to believe “that’s what God does when you do something wrong.”
So now you can see what I am talking about:I have taken most of the sermon to explain and almost apologize for the awkward and confusing effects of the reading.Strangely, I persist in believing that the Bible is a vehicle for knowing about God, so I think it is important to persist in trying to understand what a passage like this might possibly say to us in our time.But I also think it’s important to address these issues of biblical interpretation and authority head on rather than sweeping them under the carpet or avoiding them.
So we look at today’s reading and can recognize that the lesson might speak to us about the importance of making the connections between our actions and their effects.It is an example of how ancient people related to God, and taught about consequences and accountability.We might well ask if we are doing a better job in our time! If the fear of God is not an appropriate or effective motivator toward ethical and civil behaviour, then what is?
It speaks of the importance of changing the direction of your vision, the brass serpent symbolic of looking up to God or developing a much wider sense of vision and perspective. That kind of vision is what enables people like Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi to rise head and shoulders above the conventions and customs of their particular society to help them see a greater vision.
We might see the invasion of serpents as a natural sign, some mysterious thing that happened (much like the disappearance of the tree frogs in our time).The people of that time assumed that it must mean they were being punished by God.We, on the other hand, would tend to look for a scientific, cause and effect type of explanation.But whether the fact of nature reacting implies some deeper meaning, connected to human ethical choices and behaviour, who knows. It is, after all, a faith question.But the story could certainly stand as an ancient archetype for our own abusive and antagonistic relationship with nature.
The story might speak of how faith has the power to heal us.Whether through supernatural or purely psychological means we don’t know, but the connection between faith and healing is well documented.
Snakes are almost always a symbol (and cause of) intense fear.So the story may be telling something about the importance of a sense of hope, and how signs and symbols support us in hope.It may also show us the necessity of facing what you are afraid of rather than avoiding it.The story doesn’t tell us that the serpents disappear – they remain – as do the problems and dangers in life.When one snake disappears from your life, often another one appears, so you have to learn how to deal with “snakes”!
The story can also serve as a reminder that even God’s people have ups and downs, and everyone goes through tough times, times of disorientation and confusion, times of grief and loss, times of questioning and doubt, times of pain and disappointment, times when we ask, as the Psalmist did: Where is God?Or: Why is this happening to me?
If we have permission to look beyond the outward, literal aspects of the story, we often find that such stories are profoundly true, have powerful things to say to us in the midst of our own struggles, and reveal amazing things about the character and influence of the divine.I have been surprised so often by such insights, that I now expect them, and that is the power of what we call “the living Word.” “If I be lifted up. . . “ The Gospel writer John obviously saw something in that ancient piece of scripture that paralleled his sense of what was going on with Jesus.John obviously saw the healing effects of the serpent on the pole as having a connection with the effects of Jesus on the cross: forgiveness and the healing of sin; the reconciling of enmity; life emerging from death, and something terrible being transformed into a sign of hope.
How many people do you see wearing crosses today?It’s a sign that means something to billions of people, from protection against harm, to a sense of solidarity with other Christians, to a reminder of the presence and love of God.People today might look at the original story of the Cross, with all the conflict, violence, and injustice, and wonder, how can you possibly find anything positive or meaningful in that?The answer is not to be found in gory, painstakingly detailed, “accurate” accounts of Jesus’ physical agonies, as in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which binds it to its own time and place, but in recognizing how those patterns and themes present themselves to us again and again in the midst of our own circumstances.Certainly it is “fact-based,” but the Cross in fact rose to a greater significance, and became a universal sign of hope, because we have had the wisdom to allow it to become symbolic, so it continues to speak volumes, especially for those who struggle, for those who are stomped on by the powerful, for those suffering and dying, for those who believe in God’s capacity to create new life.The Cross now speaks of a strange victory that comes through suffering, a victory that becomes known only to those who make that journey through the “valley of the shadow of death.”
Despite the potential “harmful side effects” involved in engaging certain texts from scripture, I believe it’s important to try to establish bridges between the experiences of ancient people and our own, and to see the same God at work then and now, so that we don’t have a complete sense of separation and disconnection.Too many approaches to scripture create a “that was then, this is now” dynamic. I believe God is one, and that God’s work is continuous.As John made a connection, and that strange ancient story helped him interpret what he was experiencing in his own time, so I think scripture is meant to be helpful to us in revealing a way forward in our own time and circumstances.I believe that way is facilitated by removing the veils ofliteralism and false piety which prevent us from seeing the fullness of the biblical message.