The Snaky Covenant
March 11, 2018
I suffer from this horrible thing called ophidiophobia – the fear of snakes. I hate snakes! I mean I really hate snakes! They are my number one fear. In fact, I hate them so much that even reading today’s scripture made me uncomfortable. I am so afraid of snakes that even reading about them or having to think about them creates a bit of anxiety in me. Apparently, I am not alone as in a recent Harris poll, 36% of adults in the United States report a fear of snakes. About 8,000 people in the US are bitten by snakes each year and 7,995 of those survive… only 5 die. (You have no idea how challenging it was for me to do the research on this topic! At 3:30 Friday morning and I couldn’t go back to sleep because every time I closed my eyes, all I could see was rattlesnakes!)
On my hike from Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon last fall, my prayer was to see no “S’s” – no Snakes, no Scorpions. My prayers were answered. I saw neither, but one of my hiking buddies did and of course she had to tell me. There were 6 of us on the trip, but we all hiked at our own pace and met at whatever destination was on the docket for the day. When Barb caught up with me, she said, I have to tell you, I came across a rattlesnake that was about 3 feet off the trail. I heard the warning sound and froze in my tracks until it slithered away. I was then terrified to make the hike back through that area to our hiker’s dorm at Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the canyon. Barb offered to lead the way and I followed at a safe distance and in the snakiest area, she watched to the left of the trail and I watched to the right. I hate it that my fear almost immobilizes me. I must do a lot of self-talk and a lot of praying to hit the trails and pursue my passion for hiking. I was grateful to have my friend “snake sit” me for a few miles that day.
Moses was the “snake sitter” for the Israelite people who were encountering asps and dying right and left, presumably for grumbling against God. How quickly their gratitude for being delivered from slavery in Egypt gave way to griping and complaining in the wilderness. Their complaints sound almost comical if closely followed: “There is no food and water here and we detest this miserable food.” It sounds like something that could be attributed to Yogi Berra: “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”. In other words, we don’t have any food, and it tastes terrible, too! (The wording of the complaint is reminiscent of the wonderful line from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck tries to speak well of a farmer-preacher by proclaiming that he “never charged nothing for his preaching, and it was worth it, too.”)
Moses’ serpent-on-a-pole shows up again in the Old Testament, at 2 Kings 18:4: “[Hezekiah] removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke to pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.” Cameron Howard writes in Feasting on the Word: The Israelites had forgotten the living, free, dangerous God who commanded the construction of the serpent of the wilderness, and they focused instead on a bronzed, domesticated, manufactured idol that they could see and understand. Perhaps (we need) to break up our bronzed serpents and to turn our attention instead to the God of the wilderness: dangerous, maybe, and unpredictable for sure, but always present, always faithful.
(Doug Bratt:) “That bronze snake, however, has no power to grant any generation eternal life. Those whom the snakes bite but whom God heals eventually still die. So Someone Else had to dangle from another kind of pole in order for people to live forever.
When Jesus discusses his earthly mission with Nicodemus in John 3, he refers to this story of the bronze snake. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”
Jesus follows that simile with the memorable description of God’s redeeming love. “For God so loved the world,” he tells Nicodemus in John 3:16, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The cross in John’s gospel, like the Numbers’ bronze serpent on the pole, doesn’t just symbolize God’s righteous fury with God’s children’s sins; it also points to the Lord’s gracious life-giving power.
Yet there’s a difference between the life-giving bronze serpent and Jesus Christ. Numbers 21 doesn’t say that that the Israelites had to believe God would heal them when they looked at the bronze serpent. God simply tells Moses that anyone whom the snakes bite can merely look at the bronze serpent and live. There were probably skeptics who doubted that God could heal those who merely looked at the bronze snake. Once they were bitten, as theologian Scott Hoezee notes, you can imagine they stared pretty hard at it. (I definitely could have hiked that grand canyon with more confidence if I had had a sure remedy for a snake bite in front of me.)
Jesus, by contrast, doesn’t claim that just looking at his cross or him will save anyone. Instead he insists that those who believe in the power of the crucified Christ to save us from our sins will be saved. Jesus refers to Moses’ lifting up the bronze serpent to give life to the people as a metaphor for Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross and then raised from the dead.
Snakes in the ancient world were a symbol of both death and danger and fertility, life, and healing. A snake represented Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. The modern symbol of the medical profession is also a snake wrapped around a branch. The medical professionals at Mayo Clinic offer this advice if you are bitten by a rattlesnake:
Remain calm and move beyond the snake's striking distance. (Well, it seems a little to late for that! And remain calm??? Even as I write this about snakes, my heart rate has increased…)
Remove jewelry and tight clothing before you start to swell. (Not in case you start to swell, but before you start to swell.)
Position yourself, if possible, so that the bite is at or below the level of your heart.
Clean the wound, but don't flush it with water. Cover it with a clean, dry dressing. (Doing all this while remaining calm!)
During Lent, we give something up or take something on as a discipline to call our attention to our need for God. Snakes have been associated with temptation since the Garden of Eden. I wonder if we might apply some of these Mayo Clinic steps to our temptations in life?
When faced with temptation, remain calm and move out of striking distance. Do not be impulsive but remove yourself from whatever wants to have a chokehold on your life and interfere with your walk with God.
Be aware of where your heart is. Remembering the love of God, who sent his son Jesus that we might have life – life abundant, life eternal.
When life gets snaky, and it sometimes will, remember God is with you and promises to never leave or forsake you. That is God’s covenant to us, a covenant of love, a covenant of life, a covenant of life eternal. Amen.