Imagine the scene. Fiery serpents, the Masoretic Text does not say they are poisonous. They are all around the people, crawling under their feet, climbing up their legs, sneaking under their clothing, robes. Just image the sensation of fiery snakes on your skin, constricting your limbs and biting you, who knows probably a very strong constriction since the word for fiery is the same word for seraphim, the angelic beings who guard the cosmic dwelling of Israelite’s god.
They are biting Israelites in a place of no help, in the midst of the desert, after many years of wandering, of complaining for what they left behind: the great land of Egypt. People are dying all around you, we do not know why. Are the snakes actually poisonous? Are they strangling the people? Are the people dying because they cannot breath? Are the snakes fiery because of the burning sensation at the injection of venom and from the subsequent inflammation?
Imagine the scene. They, fiery serpents and dying people, are all around you. Yet we read that some were able to come to Moses to implore for help.
What? They come to Moses? Where the heck is Moses? Is he not supposed to be with the people? Since the people need to come to Moses, Is Moses actually among the people? It seems not. He remains oblivious of the people’s predicament up till the moment some of them come to speak, actually to implore. They ask Moses to pray to this strange deity who sends fiery serpents.
Israelites just came in the previous scene, from victory over the Canaanites. Apparently that has made them eager to conclude the journey. They may think now the journey is a trouble-free future. But just after this victory, they are all taking a detour. Everybody needs to go around the land of Edom. Why not to face them? We have just defeated the Canaanites. Why now cannot we defeat the Edomites?
The text remains silent. We do not know. However, Israelites are impatient. There is no explanation for not taking the shortest route. To face the Edomites and to defeat them as well.
Their litany of woes include lack of food and water, nothing new in the drama of Israelites during their time in the wilderness. However, this is the first time that their complaint is directed not merely against Moses and Aaron, but “against God” as well.
Previous complaints are about a vegetarian menu. People wanted meat. Now, with this new turn of events, with the decision to go around Edom, people become bold as to state that they detest the bread of worthlessness. It is not that they detest a worthless bread as most English translations say. The Hebrew says “A bread of worthlessness.” They are projecting onto the bread, their own situation. After decades in the wilderness, they see themselves as worthless people, and the food that has sustained their lives has lost its meaning. It continues to feed their body, but their souls are tired.
Their complaint has brought more problems, snakes are killing them. So they do the other thing they are good at: praying after screwing it up. The remedy comes in the form of another snake. Moses is to place a bronze fiery, a bronze seraph. Again, the text does not use the word “serpent” but seraph. It is a fiery bronze. Is this a suggestion of a cosmic presence? Are the people perceiving a divine presence in their midst? A seraph that could save their lives. A seraph that could protect them from the snakes but that actually is another snake. It is ambiguously an image of both divine presence and divine threat.
The ancient idea of a connection between serpents and the power to heal is carried down to modern times in the caduceus emblem (a staff entwined by two serpents). In modern times, it has become the symbol of the medical profession.
So the remedy sent by YHWH requires not another bite or injection. The antidote is a way of seeing. It requires gazing upon a bronze snake that magically negates the venom of the fiery serpents. The Israelites were to inoculate the venom by gazing at an image of a serpent. Sight could be an attribute of life and literally, gazing is life in this story. It is by seeing, and in this case at the serpent, that Israelites may find divine reality and also be reminded of divine threat.
Magic, sympathetic magic, one in which the venom of the serpent is manipulated through the creation of a bronze model is happening here. Magic works because the Israelite deity is in the bronze serpent. Once the bronze serpent is prepared and set up, it becomes the locus, the place of the deity’s presence. The serpent becomes what it is taken to represent. The story does not describe how the bronze serpent acquires its effectiveness to heal the people. But it seems to acquire its effectiveness by divine command which invests the mundane and unimpressive with magical powers capable to avert the power of the venom.
What is my reflection?
There is an act of trust in gazing at the bronze snake. Image the scene. Snakes are crawling under your feet. They are climbing up your legs. Their scales are roughing on your skin. Their fiery venom produces burn and inflammation. You see death all around you. People crying out and stopping breathing. And you are required to gaze, to stop fighting the serpents, to let them crawl under your clothing, to endure their burning bit. You are required to gaze as evidence that you finally are willing to trust. To stop complaining at the life your living. The gaze focuses the sight and mind upon the possibility of a saving act. So those who are saved are not saved by the thing that was held, but by the deity who now is present in it.
Israelites are YHWH’s chosen people, but contrary to the belief that this divine act brings a trouble-free future, the community is learning that chosenness means trouble and hardship. There is no escaping of reality. You will encounter snakes, poisonous snakes in a life of faith. Some of them you will bring to your life. Some will be brought by neighbors who are suspicious of your presence, like the Edomites who take the very existence of someone who is different as imminent threat.
Who are you? Are you the snakes injecting venom in fellow life-travelers in this wilderness?
Are you the Israelites with a master degree in complaining? Are you the Edomites unwilling to compromise and unwilling to extend hospitality to migrants, sending them to a trap of snakes? Are you another Moses, insensible to the suffering of the people, just paying attention when begged by others to do it? What a great model for ministers is Moses.
Could you sometimes be a healing presence among people who are crying and dying eager to gaze at your healing presence when they are surrounded by death? Are we all at sometimes of our lives serpents, Edomites, Israelites, healing presence? Who are you? Who do you choose to be today?
Image: The Uplifted Serpent by Douglas Ramsey.