This is a concluding reflection for the class “Lifting Up the Serpent in the Wilderness” (John 3:14-21 and Numbers 21:4-9), part of the Lenten series “Beholding the Lamb, Being Held by the Shepherd: Exploring the Question of Suffering in the Gospel of John” taught at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on Sunday March 18, 2012.
Somehow the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness causes the desert murmuring to end, making this the last of the complaint stories in Numbers. The Israelites are frustrated and impatient, hungry and thirsty and fed up with their “miserable food.” On top of this, poisonous snakes show up and poison many Israelites to death with their fatal venom. Because the Israelites cannot call on St. Patrick to drive out all the snakes from the desert like he did in Ireland, they have to ask Moses for help. They tell Moses that they have sinned in speaking against him and against God and they want Moses to pray to God so that God will send the snakes away, St. Patrick-style. But God does not send the snakes away. Instead, God uses this as an opportunity not only to heal but also to reveal something profound about Himself to His people.
According to the text, the LORD (Yhwh) is the one responsible for sending the poisonous snakes. The Israelites blame God (and Moses) for miserable food, lack of water and their apparent circumambulations through the desert. When poisonous snakes arrive on the scene, God is blamed for these as well, as the text declares: “The LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people.” For the Israelites, the serpent has become a symbol of God’s violent wrath against his people for their complaining. However, God turns the symbol on its head by making the symbol of the serpent into a sign of God’s healing and new life. By lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, God is saying to God’s people, “I am not a God of wrath. I am not a God who will poison you to death because of your complaining. I am a God of love and forgiveness and healing. I want you to stop projecting your violence and wrath onto me. I will teach you this by taking the symbol that you see as representative of my wrath and I will transform it into a symbol of healing and new life. By looking at this life-giving serpent, your understanding of me will be transformed from a God of violent wrath to a God of healing and life.”
This insight was lost by the time King Hezekiah broke down the bronze serpent. However, Jesus sought to reclaim and embody this insight. Jesus says, “Just as the serpent revealed God as a source of healing and love, not violence and wrath, so will I reveal God to you as a God of love and eternal life not condemnation and death (‘God did not the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’).” By seeing the cross primarily through the lens of Anselmian atonement theory, we make the same mistake that the Israelites did, by projecting our own violence onto God. At the cross, God reveals his love and forgiveness in response to human violence. At the cross, God transforms a symbol of human violence into a symbol of healing and new life. By turning this symbol of healing and new life back into a symbol of God’s bloodthirsty wrath, we miss the point. God wants to bring us out of our violence systems by inviting us to stop projecting our violence onto God but rather to bring our violence to God in prayer and experience healing and forgiveness as a result. This is how we “behold” and see the divine pharmakos, the serpent in the wilderness who is revealed to us in the Eucharist, healing our disease of violence and giving us new life.