“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (3:14)
In Numbers Chapter 21, 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, may your understanding of me 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 called Nehushtan. 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 violent 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 pharmakon, the serpent in the wilderness who is revealed to us in the Eucharist, healing our disease of violence and giving us new life.
The Green-Eyed Monster
They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here is baptizing, and all are going to him.” (3:26)
The disciples of John the Baptizer inform their rabbi that he is losing numbers to that Jesus of Nazareth guy, who was likely a former disciple of John himself. They see Jesus as a rival to John. Although likely not aware of it, they are playing with satanic fire by saying this. Satan will show up again in the Gospel so I won’t elaborate too much at this point, but I am drawn to the Girardian notion that Satan is the personification of mimetic rivalry, envy and jealousy. Satan is that “green-ey’d monster” about which Iago warned Othello:
“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”
The green-ey’d monster sets in motion the levers and pulleys of the violent scapegoat mechanism. Once jealousy reaches a boiling point a valve must open in order to release the violent tension, in order to prevent an all-against-all war. The valve is the mechanism of collective violence, which is unleashed on an innocent victim. If John the Baptizer and Jesus were more concerned with their egos and reputations, they could easily fall into a rivalry that would likely result in the scapegoating of innocent victims. However, they are both keenly aware of and deeply opposed to the green-eyed monster.
John responds to the anxieties and burgeoning jealousies of his disciples by saying, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.”
John knows that all is gift. And the invitation is to take joy in all the gifts we have received from heaven as well as all the gifts that our friends and loved ones have received from heaven. Sometimes it is not easy to rejoice in our friends’ gifts. In fact, it is easy to get jealous. Sometimes we actually take cruel pleasure in other people’s misfortunes. The Germans actually have a word for that kind of pleasure: schadenfreude. Friendship involves having sympathetic joy (perhaps mitfreude) and a wonderful liturgical symbol of this sympathetic joy is the Best Man at a wedding. The Best Man is certainly not doing his job if he is sulking in envy, seeking ways to steal away the bride and ruin the wedding celebration. The Best Man rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice and finds his joy fulfilled as he himself decreases while the bridegroom increases and receives his bride.
Jesus receives the bride as his Best Man, John the Baptizer, stands by rejoicing in all the gifts his friend has received from heaven. The beautiful irony about not grabbing greedily at other people’s gifts is that by rejoicing with them we can actually enjoy their gifts as well. The Best Man can delight in the beauty of the bride through the eyes of the bridegroom. The close friend can swim in the new pool or soak in the new Jacuzzi or learn from the new wisdom of the other gifted friend because those are things that friends love to share. And when it comes to Jesus, “the Father has placed all things in his hands” (3:35). And when we rejoice in the gifts Jesus has received from heaven, we also get to share in and enjoy what he has received: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.”
But whoever falls into the clutches of the green-ey’d monster will certainly suffer: “Whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath” (3:36).
 “As preachers and baptizers close in age, attitude, and familial relation, John and Jesus are twin-like, but they eschew the satanic temptation to compete with one another, referring and submitting instead to the complementary mission each one has been given by the Father: ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven’ (3:27).” Ann W. Astell, “‘Exilic’ Identities, the Samaritans and the ‘Satan’ of John.” In Sacrifice, Scripture, & Substitution: Readings in Ancient Judaism and Christianity, edited by Ann W. Astell and Sandor Goodhart (Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), 399.