Imagine that you’re going on vacation. You’re on an airplane. The in-flight movie is about to begin, and you close your eyes for a moment as you settle in for a relaxing trip. Suddenly you feel something moving on your arm. You open your eyes and discover that you’re in a movie: it’s: Snakes on a Plane! Slithering snakes are dropping from the overhead compartments and people all around you are being bitten.
It’s horrible. People are screaming; people are panicking; people are dying. Now, I have no idea what actually happened in the movie. Even when it showed up recently on Netflix, I gave it a pass. I wouldn’t watch it if you paid me; the title alone is enough to give me the shivers. But the scenario isn’t really all that far off from the horror story in our first reading. The Israelites are on a journey, not on a vacation, but a time of wandering around the Sinai desert after their liberation from slavery in Egypt.
Now the Sinai Peninsula has two distinct regions. In the south are mountains, such as Mount Sinai of Ten Commandments fame. The region to the north is a plateau, which includes the extensive plain of Wadi Al-‘Arish. I’m no expert on biblical geography, and even those who are don’t agree on the route of the Exodus. However, it appears that the Israelites were on that northern plain at the time of this incident, so I think it’s safe to say that they, too, were having a “Snakes on the Plain” experience.
The reading attributes their infestation of snakes to God – actually to the people because of their grumbling. God supposedly sent snakes to bite and kill them. That’s an offensive picture of God, is it not? We should know better today that God doesn’t send plagues or pandemics upon us to punish us for our bad deeds. Let’s remember that the Bible isn’t a history book, but a telling of stories to explain theologically what people were experiencing. Clearly the people wandering in the wilderness were afraid of poisonous snakes and other dangers, no doubt of death itself.
You can just hear them crying: “We’re going to die out here. If starvation and thirst don’t get us, these snakes will. We shouldn’t have left Egypt. It wasn’t that bad. We could at least sleep without having to worry about these miserable snakes. This is all Moses’ fault. We should never have listened to him. Liberation, my eye! We were better off as slaves.” They beg Moses to intercede on their behalf.
Now the story gets even stranger. Remember last week: the Ten Commandments? Especially “You shall not make for yourselves any graven images.” Here God says, “Make a snake and put it on the end of a pole. Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will live.” It appears God can’t make up God’s mind. But there it is, one of the many discrepancies in the Bible. This might have remained an obscure folk tale had not the writer of John’s gospel used it in reference to Jesus being lifted up on a cross in order to give life those who looked upon him.
But thanks to John, we do get to interact with this story. What’s interesting about it is that the people don’t get what they ask for. They want God to “take these snakes away from us!” But the snakes don’t go away, nor do they stop biting. Instead, God tells Moses how the people who are bitten can be healed. They’re still bitten, but they live. It was a kind of “hair of the dog that bit you” remedy. Not unlike some of the vaccines we get that use live or inactivated versions of the germs that cause a disease.
Or another way to think about it is that in order to get past their fear of these snakes, they had to look without flinching at the very thing that was frightening them – the thing they feared most, the thing that would surely kill them if God didn’t intervene and transform the instrument of pain and death into an instrument of healing and life. In order to be saved, the people had to confront the serpent — they had to look hard at what was harming, poisoning, breaking, and killing them.
Now we don’t have to literalize these snakes. We know that if Samuel L. Jackson had made some kind of snake and stuck it on a pole in the movie, the other passengers would have thought he was out of his mind. And we certainly don’t have to join a snake-handling church to prove our faith.
The snakes that threaten us are not cobras, mambas and rattlesnakes. Maybe you even like snakes. Our metaphorical snakes are the things that scare us, that poison our thoughts and feelings, that rob us of gratitude, and send us scurrying back to the slave pens of the way things used to be, where at least we knew what to expect. Then, when the venom of doubt enters, we ourselves become sources of poison for others.
In order to be healed and whole, we have to look at the very things that frighten us, to face our fear and stay with it. The imagined cries of the Israelites: “We’re all going to die. We should never have left Egypt. We were better off as slaves” isn’t that far-fetched. Think of some of the monologues that go on in your brain when you crank up your worry factory. This story reminds us that, while the source of our fear might not be removed, our ability to live holistically and without anxiety is a real possibility.
This is what the author of John’s gospel picks up from Numbers and compares the cross to the pole with the image of the snake. What I also like about these texts is that they redeem the image of the serpent, so tarnished in the second Creation story in Genesis. Here, we are reminded that the symbol for the American Medical Association is a serpent entwined around a staff – a symbol of healing.
An interesting sidebar to all this: a friend who is Hindu organized an event a few summers ago for the Hindu festival of Nag Panchmi, which honors the Snake God. There is a variety of ways that the festival is celebrated; for instance people visit temples specially dedicated to snakes and feed them milk. The reason for having it in July or August is probably because it’s the rainy season in India and snakes come out of their holes as rainwater seeps in and there is increased danger of snakebite for humans. So it seems that finding a way to ritually look up to snakes as a way to embrace life comes not only out of Judaism.
And then we get to Christianity, where the message is to look up at the cross, where we will find ‘eternal life’ – eternal life meaning both here and now in this world and also extending beyond death. In John’s gospel, the theme of sight and light is key; he uses it all the time. So the image of the snake ‘lifted up’ so people can see it and be healed resonates with the image of Jesus being ‘lifted up’ on a cross and so becoming widely visible to all who seek new life.
If we interpret this gazing upon the cross in a homoeopathic sense, in that we contemplate an image of something that deeply frightens us – a man crucified for pushing the boundaries of what it means to be human, to make love bigger than hate and violence, to speak out for justice – by gazing upon it and refusing to run from it, we allow the healing power of Divine will to permeate our mind/body/heart/soul, as we gain a kind of immunity against fear and the temptation to run back into the safety of unhealthy patterns.
If nothing else, this pandemic has exposed our vulnerability, of our individual selves as well as communally as a nation. We have had to stare down not only the virus but also what it has revealed about us as a people. The Israelites in their wilderness time had to stare down the poison infecting them – which went much deeper than snake bites. They had to recognize their failure to trust in God who had delivered them from slavery, sustained them in the desert, and promised to guide them to a new home. They need to give more than intellectual assent to a set of abstract propositions about God, more than lip-service as a way of life. What they need is full-on body, mind, and soul confidence in God’s goodness and all-in commitment to the covenant under which they enjoyed God’s presence, provision, and love.
So the question today is: what scares you; what are your deepest fears; what does the worry factory crank out for you each night as you try to sleep? Rather than trying to push those thoughts away, it’s time to put your fear up on a pole and really look at it. Not expecting that God is somehow going to magically take away the source of your anxiety by depositing a million dollars in our bank account or having your boss transferred out of the country or turning the school bully into a pacifist. Not making the tyrants of the world disappear or restoring the damaged eco-systems of earth. Not removing the snakes. But giving us a way to live in spite of them.
Jesus is going to be lifted up on a cross. God is not going to magically instill the Roman empire with mercy or take away the Temple authorities’ fear of losing their privileges as collaborators with Rome. The powers that be will act as powers that be will act. So, yes, Good Friday is coming.
But in that scene that so many will avoid looking at is the answer. Hope, healing and transformation come about in the midst of our own very real circumstances of pain, suffering and death. In Lent, we courageously confront our own ways that we have not lived into our covenant with God. And yes, it can be painful to look into the mirror and see our shortcomings. But this love that exposes truth about us – truth that often hurts – is also a love that heals. And at the same time it invites us into a change in perspective, a shift in understanding, a new way of seeing – everything.
The bronze snake of Moses’s day was not magical. It was not meant to be idolized. Neither is the cross we contemplate during this Lenten season. But because the cross invites us to look up, to reorient ourselves, and to depend wholly on God to bring life out of death, light out of shadow, and healing out of pain, then it functions as a means of grace.
To believe in the healing, life-giving, transformative power of the cross is to rely on God for our very lives. It is to trust that in looking up to it is our most effective “anti-venom.” For God can turn anxiety into hope, fear into courage, despair into joy, even death into life. God can heal and create wholeness within us. And we can, in turn, spread the healing, like good viruses or good bacteria throughout every system of our lives and our world.
That’s the message of the cross. As a symbol it’s in need of some redemption these days, like the name Christian itself. But if we can redeem the reputation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and the snakes on the plain of Sinai, we can recover the power of this one, too.
Good Friday is coming. Holy Week is just two weeks away. Don’t turn away. Look up – and live.
The Israelites traveled from Mount Hor along the road to the Sea of Reeds in order to avoid Edom. But the people grew impatient along the way, and they addressed their concerns to God and Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? We have no bread! We have no water! And we are disgusted with this terrible food!”
Then Yahweh sent venomous snakes among the people. They fatally bit many of the people. So the people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against Yahweh and against you. Intercede for us and ask that God remove the snakes from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people. And Yahweh said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it on the end of a pole. Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then whenever the people were bitten by a snake, they looked at the bronze snake and lived.
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Chosen One must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in the Chosen One might have eternal life.
Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life. God sent the Only Begotten into the world not to condemn the world, but that through the Only Begotten the world might be saved. Whoever believes in the Only Begotten avoids judgment, but whoever doesn’t believe is judged already for not believing in the name of the Only Begotten of God.
On these grounds is sentence pronounced: that though the light came into the world, people showed they preferred darkness to the light because their deeds were evil. Indeed, people who do wrong hate the light and avoid it, for fear their actions will be exposed; but people who live by the truth come out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what they do is done in God.”