Fiery Serpents on the Way to the Promised Land

“We’ve made some progress but, we still have a distance to travel,” stated [Representative John] Lewis of Atlanta on the 53 anniversary of the crossing of the Bridge in Selma over voting rights
“From Mount Hor [the Israelite wanderers] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom [given the refusal of Edom’s King to give them safe passage]” Numbers 21:4

What if the first generation who followed Moses out of Egypt
were not unlike the brave souls who crossed over Selma’s Bridge fifty-three years ago with sights set for the Promised Land?

Like the recent re-enactment of the crossing of the Bridge in Selma, by the time we get to the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible – we witness the next generation. These are the grown children of those who fled Eygpt; these are the ones who never knew anything else other than living as tent-dwelling Bedouins in a raw, forsaken, wind-swept desert. Though born in liberty, they were the offspring of those condemned to captivity.

In fact, the only one amongst them who had never known the lash of the overseer’s whip was Moses. Moses – born into privilege. Moses – educated by the best that Pharoah’s household had to offer. Moses – who was adopted by a princess and raised as a ruler’s son.

So when the Book of Numbers talks about the second generation of escaped slaves being bitten by fiery serpents because of they rejected the provisions of our Sovereign Lord (Numbers 21:4-9), I find myself wondering what is not said. Is there more to this account than stated? Could there be more to this story particularly when we consider that fifteen hundred years later Jesus uses this incident to prefigure his death?

When extensively hiking the deserts of California, recognizing poisonous snakes AND treating snakebite – is a necessary skill when traversing its wind-swept and rocky terrain.  Take heed, unlike the ancient account from the Book of Numbers, gazing upon a bronze snake set upon an upright pole won’t be found in backpacking first aid manuals or elsewhere. But nevertheless, both ancient scripture and current medical treatment underscore the venom’s systemic threat, potentially causing paralysis, severe swelling, difficulty breathing, cardiac arrest and death.

Fifteen hundred years later, Jesus used this account and image when speaking to a prominent religious leader who came to him under cover of night.  “If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how can I tell you about heavenly things?” Jesus said, “…[for] just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:12, 14)

Millennia later, you and I read this account and ponder what Jesus meant by these words. Save this. What if the only thing that can heal the likes of us is nothing short of a systemic remedy, one that treats toxin ravaged souls as well as bodies? What if the crosses we wear and those posted on church steeples and elsewhere are as holy witnesses – testifying that God-in-Christ sustains not by taking us out of the wilderness but by remaining – even in the most godforsaken places and times.*

*Inspiration is credited to Professor Terence E. Fretheim’s  outstanding commentary on this passage