Numbers 21:9 “So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
I was out walking Ruckus this past week, strolling by the house I’ve come to call “the neighbors from hell,” and the pit bull and husky tied out in that yard began to bark. The 20-something owner came out, yelling loudly at the dogs. He walked to his truck, an enormous thing parked out in the small road. “I hate those dogs,” he said to me. “Aren’t they your dogs?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said, “but they bark. Every day I’ve got neighbors on my doorstep complaining. What do they want me to do? Duct tape their mouths shut? I hate this neighborhood.”
My young neighbor is clueless to the ways that his behavior has quickly made him the bane of the neighborhood. From the vehicles blocking the road, to the barking dogs, to the junk-strewn yard, to the constant chain saws cutting down every tree on the property, to building without a permit, to burning without a permit and filling all our homes with smoke, the annoyances are constant. Neighbors have complained to him, to the police, and to the fire department. But he doesn’t see his part in it and believes he has just landed in a rotten neighborhood.
When the Hebrew slaves left Egypt, they too were fairly blind to their own issues. Life was hard, and they blamed God, whining that God’s provision was not enough, even after all the miracles that had allowed for their escape. Finally, God has heard one whine too many and sends them poisonous snakes. They get Moses to pray for them, and God gives them a fascinating answer. Moses is to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and have the people look at it in order to get better. Why not just remove the snakes?
I think the bronze serpent teaches a deeper lesson. What it says to me is that in order to be healed, we have to take some personal responsibility for our sin. We have got to be willing to look what is biting us square in the face, and only then will our situation improve. Worrying about whether God really sends snakes as punishment is, to me, missing the point. The truth of the story lies in telling us to face up to our sins and failures and their consequences in our lives. If we do that, we find healing, not shame.
Jesus later compares his own lifting up on the cross to this odd little story in Numbers, reinforcing that it means more than a proof-text for God’s vengeance. It is not a story about how God punishes, but a story about how God heals and how that healing needs our participation and confession. To my neighbor, those around him are poisonous snakes. He won’t be healed until he can stop and realize that their bites may be his salvation.
Help me, God, to see why the snakes have come and how I might be healed.
(You can read a sermon on this passage at http://www.annerobertson.com/SSL/TheBronzeSerpent.htm)
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