This is one of the so-called “murmuring stories” in the book of Numbers. Murmuring stories record times in the wilderness wanderings when the Israelites complained about their circumstances (i.e. murmured amongst themselves about their conditions). Generally murmuring stories do not end well for the Israelites, and the punishments that result often help explain the transition in Numbers between the old and the new generation. The old generation (accounted for in the first census of Numbers) will die off and never reach the promise land. The new generation (accounted for in the second census of Numbers) will reach the promise land.
The story is not a pleasant one to read. The Israelites are tired of their circumstances in the wilderness and complain about Moses and about God. In response God sends poisonous snakes to bite the Israelites and kill them. The Israelites realize that their troubles are the result of their own sin, so they plead with Moses for help, and Moses in turn goes to God. God instructs Moses to fashion a snake and place it on a pole. Moses does this, making a snake out of bronze. God further instructs that when an Israelite is bitten he/she is to look at the snake on the pole and receive healing.
Interestingly the relic of the bronze snake will make an appearance in 2 Kings 18:4. In this text the new king Hezekiah destroys the bronze snake that has now made its way into the temple and become an object of veneration (it even had a name: Nehushtan).
Theological points of interest we can take away from this story:
1. There seems to be a difference between murmuring and lament. Lament (speaking of God’s absence in the face of great trial) is found everywhere in the Hebrew Bible and is allowed, even welcomed, by God. Murmuring however is continually met with punishment. Perhaps the former decries God when God is not there and God isn’t, while the latter decries God when God is not there and God is. (The Israelites complain about there being no food, even though there is manna. The Israelites complain about God bringing them into the desert to die, even though God just brought about their emancipation.)
2. That which is a symbol of death (the poisonous snake) becomes a symbol of life by the mercy of God. (credit: my good friend Kevin Wells).
3. The means should never be worshipped as an end (the bronze snake has no efficacy outside of God’s grace flowing through it as a sacrament).
4. It was not uncommon for the people of the ancient Near East to associate trials and sickness with punishments from God (actually this is not uncommon in the history of all Judeo/Christian thinking). Whether or not our own view on theodicy can handle such an interpretation of events is up to us to decide.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Our Psalm functions liturgically this Sunday as a response to the Hebrew Bible reading. The Psalm mentions those who were “sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction.” These people cried out to the Lord and the Lord healed them. The psalmist asks those who were healed to give thanks for the steadfast love of the Lord.
The entire psalm presents four situations in which God saves those who cry out to him. The four situations happen in four different directions (east, west, north, and south). The idea seems to be that God can redeem people lost to God from any direction.
The Greek perfect passive participle is important here. What I mean is this: the author of Ephesians (traditionally and canonically attributed to Paul, which recent scholarship has put in doubt) believes that the Ephesians’ salvation has already occurred, “by grace you have been saved.” This points to the author’s belief that salvation is more than a future moment of deliverance, but a present reality. This was an important realization for a church that once was awash in the belief of an imminent parousia (i.e. second coming of Christ) but was now dealing with Christ’s delayed return. How do we ‘be Christian’ in the meantime? The author of Ephesians does not believe that the answer is simply to bide time and wait for our salvation, but rather the author of Ephesians believes that salvation is already here, and that because of it we live a different kind of life. One might quibble with the author of Ephesians as to what kind of life that might be (whether one given to the public advancement of social justice, or one immersed in personal piety and morality). Whatever the case one thing is for sure, “we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (vs. 10).
Our gospel lection captures the closing discourse in the story of Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, who comes to Jesus by night in order to speak with him. It is important to remember that John’s gospel was written at a time of great stress in the early Christian Jewish communities, when Christians were dividing out (some staying with the Jewish place of worship, and some breaking off into new and distinct groups). Those that broke away had no power and were easily marginalized. What we read in the gospel of John is the product of these tensions, and, in some ways, a polemic against those without ‘truth.’ Nicodemus represents the Jew who knows that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God (vs. 2) but who still comes to Jesus by night (i.e. does not publicly acknowledge it).
Our section of the Nicodemus story has Jesus describe the difference between those who believe and those who do not. Those who believe are in the light, not in the dark (as Nicodemus was). Those who believe are not condemned, but those who disbelieve are ‘condemned already.’
The conclusion of the Johannine community is that Jesus must be ‘lifted up’ as was the serpent in the wilderness by Moses (an allusion to our Hebrew Bible lection). This is a bit of a double entendre: it is certainly a reference to Jesus being ‘lifted up’ on the cross, and also a reference to Jesus being ‘brought to light’ and not shamefully hidden by some Jews (like Nicodemus) who believed in Jesus but refused to sacrifice personally for their belief.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the extent of our deliverance from dangerous circumstances. Consider our tendency to warp lament into murmuring and receive the due penalty (the self inflicted miserable outlook and experience of life) as a result. Consider our need to elevate Christ and to sacrifice in our allegiance to him.