*I would like to thank my friends at “Refining Theology” for thinking through this pericope with me.
If you journey to Saint Ambrose Basilica in Milan, Italy (and why wouldn’t you) you can see the apotropaic Nehushtan. I’ll be a good travel agent and tell you what that means.
The origin of the Nehushtan dates back to the time of the wilderness wanderings when the Israelites were on the verge of entering the Promise Land. Unfortunately the large nomadic group was not finding a welcome reception amongst the people of the Transjordan. They had already fought a bloody contest with the king of Arad, and were about to be turned away by the king of the Amorites, and so Moses and company thought it best to steer clear of the big bully on the block, the Edomites. This meant more desert hiking, and the Israelites were tired of it.
The book of Numbers records that the travel worn people became impatient along the way. As a result of their weariness they spoke out against Moses and against God, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” This is not the first time the people had complained of their circumstances. Complaining was a bit of a hobby for the wilderness wanderers (good thing us moderns have outgrown such immaturities).
The complaints of the Israelites while in the wilderness are known collectively as “murmuring stories.” Murmuring stories all have one thing in common: they never turn out well for those complaining. The story told today is no exception. When the Israelites murmured the aforementioned complaints God sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
Of all the nasty divine retributions, this one, in my opinion, is the worst. I am reminded of Indiana Jones’ famous line in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?!” Snakes are gross. Humanity is in almost universal agreement on this point. According to people who measure the extent of phobias in human populations fear of snakes (ophidiophobia) is one of the most widespread fears, and first amongst phobias of other living things. The only two fears that beat out snakes are: (1) fear of dying; and (2) fear of public speaking (great). I could prove it simply by telling you that underneath your pews this morning, just before services, I let go a couple of feisty garter snakes who are presently milling about. If I could make my lie believable enough I would see most of you squirming and lifting your legs out of danger, some of you jumping up on pews, and a couple of you so terrified that you would shamelessly climb over young and old alike, just to get to safety.
There are scientific reasons for this. Psychologists have discovered that adults and children, even very young toddlers, can detect images of snakes more easily than they can less harmful creatures such as frogs, or caterpillars, or flowers. The idea is that throughout evolutionary history, humans that learned quickly to spot and fear snakes survived better in the wilderness and were at an advantage to reproduce.
The Israelites discovered their fear in a hurry, and they rushed to Moses and begged Moses to once again intercede on their behalf. Moses does his part. God responds by telling Moses to make a serpent and set it on a pole, and when someone is bitten by the poisonous snakes have them look up at the serpent effigy to receive healing. Moses makes a snake out of bronze and its works like a charm–I mean it works apotropaically (i.e. like magic).
At this point I should address the red flags that have sprung up in your mind. Wait a minute, why did God command Moses, the leader of the Israelite people, to construct a bronze snake? Doesn’t God read the Bible? Doesn’t God know the second of the great commandments, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath.” Isn’t the reason the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness in the first place because they decided it was a good idea to make a calf of gold and worship it as the god that brought them out of Egypt?
Furthermore is it really wise to have the Israelites receive their healing by looking toward a bronze serpent? Why, it’s almost as though the bronze serpent was magic. Certainly God was aware of Leviticus 19 which forbade the practice of divination and sorcery. Wasn’t the exodus from Egypt not only an emancipation of the people but a statement of God’s power over Pharaoh’s great magicians?
We have to admit this whole scenario is a little odd, and we’ve said nothing about the harshness of a God who’s character allows him to send poisonous snakes to bite complaining Israelites. Explain that Jesse. Sometimes this preaching thing is a tough gig.
You should know that your misgivings about this passage are not unfounded. Later, when the Israelites were firmly established in the Promise Land, they set up a shrine to this bronze snake on a pole, and they brought offerings to it, and they gave it a name–the Nehushtan! We know this because when King Hezekiah came to power in southern kingdom of Judah he initiated reforms in the cultic worship practices of the people to make the praise of the people more acceptable to YHWH. One of the things he did was break in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made which had now become a powerful idol.
All of this background brings us full circle to where we began: Milan, Italy. The fact that Hezekiah is said to have destroyed Moses’ bronze snake doesn’t stop many modern day Milanese from asserting that the bronze snake that adorns a pillar of Elba granite at Saint Ambrose Basilica, given around the year 1000 C.E. to Archbishop Arnulf by the Emperor of Constantinople, is none other than the apotropaic Nehushtan itself, formed by Moses millennia ago in the desert heat. Legend says that on the final day of the Lord it will come to life and announce the end of time and lead all people to the valley of Jehosephat where we will stand before God’s judgment. Perhaps Harry Potter, speaking parseltongue, will give it directions from his broomstick GPS.
These stories have a way of getting out of control in a hurry. They fascinate us with their strange plots, but we generally have no idea what todo with them when we attempt the hard work of understanding our own lives and experiences of God against the backdrop of the ancient Mediterranean world. What do we make of the apotropaic Nehushtan? Should we create a shrine for it and bring it offerings, or put it in a basilica in Milan and imbibe it with legendary significance? Is there anything helpful that can be said about the magic snake and this strange story of murmuring in the desert?
Here’s a shot at crafting an answer.
To begin let’s highlight a few details. When the Israelites brought their complaints to God they said some interesting things. First they complained, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” This, of course, is not why God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. God brought the Israelites out of Egypt because the Israelites were enslaved. God’s program was one of mass emancipation, not mass genocide. The complaint of the Israelites tells us that the memory of God’s merciful grace was quickly vacating the minds of the people. They no longer embraced God’s act as a righteous deliverance, but instead saw it as an evil oppression.
Second they complained, “There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” If you have a careful ear that last bit was comical. “There is no food” they whined, and yet in the same breath “we detest this miserable food.” Well was there food or wasn’t there? This complaining sounds a lot like my late night snack cravings, when I open all the cupboards in my home–cupboards chalk full of healthy, delicious food (but no chips and dip, or chocolate cake)–and grumpily and falsely declare, “There’s nothing to eat in this house.” Of course I don’t mean that there is nothing in my house that could save a starving person from death. What I mean is that of all the many foods present in my home, I am still unsatisfied. Yes, there was food in the desert. God provided manna from heaven, and when that was not enough he provided quail for meat. Oh sure, it wasn’t the fleshpots of Egypt, or the fish of the Nile. It wasn’t cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic, but it was food.
The false complaint of the Israelites reminds us that there is a difference in the Bible between complaining and lament. Lament is the plaintive crying out to God in the stinging absence of God’s presence (e.g. Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Complaining is the spoiled crying out to God when God’s presence is not only discernable, but in the middle of saving our butts. Lament is all through the Hebrew Bible, and it is allowed, even encouraged, by God. Complaining on the other hand, failing to be satisfied, even in the midst of our salvation, shows a lack of wisdom and respect, and is met with God’s disapproval.
In our context, even with our seemingly great trials, we are likely far closer to complaining in most things than we are of finding real lament. Does this mean we are in danger of the poisonous snakes? Maybe we are. Have you ever met people who seem to have it all but are quite miserable? Can we not say they are living snake bitten lives? God is giving them abundant life, and they are choosing miserly death. If our confessions were true today, we would recognize times when we all murmured in the desert, unsatisfied, unhappy, speaking out against our leaders and against God. We would recognize that we often turn away from God’s emancipating work, work meant to set us free from the trappings of life, and say instead that God does not want us to be free and well fed.
It’s a good lesson, one we sorely need. But I’m still with Indy, “Snakes! Why ‘d it have to be snakes?!” Perhaps there is good reason. When early rabbis read their sacred scripture they attempted to interpret it and make it available for the people. Their interpretations were known as Targums. The Targum Neofiti takes up the subject matter of snakes in today’s murmuring story. In it the good rabbis wisely remind us of the third chapter of Genesis where the serpent who deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden is given this curse by God: “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” This curse made perfect sense to the ancient person. Even though us moderns know that snake tongues allow snakes to perceive scent, the ancient person saw in a snakes’ flittering tongue a creature constantly lapping at the dust of the ground. The rabbis all chuckled. How fitting that in this story of the murmuring Israelites the creatures of the curse, who have eaten only dust, and yet have done so without complaint, were sent to silence the complaining Israelites who didn’t want to eat the food they’d been given. That a bronze serpent found its way on top of a pole as a symbol of healing grace was an instance of poetic justice to the rabbis who commented, “Let the serpent which does not murmur concerning its food come and rule over the people which has murmured concerning their food.”
Perhaps the rabbis were right. Maybe God does have a flare for poetic justice. Our lack of satisfaction in life is an complex snake pit. While the simple life that perhaps we fear the most, lifted up high for us to look upon, is the very place that brings forth the joy we find so elusive.
It’s hardly apotropaic. It’s just the wonder of God, who’s wisdom far surpasses our murmurings, and who knows how to use a little ophidiophobia to frighten us into silence for the good of our salvation.