Snake on a stick

by Jim on 25 March 2008

This whole story just drives me crazy.  It all started not long after Israel’s victory against the King of Arad, under the leadership of Moses.

Things were going well, but what followed was a long journey, and the people got discouraged.  And they started to complain to God and Moses.  There’s not enough water.  There’s not enough food.  And this food you’ve given us?  The "manna"?  We just don’t like it.

This wasn’t the first time the people had spoken out against their Deliverer, and it wouldn’t be the last.  But this time God sent them a powerful illustration.

Poisonous snakes began to slither through the camp.  Many who were bitten died.  The people who had been recipients of God’s favour discovered that they had placed themselves against God, and they came to Moses admitting that they had done wrong.  They begged Moses to pray for them.

He did.  And God answered with another illustration.  Moses was to make a poisonous snake on a pole.  If anyone was bitten, they were just to look at the snake on the pole, and they wouldn’t die. (read more in Num 21)

Jesus was to take up the illustration centuries later in His discussion with Nicodemus.  Just as Moses lifted up this snake on a stick, Jesus would be lifted up, so that those who believed in Him would live (John 3:10-17).  It’s a powerful symbol of faith and spiritual healing.

Bronze serpent
The bronze serpent by artists Bernard or Abraham van Linge on a window in the Lincoln College Chapel at Oxford.
Photo courtesy of Lawrence OP

We don’t know how long the snakes inflicted the camp of Israel, or how long the bronze snake was used for healing purposes.  But along with other remembrances of what God had done, it was kept.  You may remember that several items were kept in the Ark of the Covenant itself (Aaron’s rod, the 10 commandments and a bowl of manna).

The snake on a pole would have been a wonderful reminder of the dangers of opposing God, and complaining.  It would also have been a reminder of God’s forgiveness, and provision for the healing of the people.

But now comes the part that drives me crazy.

Almost 1,000 years later we meet King Hezekiah, of Judah.  He ascended to the throne at the age of 25, and proceeded to clean up the terrible idol worship that had taken over much of the nation.  He tore down shrines and idols.  And this is where we meet the bronze serpent again.

Apparently, the snake-on-a-stick had become an idol itself.  The people worshipped it like a god, burning incense to it.  No longer was it a reminder of God Himself, it had replaced Him.  So Hezekiah destroyed it. (read 2Kings 18:1-4)

That drives me crazy.

It’s so typical, and so annoying.

One thing that struck me as I read again through the Pentetuech recently was that God knew the people needed physical illustrations and reminders.  Woven into life were parties and traditions that taught the people what God is like.  The tabernacle and temple were incredible teaching tools, and, as we know now, prophetic of Jesus himself, as the bronze serpent was.  People needed these traditions and practices – but soon people made them meaningless hypocracies, or added meaning they were never intended to have.

It’s an often complaint against religion here in Mexico – that lines are blurred between the image and the real.  Between honour (of saints) and worship.  Between symbolism and a mystical means to gain God’s favour.  And so, often when people have an encounter with the living God, they turn from the empty traditions that they once thought would save them.

One expatriate in Mexico was disappointed to find the church he attended did very little in the way of special celebration on Resurrection Sunday – perhaps as a reaction against the empty traditions they saw around them.

And it’s not one church or organization that’s at fault.  It seems it happens to all of us – to all groups – to varying degrees.  We start to worship the Bible itself as God.  Or a "church building".  We get more interested in the form than we are in the meaning.

Or we forget the meaning altogether, thinking that "going to church" will somehow "do us good", for example.

I love symbolism, art, music, drama, illustrations, stories… these things are a part of who we are, and are meant to glorify God.  Admittedly, there are great dangers to tradition.  After all, Jesus Himself spoke loudly against the empty traditions of His day, and how the religious leaders even used their interpretations of the law to twist the law of God itself (Mark 7:6-13).

Then again, Jesus gave us new physical reminders – the Lord’s supper, as we call it, and baptism.  And believers have traditionally used other physical traditions – washing of feet to teach about servanthood, meeting on the first day of the week to celebrate the resurrection – and many more.

(I’m not addressing whether these things are "just" symbols, or if they hold a deeper reality – that’s another discussion!  The point is that they are physical things in space and time that are related to spiritual realities.)

I guess what I’m suggesting is that we need to use these physical acts with care – maybe rejecting some that have come to have unbiblical meanings, maybe re-learning what the Bible teaches about some, maybe changing how they’re done, or examining them.  But somehow there needs to be a place in the lives of the community of Jesus followers for rich, creative traditions.  Those constant daily, weekly, and yearly reminders of God and His Word.  But how can we do it without turning it into another snake-on-a-stick?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle in Mx March 27, 2008 at 6:46 pm

I was just reading in Kings about this – the story of how they had to destroy the snake on a stick and I had similar pondering. Any “thing” left or sent, used or otherwise touched by God is/has been in danger of becoming an object of worship. I get the mental image of God doing a celestial eye rolling. It’s crazy. I don’t know of a solution, but I do know that my husband and I are of the handful of people I know that do not celebrate Christ resurrection with baskets, bunnies, eggs or other such trappings. Maybe a ham . . . (I kidding-)

Jim March 27, 2008 at 7:26 pm

Well, the good thing is that most people don’t worship the Easter bunny. I don’t think so, anyway! That might be a whole different issue.

Yes, it’s funny how we just – I don’t know, I guess we want a god we can control.

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