This Sunday's sermon text was the short story of the firey serpents in the wilderness. This is another in the long litany of Israel's failure to fully trust her God and her God-given leaders, in this case Moses.
Prior to this chapter we have had the story of Moses getting fed up with the whining and in turn whining to YHWH about the whiners. Moses wants to know why God has saddled him with these people. He argues that he didn't ask for this, he didn't birth these people, so why in the world is he being expected to be responsible for them?!
God's response is a rather benign, "OK, pick yourself some helpers and let them help."
Later, YHWH will Himself become fed up. So much so that he says to Moses, "Tell you what, how 'bout I wipe these folks out and start over with you as the Father of the Nation?"
Moses is being offered Abraham's place! We might think that Moses would jump at the chance, given his previous complaining, but he doesn't. Instead, he appeals to YWHW's reputation. "If you wipe them out then the other nations will think that you couldn't pull off what you set out to do. You said you would bring this people out of captivity and make them a great nation, and now you would start over? What are the neighbors going to think?"
So YHWH relents.
And so we get to our text. The Israelites, acting like people - like you and me - have just started out on their desert, foot-borne journey around Edom. Edom you see, had decided to not let Israel trudge through their country. Even though Israel had sent messengers saying, "we will stay on the main road and walk straight through; we won't bother anyone."Edom, even though they are extended family, is not dummy. 600,000 Israelites mucking around on your main highway is going to cause some interference with normal commerce and who knows, they may decide to start a fight.
So, despite being cousins, the Edomites refuse permission.So Israel walks. And while she does so, the folks complain again about being brought out of Egypt to die in the wilderness with no food and no water. But they have food - that manna stuff. I guess even if the manna is miraculously given by your God, too many days and weeks of it would take the shine off.
And so they complain.
If God was ready to suggest wiping them out earlier, He takes no time punishing them now. He sends serpents into the camps and people start dying. So many that the people come running to Moses, admitting their sin of complaining, and begging him to pray for them so YHWH will stop the plague of snakes.
Moses, instead of haranguing them, does pray for them. Moses is "the most humble man on the planet" we're told at one point. His prayers and friendship with YHWH are so special to YHWH that much later, the Prophet is told not to waste his breath praying for Israel. To make the point as strong as possible, YHWH says that "even if Moses prayed for them," He wouldn't hear the prayer.
Moses is one guy you want praying for you when you need prayer.
YHWH's response is not to drive away the snakes but to have Moses make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Then, if anyone was bitten by a snake, she could look at the bronze snake and they would live.
Pretty odd, huh? Didn't YHWH just tell them not to make graven images, or idols? So what's this all about? Earlier, YHWH did tell them not make images or idols. Some commentators see here two prohibitions. The first is not to try to confine YHWH to some sort of created being. YHWH is too big, too wonderful, too expansive to be represented by an image of one of His own creatures and so images purported to be of Him are disallowed. We might ask just why Israel would do such a thing, but they did. Even as the Law was being given, Aaron fashioned a calf, claiming it jumped out of the fire, and introduced it to Israel as "the god that brought us out of Egypt." So apparently this prohibition was well founded.
The other prohibition is about making idols and worshiping them. Idols to Ba'al, Ashteroth, Molech, and the rest, as bulls, trees, and whatnot are not to receive worship from Israel. And so two prohibitions - don't try to define YHWH by some creature image, and don't make for yourselves other gods entirely and worship them.
This serpent on the pole fits neither of those categories and is therefore presumably not a violation of the prohibition. At least Moses doesn't argue the point and he was the guy that received the Law - twice.
But Israel is made of humans, and she fails just as we do. Just as humans have throughout history. Some how Israel manages to keep track of this serpent and the next we hear of it is during Hezekiah's reign. Hezekiah is a "good" king and he immediately begins to destroy idol worship in Israel, breaking down the high places and destroying idols. One of those idols is this serpent of Moses.' Having received a name, Israel was making offerings to it and worshiping the thing these centuries later. Interesting how we humans will take things meant for our good and turn them into harmful and sinful things all the while thinking we are doing "right."
But the story doesn't end there. John is going to bring the serpent to our remembrance in chapter 3 of his Gospel. Here John says that just like that serpent, Jesus will be raised and those who look to Him will live. God has redeemed even this serpent that had been profaned by the very people it was meant to help.
That is at least one of the parallels of this story. Jesus, sent to purify the people, is himself profaned by those people - just as by us - and yet is redeemed by His Father and grants us Life. The stone that has been rejected has become the cornerstone of our Lives in God.
How do you respond to the blessings God gives you? Do you take them and then complain they aren't good enough? Do they become profaned through your pride and complaining? This Lent, review your gratitude and attitude. Give thanks for what you have and put off accumulating and upgrading.