At Pilgrim Congregational Church, we follow a widely-shared pattern of Bible readings for Sunday worship, and one of this week’s readings is the kind that makes me groan. It’s a story from the years when the Israelite people were wandering about in the wilderness, trying to get to “the promised land.” It was a wearying experience, and sometimes they’d get restless and grumbly. This time, God answered their complaints and threats of mutiny with poisonous snakes that bit people and killed many. Seriously?
Of course there’s no way to prove or disprove the historicity of this account. But that’s not really the point. The point is what to do with a story that offers such a petty view of God. Trust me, this is NOT the God that I worship.
It helps to remember that stories grow backward, just like the old “Telephone” game we played as kids, or for that matter, celebrity gossip, news stories, and childhood memories. Whatever “really” happened is just the seed for the version that develops. This story likely developed to explain how some Israelites first picked up worshiping gods represented by bronze serpents, an issue King Hezekiah addressed hundreds of years later (when the story may actually have evolved).
The remedy for snakebite in this story was a cast bronze serpent, fastened to a long pole and raised up where folks could see it. Snakes were often associated with healing; even today, the medical profession is represented by the snake-entwined Rod of Asclepius. The God who sent punishing snakes also directed this healing rite. Not that this justifies, in my mind, the severe punishment in the first place. After all, many are already dead.
But here’s the thing: Discarding the story for its obvious problems is in a way like accepting it as a truthful representation of a vengeful, then repentant God. Both views look only at the surface. What else lies deeper in it?
For one, giving in to our fears brings serious consequences, as individuals and as societies. We get bit when we quit trusting, refuse cooperation, and insist upon our own way. God doesn’t have to send the snakes; we wade in among them.
For another, healing comes when we turn to face what wounds us. It can be doing physical therapy with an aching joint, or admitting our own bad choices, or seeking to reconcile (or set free) a broken relationship. Maybe there’s something to “sympathetic magic,” in this way. Maybe there’s something to picking up one’s cross and losing one’s life in order to gain it.
When the Pilgrims set sail for America, their chaplain’s address included these words: “God hath yet more Truth and Light to break forth from the Holy Word.” Maybe even from creepy snakebite stories. Read it for yourself and ponder: Numbers 21:4-9.