24 August 2003 Welcome - Charles - God-bothering - Brazen serpents

"Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign...
he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD...
and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made:
for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it.

(part of) 2 Kings 18, 1-4

Today's Brazen Serpents

Out in the desert, thousands of years ago, the Israelites had been wandering looking for their new home. There they were, soon after the death of Aaron, and had just utterly destroyed a bunch of Canaanite cities after a consultation with their God. But life was not easy. And they were not really helping themselves much, either. After all they had seen, they still doubted God's promises and desire to care for them. (Sounds familiar, eh?). They still grumbled about his provision for them which was not quite to their taste. God wasn't about to put up with that sort of thing: "And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died." Numbers 21, 6

graphic of brass snake on a wooden pole The Israelites understood, and knew who to turn to, and were provided with a remedy, of sorts: "Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived." Numbers 21, 7-9

The way the story is told today often suggests that all was then well, that the remedy was complete. Please notice that the scripture does not, in fact, say that. What it says is that those who looked at the brass serpent lived. It does not say that those who did look were freed from pain and suffering. Neither does it say that those who didn't, died. And, in passing, notice that the people did not get exactly what they asked for (the removal of the serpents).

The brass serpent mounted on a pole is an archetype of Christ on the cross. This is not only obvious, but explained in the New Testament. "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." John 3, 14-15. The earlier comment about the apparent incompleteness of the remedy equally applies here. Life is offered. Ease and absence of pain are not. Just as the Israelites had much to learn, about themselves as well as God, so do those who turn to Christ.

The symbolism can be expanded with the serpent and its bite representing Satan and the effects of sin. This is entirely in keeping with the work Christ did on the cross. It is notable that the brass serpent was provided for one purpose, to deal with one ailment. There is no indication that it was used to effect in any subsequent situation. Likewise Christ's death on the cross as the remedy for sin is a specific solution, targeted at the consequences of sin and effective only for that. What it teaches in so doing is another matter. But to seek to re-employ the cross of Christ to any other purpose is foolish. Some would seek to use it as a talisman, to ward off evil. Useless. Some would use it as an instrument of self-torture to validate their piety. Worthless. The most insidious use though is probably as a simple idol.

While many would argue that a replica of the cross is a useful tool to help focus the mind in prayer and meditation, the replica so often becomes a replacement for God, and is revered for itself. Kissing a crucifix? Burning candles in front of one? Are those acts focusing the mind, or are they idolatry? Making an idol of a life-giving instrument was wrong then and it is now. Look again at what happened to the brass serpent:

"Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. Twenty and five years old was he when he began to reign; and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem. His mother's name also was Abi, the daughter of Zachariah. And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that David his father did. He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan. He trusted in the LORD God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him." 2 Kings 18, 1-5