The Brazen Serpent
A Communion Meditation: Number 20, 21, John 3
Nicodemus was puzzled by something Jesus said to him. There are many things in the Bible that puzzle me; I’m in good company. Things that I just don’t understand because I don’t have the background in the ancient cultures or language, passages that seem too convoluted and things that just don’t seem to fit. This seems to be a deal breaker for some people as far as faith goes, but I’m comfortable with ambiguity.
For example, the story in Numbers 20 and 21 about the Brass Serpent taking place while the Israelites were still walking in circles in the wilderness.
Why is it there? It seems random, unrelated to any other practices of the age.
The Jews were discouraged. Understandable: they had just lost their religious leader, the High Priest Aaron. They had come under attack by Arad the Canaanite, who had captured some of their people. A military defeat, and a hostage situation. Plus, they were taking the long way around Edom, and their feet hurt.
So, they complained. God punished their whining with “fiery serpents”. That’s not hard to understand, either, and it’s also entirely understandable that they pleaded for relief.
What is mystifying is what God did about it. This Serpent thing. God told Moses to make what is essentially an idol. What about Commandment the First?
This account puzzled me as a boy: I had noticed the contradiction back then. I thought and thought about it, but it still seemed to me to be a really bad idea: it was too easy for someone to get this wrong, to start worshipping the snake.
But recently I’ve come more to terms with it.
1. It was used only once, as far as I know: it probably got packed away in Moses’ luggage, and after he died, it went into the Moses Memorial Library. Actually, good king Josiah is credited with destroying it for exactly this reason.
2. My two cents: God did this one awful thing, a unique event, that one time as a symbol of what he would do for real; an awful, awful thing that he would do one time only, far, far in the future. I’m pretty confident I’m right, because in John 3:14, Jesus tells Nicodemus:
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.
The Jews didn’t have to sacrifice an animal, splash blood on a doorway, or pay money to be saved from an agonizing, lingering death. They just had to look. Centuries later, the prophet Zechariah said:
Zec 12:10 And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.
We perform *this* ritual, this communion, each Lord’s Day, as often as we do it, in remembrance of Him, who was lifted up on a pole, that we may look at him, and believe and not perish.