Lent 4B

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This page is part of the Lectionary project of the FaithFutures Foundation.


Revised Common Lectionary
Numbers 21:4-9 and Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Roman Catholic (1998 US) Lectionary
2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23 and Psalm 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
Ephesians 2:4-10
John 3:14-21

Episcopal Church USA
2 Chronicles 36:14-23 and Psalm 122
Ephesians 2:4-10
John 6:4-15

The Healing Serpent

Snakes in holy places

The strange episode from Numbers 21:4-9 provides the background to the RCL/RC Gospel passage with its reference to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents [Hebrew: seraphim] among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

This is an extremely brief story, but it raises many questions about the character of God and the nature of the tradition now preserved in the biblical texts.

As it happens, the episode appears to be linked with a religious object (a bronze serpent) that apparently adorned the Temple in Jerusalem despite the traditional Yahwistic ban on "graven images." The reference in 2 Kings 18:4 is brief, and rather cryptic, but no less tantalizing on that account:

In the third year of King Hoshea son of Elah of Israel, Hezekiah son of King Ahaz of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign; he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Abi daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the sight of the LORD just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan. He trusted in the LORD the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. For he held fast to the LORD; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the LORD commanded Moses. The LORD was with him; wherever he went, he prospered. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him. He attacked the Philistines as far as Gaza and its territory, from watchtower to fortified city. (2Kings 18:1-8, NRSV)

The mystery deepens when we realize that Numbers 21 does not use the common word for snake (nahash) but seraph; better known to us as the winged creatures around the throne of God in Isaiah's vision:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory."

(Isa. 6:1-3, NRSV)

Jacob Milgrom, in the New JPS commentary on Numbers leaves the term untranslated, and observes:

It can be synonymous with nahash, "serpent" (Isa. 14:29). The verb saraf means "burn." Thus the Greek renders "deadly" and Targum Onkelos, "burning," referring to the serpent's poisonous bite. Targum Neofiti offers this explanation: "The divine voice came forth from the earth and its voice was heard on high: Come see, all you creatures, and come give ear, all you sons of the flesh; the serpent was cursed from the beginning and I said to it: Dust shall be your food (see Gen. 3:14). . .. Let the serpent which does not murmur concerning its food come and rule over the people which has murmured concerning their food."'

Snakes in the wild places

The Sinai desert was noted for its poisonous serpents, and Milgrom cites the following classic passage from T. E. Lawrence:

The plague of snakes which had been with us since our first entry into Sirhan, to-day rose to memorable height, and became a terror. . . . This year the valley seemed creeping with horned vipers and puff-adders, cobras and black snakes. By night movement was dangerous; and at last we found it necessary to walk with sticks, beating the bushes each side. [Revolt in the Desert (New York: George H. Doran Co.,1927), 93.]

Since the accounts of the exodus and wilderness wanderings are now known to be legends recounted to describe Israel's origins, rather than memories of events that actually happened, we are probably right to think that the story of God instructing Moses to fashion a bronze serpent (when there just happened to be such an object displayed on the Temple wall) is a projection back into the past for the sake of justifying a practice from the time of the later tradition.

Snakes in the ancient imagination

We are clearly dealing with a case of homeopathic magic; in which a ritual object evokes the feared reality and cancels it with a contrasting power. This practice is widely attested in Egypt and throughout the ancient orient, as well as in the Hebrew scriptures. Milgrom comments:

One finds biblical examples of such belief in the five golden mice fashioned by the Philistines when these creatures overran their land (1 Sam. 6:5 LXX) and in the bitter water cured by bitter wood and salt (Exod. 15:25; 2 Kings 2:21).The homeopathic use of snakes is a distinctive feature of ancient Egypt. A serpent-shaped amulet was worn by the living to repel serpents and also by the dead -- often mummies -- toward off attacks by serpents and other reptiles in the netherworld. Thus ... the belief prevailed in Egypt that images of serpents would repel serpents as well as heal wounds caused by them.

Rod of asclepius.png

Even beyond the homeopathic magical procedures, we find ancient links between serpents and healing divinities such as Asclepius. To this day, the serpent(s) entwined around a staff is a symbol of the medical healer:

The legend of Asclepius' discovery of the healing herbs reads as follows:

This time the guards threw Asclepius into a dark and damp infested hole. The old man felt helpless and wondered if he would ever again see his beloved family or feel the sun or breathe the fresh air. He watched as a snake entered his cell through a small hole in the wall. The snake had its freedom, yet it imposed itself on him in his miserable quarters. He was angry and frustrated. He grabbed his walking stick and struck the snake again and again until it was dead and its pieces were scattered on the floor. "Why did I do that?" he asked himself, for it was unlike him to harm another creature. "I'll die in this cell just like that snake."
As he sat, sadly concerned about his sanity, he noticed a small pointed head with a darting tongue as it poked out from the hole where the snake had entered. A second snake slithered through the hole and into Asclepius' cell. This snake looked like the last one, but it carried an herb in its mouth. Asclepius watched as the snake spread the herb on what remained of its brother. More amazing still, the parts of the first snake began to heal and grow together again. After a few minutes, the first snake was whole and healthy again and both snakes fled back through the hole, but not before the second snake dropped what remained of the healing herb.
Asclepius called the guards to take him to Glaucus and, as he spread the herb upon his body, not only did the prince return to life, but his illness was cured as well. King Minos was overjoyed and Asclepius collected a large supply of the magic herb before he returned home.

In the Hebrew text, the deadly agents unleashed by God on the complaining Israelites were not so much snakes as avenging angels. As cherub bearing a flaming sword had driven Adam and Eve from Eden, so fiery seraphs now threatened to destroy the disobedient population. The winged serpents that guarded the holy places in Egyptian hieroglyphs, are now found in the biblical texts as expressions (and guardians) of the terrifying holiness of Yahweh.

Presumably the bronze serpent from the Jerusalem temple was a traditional cult object, just as Isaiah 6 reports the prophet seeing such frightening winged creatures in his vision of Yahweh.

The interpretation of the fiery slayers from the desert as deadly serpents, also fits with the discovery of a bronze serpent cultic object at Timna -- a copper mining and smelting region in the Arabah near the Red Sea -- dating between 1200 and 900 BCE:

Timna coppersnake.jpg

Winged snakes are common in Egyptian art, with the goddess Wadjet (depicted as a winged cobra) often represented on the head piece of the ruler:


Given the traditional Egyptian cultural and political dominance of Palestine, it would remarkable if the Jerusalem temple had not displayed such images -- even if, like the golden bull calf on which Baal (the storm god) was traditionally mounted, they were reinterpreted as Yahwistic images.

Milgrom makes the following observations:

Winged uraei dating from the Canaanite period have been found, proving that the image of the winged serpent was well known in ancient Israel. The seraphs of Isaiah's vision (Isa. 6) are best understood in the light of the Egyptian symbol of the winged uraeus: As the uraeus is always standing, so the seraphs; as the four wings of the uraeus represent the four corners of the land, so the winged seraphs chant, "His presence fills all the earth" (Isa. 6:3); as the Egyptian uraeus belches consuming fire on the pharaoh's enemies, so the seraphs' repetition of the trisagion ("Holy, holy, holy") shakes the Temple, filling it with smoke (Isa. 6:4); as the winged uraeus can be endowed with hands, legs, and a human face, so the seraphs of Isaiah's vision (Isa. 6:2). It is important to note that a seraph becomes the agent of healing and purification for Isaiah (Isa. 6:5-7), thereby providing a link between his snake-seraph of Isaiah and the therapeutic snake-seraph of Moses.

Archaeology has turned up other examples of sacred snakes and winged serpents, at least some of which may be connected to the ancient sea-dragon that eventually fed into the traditional images of Satan as "that ancient serpent" (Rev 12:9).

A bronze snake provides the only clue to the cult that was practiced in the sanctuary at Tell Mevorakh, a small mound about three miles northeast of Caesarea. About 8 inches long, the snake resembles the bronze snakes found in contemporaneous sanctuaries at Timna and Hazor. Dated from the 15th to 13th centuries B.C.E., the sanctuary measures about 30 by 15 feet and exhibits an east-west orientation. Because the sanctuary and its courtyards occupied nearly the whole site in the Late Bronze Age, excavator Ephraim Stern interpreted it as a wayside sanctuary, the first of its kind found in Israel. ["The Tell Mevorakh Serpent" BAR 19/6 Nov/Dec 1993]
There is one final point of interest to the Beer-Sheva altar. One of the stones has clearly engraved upon it a curling snake. The snake was a fertility symbol widely employed throughout the ancient Near East. The staff which turned into a serpent was a symbol of Moses' power (Ex. 7:15). Later, in the wilderness, when the people were attacked by poisonous snakes from the Lord, the Lord ordered Moses to make a bronze serpent. Those who had been bitten looked at the bronze serpent and were cured (Num. 21:4-9). This bronze snake later became an object of veneration to which sacrifices were offered even to the time of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4). Hezekiah destroyed and presumably suppressed the elements of this serpent-worship. The strength of this tradition of snake-worship and the fact that it persisted as late as the 8th century, is dramatically confirmed in the engraving of a serpent on the altar stone of the Beer-Sheva altar. ["Horned Altar for Animal Sacrifice Unearthed at Beer-Sheva" BAR 1/1 1975]

Significantly, while I have not been able to find more details at this stage, Milgrom refers to a Jewish bowl, turning up among the treasures of the Assyrian rulers:

Easily the most significant clue for the identification of the Mosaic copper snake is one of the bronze bowls found in the royal palace of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. These bowls date to the end of the eighth century and by their inscribed Hebrew names probably indicate that they were booty or tribute delivered to Tiglath-pileser III by King Ahaz (2 Kings 16:8) or to Sennacherib by King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:14-16). The bowl in question has engraved on its rim a winged snake perched on a standard, precisely as one would imagine it upon recollecting the verse "Moses made a copper serpent (= saraf, "seraph") and mounted it on a standard (v. 9). [R. D. Barnett, "Layard's Nimrud Bronzes and Their Inscriptions," Eretz Israel 8 (1967): 3, fig. 2.]

Like the crocodile (immortalized in myth as the ancient sea-dragon defeated by the creator god in a cosmic conflict at the beginning of time), snakes seem to have fascinated the peoples of antiquity. Snakes inhabited the nether world, yet did not seem to succumb to death. They moved -- slid -- between the world of humankind and the world of the dead, and even seemed to have mastered the art of immortality as they shed their old skins and emerged renewed for another cycle of life.

In John 3, we find a first-century Christian author recycling the myth of Moses' bronze snake as a prophecy of the crucified one; the one dying victim impaled on a cross who is also the source of new life for those who look to him in faith. This is a highly symbolic exposition of the death of Jesus, but entirely consistent with Paul's much earlier proclamation (seen in last Sunday's NT reading):

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. (1Cor. 1:18-25, NRSV)

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