Scripture: Numbers 19 – 21
Key verses: (21: 8-9) The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
Reflection: When Jason, Leah and I moved to Tucson for him to begin work as the Presbyterian Campus Minister at the University of Arizona, we were quickly introduced to all kinds of desert creatures: javelinas, tarantulas, scorpions and rattlesnakes. To protect babies from scorpions, the legs of a crib were placed into glass jars so scorpions could not crawl into the sheets. Still, Jason scoured Leah’s crib each night to confirm no scorpions had fallen into her bed from the ceiling.
On the nightly news, we prayed along with the community for a toddler who had been bitten by a rattlesnake on a walk with her family in the desert. Forty-seven vials of anti-venom later, she was healed.
For good reason, we were extra cautious about desert creatures. One day getting out of the car with Leah in the baby seat in one hand and groceries in the other, I heard a rattle and jumped far enough to make a track coach proud. When I looked around to find the snake, I realized Leah’s baby rattle had fallen to the ground by our car.
At this point in Numbers, the Hebrew people are jumpy, tired and fearful. Are they complaining? Yes. Do they have some valid reasons to complain? Certainly. God is angry at their rebellion, and yet they are angry at their circumstances which continue to not improve.
The beauty of this cycle of stories in Numbers is that after each rebellious act, even one by Moses himself (trying to force water out of that rock without God’s help), God acts with justice and mercy. This God who is bound by covenantal love, bettered by dynamic relationships, and blessed by God’s people whose resilience is evidenced in their willingness to ‘try again’ seeks creative ways to communicate with the people even when we try and slither our way into rebellion once again.
“Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live,” God instructs Moses. Moses followed the command and raised the odd flag for all to see. Now when I read this text, I hear only one thing: Can we look into the eye of that which we are most afraid and imagine life beyond that fear? To do so requires a reliance on God’s providence and care beyond our tight-fisted grasp on control.
This text is lodged prior to one of the most famous verses in all of scripture John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. As much as that text means to many, few remember the verses prior in John 3:14-15: Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
Feels a bit thorny theologically to suggest “the son of man must be lifted up” but perhaps this is what we must consider: Christ takes to the cross our greatest fears of violence and death. There we face them with resolve that is bolstered, transformed, and lifted up with resurrection power.
In the pandemic, many of us have had to face our greatest fears. Numbers 21:8-9 affirms what we have come to know as well: we can look at those fears and live. We can dwell with those fears and live. We can pray together with the church about those fears and live. We can feel the weight of those fears, and yet oddly be lifted up in a life-giving way. What slithers, loses its power. What hisses, we can dismiss. What poisons, can be stared down.
For those afraid or in need of deepened resolve this day, may this promise be good news.
Prayer: Try using Isaiah 41:10 as a breath prayer:
Inhale: Do not fear, for I am with you;
Exhale: Do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
Inhale: I will strengthen you and help you;
Exhale: I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Author: Lisa Nichols Hickman
[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].