Legend says that St Patrick after converting to Christianity returned to Ireland, the land in which he had suffered horribly as a slave, to bring the truth of Jesus Christ to those who had harmed him so much. He walked all across Ireland teaching the truth of the Gospel as he went. Legend says that at one point during his work among the people of Ireland he went to the top of hill and to spend 40 days praying and fasting before the Lord. As he was praying a snake began to harass him, annoyed by the snake, Patrick turned on the snake and using the staff which he used as he walked, to drive not only that snake but all of his kin found throughout the island down into the sea. And thus, according to the legend, Patrick healed the land of Ireland from all snakes for all time.
Now there is much speculation about what exactly this legend speaks, because due to the islands location and the fact that it is an island and geographically separate from the neighboring lands, there have actually never been any snakes on the island of Ireland. But most people agree that due to the prolific use of the snake as a symbol among the Druids, which was the predominant religion prior to the island’s conversion to Christianity under the teachings of Patrick, that the story is actually speaking metaphorically of how Patrick was able to drive out the druid religion as he brought Christianity to the people, thus healing the land and her people of the serpent of pagan druidism.
The serpent or the snake is such a loaded symbol in Christianity. The serpent is the one who speaks to our first parents and convinces to partake of that which God had forbidden. Moses’ staff becoming a serpent which in turn gobbled up the serpents which the Egyptian magician’s were able to produce, was one of the first signs with which God sent Moses to Pharaoh when Moses was petitioning Pharaoh to let the people go. The symbol of the serpent is often used throughout the Old Testament to reference that which is evil, or dishonest. The snake represents all that has gone wrong in this sinful world, its venom is feared, its presence is abhorred and it is something to be crushed or driven off wherever it is found. Two of the most prominent imageries of the world being set right, where things are restored to their peaceful, perfect created order are the lion lying with the lamb and the other is the image of a child playing with a serpent or that of world where the snake does not bit at our heels.
As we look at this little episode with the snakes here in Numbers, it is an excurses into the traveling life of the Israelites, and is sort of a little detour as we follow the path of God’s covenant relationship with humanity through the Hebrew Scriptures. So perhaps a little background on where we are in this story would help. The Israelites are traveling through the desert toward the promise land after having agreed to the covenant. About a chapter back Aaron, Moses’ brother and the leader of the priests died. But before he died God provided for Moses’ son Eleazar to follow him as the leaders of the priests. God made preparations for a smooth transition of leadership so that the people were spiritually provided for. Nothing was left to chance. God has shown that God will act to make sure the people are provided for in rough times.
After that, the king of Arad decided to come against the Israelites. He took some of the Israelites captive. When this happened, the Israelites turned to God. They called out for God to help them. And God delivered their enemies into their hands. God once again shows that God is faithful to uphold God’s end of the covenant agreement. God will be their God, will guide, and protect them, and will be their strength and their shield.
And that brings us to our passage here. The people are traveling around the desert. God is protecting them from their enemies. God is providing a peaceful transition in leadership from one spiritual leader to the next, which is no small feat mind you. And every morning and every evening God is providing for the people’s immediate needs by giving them manna and quail to eat. On all points God is proving to be faithful and trustworthy.
But as time passes the Israelites get tired of eating manna and quail. In fact they are so tired of it, they become disgusted with it. They begin scorn that daily miracle, God is doing in their midst. They begin to grumble that there is no food. Well there is food but it is disgusting. Every morning a bread like substance, which they call Manna, a Hebrew word which literally mean “what is this,” and the quail that land in droves in their camp ready for them to scoop up, and roast (I mean the only way this could be any easier is if arrived plucked cleaned and already on a spit), that has become kind of annoying the people don't like it.
They sound like whiney little children who can’t be happy with anything. I am sure anyone who has spent much time trying to feed children has run into days when even the most well behaved child turns up their nose at any food that is provided. The steak is too chewy, the Mac and cheese is too soft, the salad to leafy, the lasagna too cheesy. It is almost expected from a child but it is nearly intolerable in an adult, and this is not just one adult who has become a picky eater this is a whole camp of adults who are complaining about miraculous food which God is giving them daily. They are all acting like whiny children who are over tired and really just need to go to bed.
So they whine to God about this disgusting food which God is giving to them and so God allows their encampment to be infested with snakes, but not just any snakes. These are not nice little garner snakes that are kind of fun to catch and completely harmless, these are venomous snakes, poisonous snakes.
The snakes are a nuisance, but they are more than just a nuisance, they are deadly.
The snakes are biting people and people are dying. This is terrible, what can they do? The people realize their mistake. They realize they were wrong in complaining about the food, they were wrong to whine to Moses to turn their noses up at the very food God was providing them. So they call out to God telling God they know they are wrong and ask God to come to help them. Well, they speak and then send Moses to intercede before God on their behalf.
God hears them and talks to Moses. God does not react as St Patrick in the story driving the snakes from their midst. In fact, God will not remove the snakes from among them at all. The snakes will continue to live, but instead of riding the people of the consequence of their grumbling, God will provide a way for the people to be healed. Moses is to fashion a bronze snake and put it on a poll. When one among them has been bitten by one of the snakes, all they need to do to be healed is to look up from the snakes on the ground and look up at that snake on the poll and believe that God will heal them. And the text tells us all who looked upon the snake and believed in God were healed.
We don’t necessarily have problems with real snakes in our lives but since throughout the Bible snakes are used as signs and symbols of all that is wrong in this world, of the trials and the woes that abound in this world due to sin and evil running rampant in this world. It is not very far fetched to see that we all have the serpents of sin our lives; trials, troubles, woes, things with which we struggle on a regular basis. We have problems in our lives; we have things with which we wrestle. There are hardships we face. Evil is manifest in sickness, in disease, in being hurt by those we love, in working to make ends meet, in struggling in relationships at work and at home. We struggle with addictions, with unwholesome aspects of our own personalities, with the baser side of our natures. We wrestle with impure thoughts and with unholy attitudes. In some way shape or form we all face the consequences of evil and sin in our lives.
Some of the snakes with which we struggle are self made, they are a result of own sins and mistakes; are a result of the choices we have made. Other serpents in our lives are caused by others, surely not every last one of the Israelites in the camp were grumbling about the quail and manna but all suffered because of the consequences of the sin of those who did. There are times when we are affected, damaged, our lives are torn apart by the sins of those around us. Others people sin and we live with the consequences other peoples’ sin against us and our lives are devastated by the evil consequences their sin brings to our lives. People make mistakes, misstep, misspeak, and we are left to deal with the fall out. We did not do anything to deserve this but we often deal with the unintended consequences of the sins of others around us. And many times we are simply faced with the general consequences of sin and evil in our world.
These are snakes in our lives and they are biting our heels. They are real problems that cause real hurt and turmoil in our lives. It is easy to get fixated on these things. To focus on them, to even allow them to define who we are, to define our relationships with those around us, it is easy to allow these serpents in our lives to be the central focus of who we are, to be the central focus of all we do.
When the Israelites were surrounded by serpents, the consequences of sin in their lives, God provides for them a way to be healed but the healing is not intuitive. When there is something striking at your heel it is your tendency to train all your focus on your feet, to focus on where the snakes are and where they are going to strike next. But God asks for the people to look away from the snakes, to take their focus off the snakes and put their focus something else. God calls for them to look up at the snake and believe.
When the serpents of life are snapping at our heels, threatening us with their deadly venom, the hard part is to take our focus off of what is harming us, what is hurting us, off the threat, the danger, and the struggle and instead focus on what God calls us to focus on, which is ultimately our belief in God. Our focus needs to be drawn away from at the problems at hand, the issues, and the hurts in our lives and instead needs to be on God, who is the sources of our healing, and our strength in times of struggle.
Before God can heal, before God can give us strength in our struggle, we have to learn to train our focus on God. We have to take our eyes off the ground and look up to God. We need to learn to look away from that which is plaguing us, take our eyes off of these things and instead look to God; to Trust God.
It important to note, God did not take the snakes away. God did not remove that which was plaguing the people, the snakes were not driven from amongst them, ala St. Patrick, but instead God gave them a way to deal with the snakes. God gave them what they needed to make it through. The healing they needed to live among the snakes. Their belief and reliance on God allowed them to have the strength they needed to withstand the venomous and deadly bite of serpents.
When God is with us, when we trust and rely on God, when we allow our belief in God to become our focus instead of all that is plaguing us, we are given exactly what we need to survive, to be healed, to live. The hurt may remain, we may continue to struggle, that which bites at our heels and causes us harm may not go away, but when we remove our focus from all that is plaguing us and turn our focus to God, our belief in God, our trust in God, we are then given what we need to make it through, to deal with the struggles and hardships that we face due so sin and evil in our lives and in our world.