From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea [or Reed 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 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.
—Numbers 21: 4 – 9
This is the passage for last week’s installment of the Pray As You Go/Sacred Space Lenten devotional. It’s in the series centered on ‘wilderness‘ that I mentioned earlier. And this one’s kind of about wilderness, but not (today) in a way that echoed in my heart. Instead, I kept focusing on the kinds of details we perused in my Old Testament class last fall, the ones where—when you pay close attention—you realize how alien the times of our ancestors are from our own. And maybe you wonder, the way I do, why the ancestors included this tale in the larger story of God.
I don’t think it’s the whining. Although that’s tempting—I am a sucker for biblical whining, including the earlier passage:
The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
Not the garlic! I do so feel for the Israelites and their whining.
As I sat on a cushion, contemplating the verses from Numbers 21 and feeling my calves fall asleep, I noticed that the ancestors apologized. Repented, if you prefer. And Moses, according to the division of labor set up earlier (Deuteronomy 5:23-27), spoke with God on their behalf, that God would please take away the serpents.
The prayer is answered, but the serpents do not disappear.
Instead, God offers a cure for snakebite.
What’s that about? What’s the God-logic operating here? The people have apologized for their ingratitude and carping, both to Moses and to God. So they’ve learned their lesson… perhaps? For now? If there’s one thing that seems perennially true of humans, it’s that we have a hard time hanging on to our gratitude lessons. But I don’t think the continued presence of snakes has to do with perpetually reminding the ancestors of the perils of ingratitude. (Though it might!)
I find myself wondering whether it flows like this:
human act of ingratitude, consequence (inside creation) of snakebite, human act of repentance, God’s outstretched forgiveness of potential cure, human act of connecting with God’s forgiveness
One of the large lessons within the New Testament is that God’s grace is freely offered, but it’s each of our response that closes the loop. “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20).
Our sin (separation, poor choice, estrangement) is first addressed in our recognition. Recognition doesn’t erase what happened earlier—our world as its currently constructed doesn’t work that way, as all time travel fiction points out. We’re still living within what we’ve done. But in our recognition, we can see God’s outstretched grace. With grace dangling in front of us, we can then grab it
PS: Yes, here it is. You know I had to include it!