Last week, I gave you a “bird’s eye view” of the life of Moses. Today, we focus on just one episode in his wilderness journey, which we read in advance of Good Friday (and on the Holy Cross feast in September). We do this because, in today’s gospel, Jesus relates this moment in the life of Moses to the culmination of his own ministry, giving us a rare glimpse into the extent of his ability to anticipate and understand the Cross.
The story follows the death and burial of Moses’ brother Aaron on Mt Hor, near which the Israelites encounter the land of hostile Edomites, and are forced to complete a large loop toward the south, instead of continuing straight to the north (see the map below the text). By this, they are disheartened and complain unfairly against God and Moses. In retaliation, God afflicts them with the “fiery serpents”, from whose bites many suffer and die. The people then repent, and God instructs Moses to fashion a sculpture of this snake and set it up on a pole; that whoever may look at it, is relieved from the consequences of the bites.
Exodus dates to 1300 BC; yet the story doesn’t end there, and picks up in 550 BC (cf. 2 Kings). Apparently, the Israelites had retained Moses’ sculpture, and began to worship it. King Hezekiah, ruling Israel at the time, ordered the destruction of the sculpture, calling it Nehushtan. It is from the Hebrew root of this word that we derive the reference to its material (bronze/brass/copper). Some scholars question whether this iconoclastic move was truly motivated by the 1st Commandment, or by the optics of removing a symbol with strong Egyptian association in the hopes of appeasing his Assyrian allies.
Fast forward again a few centuries, and we hear Jesus discussing his destiny with a Jewish teacher named Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. Therein lies the greatest paradox of our faith: the instrument of inflicting pain/death, and the source of healing/salvation are one. The analogy is elusive, and is complicated by the ambiguity of the scriptural and cultural imagery of the snake.
Snake worship in Bronze Age Canaan might have caused the Israelites to follow suit well into Hezekiah’s times. Yet, in the Bible, animals, including snakes, are rarely depicted as wholly beneficent or evil. Yes, both Jesus and John the Baptist called their religious leaders ‘the vipers’, in allusion to the scriptural association of the serpent with the devil; famously, in Genesis 3, but also in Wis. 2, Rev. 12 and 20, and Ps. 91. But, in the hands of Moses snakes served a positive role of displaying God’s power: both in the desert, and when he turned his and Aaron’s rods into snakes before the Pharaoh. Jesus also encouraged his disciples to become “wise as serpents”.
To this day, the snake is a positive symbol of wisdom in the East, and medicine in the West. You’re likely familiar with the two emblems of medical organizations: the snake-entwined, winged staff of Caduceus, and the wingless staff of Asclepius (identical to that of Moses!). Caduceus belonged to Hermes, the flying messenger god, but Aclepius was a human, battle-field physician working in the fallen Troy soon after Moses escaped Egypt (1280 BC). By the time Hippocrates opened his Oath with the invocation of Asclepius’ name (380 BC), he had evolved into the son of Apollo, and was killed by Zeus for resurrecting the dead!
So, again, why the snake? How did it become such a powerful and prevalent symbol? Do we admire the snake’s capacity to renew and shed old skin, or do we fear its bite and constriction? This is an important dichotomy: nothing in life is fully evil or good. But, everything that God had originally made is Good; if anything ever became evil, it was by our misuse of its purpose. Every admirable quality of our nature, when taken to the extreme, becomes evil. Every disease in our bodies is caused by the going awry of something that, by nature, is good -- microorganisms, chemical imbalances, or processes. Physicians heal us by “killing” these, and by using the “pharmakon” - Greek for both "drug" and "poison". Moses’ Nehushtan cured the tribe of desert wanderers of idolatry, only to become the source of it once they re-settled in Canaan.
As such, the fiery serpents in the desert were not inherently evil, but only did God’s bidding in afflicting and curing the Israelites, of both poison and rebelliousness at once. Of course, these bites mirrored the primordial wounds of the serpent in the Garden. But what made the first people vulnerable to his deception? It was their desire for knowledge, for becoming “like God”. In essence, a positive, God-given quality of our hearts and minds, it has the tremendous potential to kill and to heal - the instrument of pain becomes its own relief.
To me, nobody has expressed this idea better than CS Lewis in the book “Perelandra” (1943; part of his “Space (Cosmic) Trilogy”). He imagined a new world, set on Venus, where its own first human-like creatures were beginning to discover the knowledge of good and evil. In this exotic imagery, CS Lewis veils the key difference between the Western and Orthodox theology of sin, whereby the latter views “the fall” as a fatal blow that forever shattes the Image of God in us, whereas the latter considers it an -- arguably, necessary -- mistake of a growing child, which merely marrs it.
The temptation to rebel, to complain, to misuse knowledge and every other perfect gift of God, never leaves us. We never fully mature until we enter the Promised Land. And so, God did not take away the fiery serpents, but only enabled the people to survive their bites. Neither did he spare Jesus the temptation, passion, and cross, or us - our own pain. Through these, we fulfil our own God-given purpose, which is, in fact, to acquire the knowledge of ourselves and the world, and thereby, grow in God’s likeness. Doing so with pride will turn us distrustful and sceptical of God. But learning out of gratitude and respect for God is the foundation for advancing his love in all the earth. So let’s stay “wise as serpents, and gentle as doves”, yet always remember that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”.