Serpents and Savior

Old Testament Lesson: Numbers 21:4-9

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 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.

The Bronze Serpent
Scuplture/Statue above Mount Nebo, Jordan.
Sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni. Photo by David Bjorgen

Gospel Lesson: John 3:14-21

And 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.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

 

Sermon

Snakes, Sin, and Savior. Certainly sounds like a sermon that is right up my ally. As you all know, I am quite fond of snakes, but if you believe it or not, 36% of all adults in the United States list snakes as their number one fear. This fear of snakes clinically is called Ophidiophobia, which affects about 49 % of women and 22% of men. Who would have known that snakes have been an animal that would bring about such fear? But as we begin to talk about snakes, wilderness life, and the Lenten season, these slithering reptiles certainly make their way into the narratives of our scriptures this week. I would like for us to begin with this narrative offered to us in the book of Numbers. Often when we read this narrative, we as Christians immediately read the Gospel text which is good and well, but I would like to make some observations about this text before we immediately jump to comparing these two scriptures together.

So yet again, we are placed within a wilderness setting, this time it is with Moses and the newly released Jews from the bondage of slavery to Egypt. This story that we have just heard is actually in a series of stories, stories of the Jews complaining and murmuring to Moses about their experience out in the wilderness. First the people did not like the bitter water, then it’s the lack of food, then they were thirsty, next they wanted meat to eat. And now finally they have placed the last straw that broke the camel’s back, they COMPLAIN against GOD AND against MOSES! They complain, “WHY Have you brought us out here to DIE!” Had the Jews ever been upset, sure. Had they complained, absolutely, Grumbled, most certainly, but NEVER had they before spoke out against GOD and Moses! And so, as it is recorded here in the book of Numbers, God sends poisonous serpents against them. In the KJV it says that they were “Fiery serpents” that were sent against them.  This may be some kind of fire spitting snake much like our common thought of a dragon, or as the more recent scholars have interpreted it to mean that their poison was like fire. This fact intrigued my interest though. What type of snake could it have been? Well in my digging around I came across an article on this very subject.

 

This study looked for 10 possible criteria to match what type of snake it may have been. The 10 pieces of criteria were:

1. Inhabit Arava Valley

2. Prefer rocky terrain

3. Deadly poisonous.

4. Extremely dangerous

5. Especially painful “fiery” bite

6. Slow acting venom

7. Reddish “fiery” color

8. Lightning fast strike

9. Leaping, “flying” strike

10. Death by internal bleeding

 

Of these criteria, four snakes came to mind, but only one matched all 10 pieces of criteria. This was the Israeli Saw-scale Viper. Let me read to you this snippet from this study.

 

Saw-scale vipers are on the “top ten” list of the snakes with the most deadly venom, being even more poisonous than the better-known coral snake.[14] But what is amazing is that one species of saw-scale viper is also generally considered to be the “world’s most dangerous snake.”[15] That means that it is believed to cause more of the estimated 25,000 to 50,000 deaths worldwide from snakebites each year than any other snake.[16] It is only about two feet long, but “they have a huge range, are fairly prolific and common where they occur, and have an exceedingly toxic hemmoragic venom [blood destroying, anticoagulant] coupled with an often highly aggressive temper.”[17]`The Israeli saw-scale viper, echis coloratus, is not as deadly as that species and is mainly confined to lightly populated desert areas, but it still qualifies as deadly and dangerous. In a well documented case, one bit three soldiers and all of them died.[18] No other snake native to this desert area has the reputation of being a very dangerous snake.[19][1]

 

So as I continued in my research of this particular snake, I came to find out something pretty interesting. .151 mg/kg of this snakes venom is all it takes for it to be deadly to a human. So if this is the case, a 140 lb person would only need 5-10 mg of poison. I was quite intrigued by this and wanted to somehow show you all how little 5-10 mgs is. So Vickie helped me out on this one to explain this. If I get this wrong correct me here Vickie. Here is a packet of sweetner. The entire packet is made up of roughly 1000 particles and is equal to one gram. To equal the amount of poison that is lethal from this snake, take only 5 – 10 particles of sweetner from the 1000 particles in the whole packet. That little amount of venom mixed with fluid will kill a grown adult. This snake, as you may see is quite toxic and is known to be one of the most deadliest snakes.

So the Israelites, after many had died, went to Moses and requested at once that he pray to the LORD to take away the serpents, for they have recognized that they have sinned against Moses and God. So Moses does so, he intercedes, prays for the people and the LORD gives Moses this instruction. Take a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who looks at this serpent shall live. So Moses does so with some bronze.

This is quite a unique answer indeed. For some, this may beckon questions about how is it that this bronze statue is not against the 10 commandments of thou shall not have any idols. Well, an idol is the understanding that you place the power and authority in the object itself. Which if you read in 2 Kings (18:4), King Hezekiah ended up 500 years later taking that bronze statue of the snake, snapping it in two and threw it out of the Temple. It had become an idol as Jews were making offerings to it and it had been called Nehushtan. But in the time of Moses, the people did not place their trust in the object itself, but in God as healer and Savior. When looked upon, the serpent reminded them to lift their hearts up to God and in that understanding, the snake was no more than a sacrament. A sign-act of God’s love and grace, just as communion is a sacrament of God’s  love and grace for us.

So, now about 1500 years after this wilderness walk with Moses, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee who was a leader of the Jews. One night, Nicodemus came to Jesus seeking answers about Jesus and Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is teaching Nicodemus about rebirth from above. Nicodemus does not seem to understand as he takes Jesus so literally. Jesus finally tells Nicodemus that he speaks authoritatively on this subject of the “heavenly” because he is the Son of man from heaven. And Jesus gives Nicodemus his mission statement of Christ’s ministerial purpose on earth:

 

And 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.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:14-17)

 

Just as the bronze serpent was a sacrament, just as the Israelites looked to it, they saw God and God’s healing power, we understand Jesus to be the atonement for not a poison running through our veins, but the Ultimate poison that takes away life. Sin. I tell you, if you have less sin than this vile of poison, it is eternally more harmful than the strongest poison of any snake. But through “God’s grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). This is the good news of all good news. We, who have the smallest amount of sin in our lives, are deserving of death eternal, but through God’s unmerited love, he sends his Son to die in our place, to reign over death and have victory over it. As we come to the table this day, do not look to the bread and wine, for they are just the means of Grace, but rather may you taste the bread and fruit of the vine and remember within your very being that you are saved by divine grace by God and through God in faith.

 

 


[1]  (Millet and Pratt 2000)

 

One thought on “Serpents and Savior

  1. I really liked the sermon Joshua. It really got me to thinking tonight. It’s interesting that the people asked for the snakes to be taken away and God did not do that. They still suffered the consequences of the bite….the pain. But they had to look at the serpent on the rod to be saved. We too suffer the consequences of our actions here on earth a lot of times when we sin. But, again we look to the One lifted up to be saved. I’ve never given these verses much thought. Thank you for your take on it. You never cease to amaze me.

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