The Rev. Peter Faass
This past Tuesday, The New York Times had this article: “Afraid of Snakes? Wasps and Dogs Are Deadlier.” Author Nicholas Bakalar stated, “Beware the snake, the spider and the scorpion. But know this: You are much more likely to be killed by a bee or a dog.”
“Of the 1,610 people killed in encounters with animals between 2008 and 2015, 478 were killed by hornets, wasps and bees, and 272 by dogs, according to a study published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine. Snakes, spiders and scorpions were responsible for 99 deaths over the eight years.”
I didn’t buy it for a moment! Really? In my mind, snakes are lurking behind every pew, killers striking wantonly. Where were these New York Times statisticians in 1250 BCE when, according to the book of Numbers, snake bites were clearly the leading cause of death? As we heard this morning, “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.”
Good heavens! People were dying left and right from snake bites and all because they complained about how bad dinner was. Clearly God the chef wouldn’t be trifled with. “Oh, you didn’t like the manna, did you? Well, see if these snake bites are more to your liking.” Certainly, this is an object lesson: When it comes to God and culinary skills, bite your tongue. Better ill fed than dead.
Interestingly, the image of a snake becomes the antidote to the scourge of snake bites in Sinai:
“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.”
This is a really interesting development. By this point, Moses and the Israelites already received the Ten Commandments. The second Commandment is quite clear: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (Ex. 20:4-5a)
Wow! The ink is barely dry on the tablets and God is instructing Moses to make a bronze replica of a snake, place it on a pole and encourage people gaze upon it whenever they were bitten by a snake to be healed and live. If that’s not an idolatrous symbol and worship of it, than I don’t know what is!
This sacred pole and bronze serpent survived 500 years after the Exodus finished and the Israelites had entered the Promised Land. In the book of 2 Kings, people were still worshiping that bronze snake when King Hezekiah ascended to the throne. Presumably, the plague of poisonous snakes was over by then, so what was going on here?
Hezekiah was a religious reformer who came to the throne after a long period of apostasy from God’s ways by the Israelites. The snake had become a symbol of Baal, one of the more insidious pagan gods whom God loathed. The lapse of nearly 500 years had invested the bronze serpent with a pagan identity. Hezekiah was incensed by the people’s idolatrous worship of that bronze snake. He contemptuously called it, "Nehushtan," a brazen thing, a mere piece of brass. The text tells us, “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” (2 Kings 18:4b)
Jewish scholars have been puzzled by the apparent breaking of the Second Commandment and worshipping the bronze serpent. One explanation the rabbis offer is that “It was not the serpent that gave life [to those bitten by snakes.] So long as Moses lifted up the serpent, they believed in [God] who had commanded Moses to act thus. It was God who healed them.” So, the healing power lay not in the bronze serpent; it was only a symbol to turn the people’s hearts toward God, who then healed them.
While the bronze serpent was first considered a graven image, it was actually a symbol reminding the kvetching people of God, and of God’s exclusive power to heal and save. As time went on it morphed into a graven image, and one that drew people to a pagan deity instead of the God of Israel. Something which God had given for the good changed into something bad.
How often do take something God has given us for our healing and wholeness -- and turn it intoan idolatrous thing that makes us unwell and unwhole?
I would argue that this happened with Jesus. He was given to us by God as someone of extraordinary goodness; to heal and give us life when we are bitten by the deadly venoms of the world. Like the bronze serpent, Jesus had over time been changed by all too many alleged adherents of him into something that is bad, life-denying and evil - something that worshiped as an evil deity.
As the Gospel of John says, God gave us Himself in the incarnation “in order that the world might be saved through him.” Frequently he has been turned into a symbol of hatred, fear, bigotry and judgment. Someone who does not save the world, but rather destroys it and the children of God.
This Jesus is a fraud, created to mask human fear, hatred, power, lust and greed. John Dominic Crossan describes him as the “slaughtered Lamb” of God who gave his life for the salvation of the world, and who has been manipulated and twisted into the “slaughtering lamb” who soaks the world in hatred, fear, blood, violence.
The authentic, good Jesus who draws us to God through his life of love, compassion, honoring the image of God in all people and nonviolent resistance to evil, has been replaced through human machinations by an idolatrous, evil entity who blesses and leads the violent slaughter of perceived evildoers, inferior human beings, apostates, heretics and degenerates.
This Jesus is a fraud.
This fraudulent Jesus turns us away from the true God and he needs to be destroyed, just as the bronze serpent was destroyed by King Hezekiah.
We need to reclaim the authentic Jesus; the one who draws us to God and heals. We begin doing this by holding fast the words of John’s Gospel: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
We need to be vigilant because evil is always conjuring up ways to draw us toward darkness and away from God. When evil tries to seduce us with its venom, we need to gaze on Jesus, the “light [who] has come into the world.”
Let his light shine in our lives so we may be healed and live. Love the light. The light redeems. The light saves. Hold fast to this truth: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, and never will, overcome it.” Gaze on that and live.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.