Scripture: Numbers 21:4-9
What a strange name for a book! Prosaic and dull it seems to me. Why not something a bit more swashbuckling like The Book of Snakes or better yet My Tramp Through the Snake Infested Desert. Nevertheless, we are stuck with Numbers and thus it must remain. It actually refers to the number of people who escaped the cruel oppression of the Egyptian pharaohs, so it does serve a useful purpose.
The people have followed Moses into the desert, thinking that they would soon be living in a land of milk and honey. To their deep dismay, the life they are living in the desert is harsh and frightening. The desert, it turns out, is an inhospitable place, filled with all manner of less than friendly creatures. Besides, the food is terrible. Who wants to eat manna every day? As they say, “There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
God, rather disgusted by this display of ingratitude, sends venomous snakes to punish the people. Many of them are bitten and many of them die. Moses, as he usually does, comes to the rescue and forges a bronze snake, placing it on a pole. Whenever he lifts up that pole with the bronze snake, the people who look at it are saved. (Just as an aside, did you know that a snake wrapped around a pole is the universal symbol for healing that has been adopted by physicians?)
The writer of this book is a post exilic Israelite. The Jewish people have seen their Temple in Jerusalem destroyed and they have just returned to the ruins after living in exile for over fifty years. Why has God let this happen to them? Why are they being punished? The writer of Numbers comes up with the easiest answer. God is punishing us because, even from our earliest days as a people living in the desert, we have disobeyed God and been disrespectful to God. It is not God who has abandoned us, but we who have abandoned God with our sinful ways. The blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of the Israelite people.
The answer really doesn’t hold water for me. I don’t worship a God who willfully and petulantly acts in the ways described in Numbers. It is a lame explanation for the trials and troubles that come to us in this human life. Rather, I would look to a God who wants healing and wholeness for his people. A God who comes to us in the times of our deepest trials, not with snakes, but with compassion and, if we need it, forgiveness.
By Linda Hunter
God of the desert, God of the storm, God of all creation, come to me in my times of trial, when I am walking through the dust of my dreams and the desert of despair. Offer your healing hand, lay it on my heavy heart and bring me to places of wholeness again. AMEN