Then There Was the Time God Told Moses to Make a Metal Snake and Hang it from a Pole to Cure Snake Bites

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 03/10/24, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I was feeling a little under the weather this week, and I was afraid that I might not be able to preach this Sunday. Normally, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing for us to have an extra 20 minutes of waiting worship, but this Sunday I really wanted to be here, because our scripture reading this morning is a little weird. It requires a little bit of unpacking.

God does a lot of weird stuff that I don’t understand. That’s kind of par for the course. But in Numbers 21, God pulls a particularly strange move. In response to the prayers of the people for healing, God tells Moses to fashion a bronze serpent for the people to come and look at when they’ve been bitten by a poisonous snake, and he promises that anyone who looks at the bronze serpent will be healed.

This is weird in a bunch of ways: Most especially, for me, is the fact that it seems to directly contradict the Second Commandment that God gave to Moses earlier – to make no graven images. I guess that God is allowed to break his own rules, but this serpent sure seems to be a graven image to me!

It’s not like this is the only time God was weird. There are all sorts of very strange episodes in the Bible. Like that time God randomly sent an angel to kill Balaam, but then made Balaam’s donkey able to see the angel, so that the donkey could save his master. And then when Balaam started beating the donkey for apparently disobeying, God gave the donkey the ability to speak, so that the donkey can say, “What have I done to you, that you’ve struck me these three times?”

Weird stuff. The Bible is full of weird stuff.

But this episode of the bronze serpent is particularly relevant to us this morning, because Jesus brings it up again, in the Gospel of John, at the end of his visit to Nicodemus. Jesus compares himself to the bronze serpent, saying, “Just as Moses lifted up a serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man [that’s Jesus!] be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

So Jesus is the new bronze serpent. Just as God provided a bronze serpent to heal the Israelites of poisonous snake bites, God has sent Jesus to heal the world of death altogether. Just as the serpent was lifted up and people could choose to look at it as a sign of faith, Jesus would be lifted up – on the cross! – and people can choose to look at him, and believe, and be healed. Interesting.

So Jesus is using the story of the bronze serpent as a metaphor, a foreshadowing, of his own ministry. For me, this transforms the story of the bronze serpent from a weird episode in the Hebrew Bible into an important piece of the puzzle to understanding what Jesus is really about. Jesus, in the Gospel of John, is giving me a hint here, that this wild story from the book of Numbers is worth a deeper look.

So let’s go back to Numbers 21. Let’s look at what really happened here. This story takes place as Israel is wandering in the wilderness. They’ve been at it for a long time, and they’re getting grumpy about the circuitous route that God is taking them through the desert. The English translation of this passage says, “the people became impatient” – but the literal Hebrew text says, “the spirit of the people became short.” I know that feeling!

So the people, whose spirit was getting quite short at that point, “spoke against God and against Moses.” They said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and water, and we detest this miserable food.”

Again, a weird moment. The people are complaining that they have no food or water, and then in the same breath also complain that they hate the food that God is giving them – the manna from the sky that God has been providing for them each day. They have food, but they want different food.

As a consequence of this rebellion, it says that God sent poisonous serpents that bit a bunch of people, and many died. So pretty quickly, the people came back to Moses and said, basically, “Our bad. We shouldn’t have complained. Please get God to send the snakes away. Life was better without the snakes.” So Moses prays for the people, and God tells Moses to create a bronze image of a serpent. God tells Moses that if anyone is bitten by a snake, they can come and look at the bronze serpent. If they do, they’ll be healed.

I keep saying it, but I’ll say it again: This is weird! Why would a bronze sculpture of a snake heal people bitten by snakes when they looked at it? We know that the people of Egypt – where the Israelites had been living for 400 years – believed that images of snakes could provide protection. In the ancient Near East, there was a widespread association of the image of the serpent with the restoration of life. In fact, the people of Egypt often place serpent-shaped amulets on mummies to ward off snakes and reptiles. According to Karen Joines, “The most important element in the tradition of Moses and the bronze serpent seems to be that of sympathetic magic – the belief that the fate of an object or person can be governed by the manipulation of its exact image.”

OK, so we’ve got some historical/cultural context now. Maybe that makes this whole serpent thing a little less weird. But that doesn’t really answer the question: Why was this serpent effective in healing the people of Israel who were bitten by snakes? What does the serpent represent in the way that God is using it here?

The best I can figure, it’s not so much the serpent itself that is doing the healing; it is the action that the individual is taking, and God’s response to that action. When a snake-bitten Israelite comes to Moses and asks to look at the bronze serpent, that person is intentionally drawing closer to God. When a person draws closer to God, God heals them – because that’s who God is. God is the author of life. God is the great healer.

The Gospel of John says that Jesus heals us in a similar way. As John 3:16 famously says, God so loved the world that he didn’t just sent a bronze serpent this time – he sent his only-begotten son.

God so loved the world that he didn’t just send healing against the consequences of sin. He didn’t just cure the snake-bite. In Jesus, God provides a lasting solution. Jesus is not just forgiveness from sin, not just a respite from death; he is liberation from sin, death, and the devil. The serpent stood as a symbol of God’s mercy, but Jesus is God’s mercy.

Jesus is the light that comes into the darkness and illuminates the world. When we turn towards him, we are healed and renewed – not just temporarily, but in an ongoing process of growth and transformation.

This experience of healing, growth, and holistic transformation is at the heart of the Quaker understanding of Christianity. The Quaker tradition emphasizes Jesus’ role as the light of the world. He’s the light that shows us our darkness and gives us power to overcome it, living as children of light.

James Naylor, an important early Quaker leader, explained the way that the light of Jesus works to bring healing and lasting changes in our lives. He provides not merely theological jargon, but a practical method for encountering God, for looking at light, and being healed. He writes: 

“Art thou in the darkness? Well mind it not, for if you mind it, it will feed thee more. But stand still and act not and wait in patience until Light arises out of darkness to lead thee.”

Margaret Fell, another early Quaker leader, gives similar advice:

“Dwell in the Light, and then you will see clearly; and the Light will show you the way to overcome the darkness.”

Another early Quaker, William Dewsbury, writes:

“As you turn your hearts towards the Lord, there will be a discovery of His Light arising in you, which will reprove and judge the evil, and show you the way of Life and Peace.”

There is a way, there is a practical path to fullness of life with God. Just as God through Moses gave the Israelites a method for healing from snake bites, God in Jesus has given us a way to everlasting life – the kind of life that goes beyond healing temporary illness and extends into transformation of the whole person.

This is such good news. There’s apparently no downside. Turn to God, look upon Jesus and believe, and be healed. This is such good news, so why do we turn away?

As I reflect on the story of Moses and the bronze serpent, I wonder about what the response was to this new source of healing. I’m sure that many Israelites came and looked at the serpent and were healed. But I wonder if some didn’t. Did some refuse? Maybe some were still too angry with God to come and receive the healing.

This makes me think about all the times in my own life that I have refused to come to the light, refused to come face to face with my own darkness. There are things I just didn’t want to see – most of all, I didn’t want to see myself. I’ve preferred darkness to the light, falsehood to truth. Why?

Maybe it’s because the cure to the poison is just too weird, and the darkness is more familiar than the light. Sometimes, it can feel more comfortable to stick with the snake bite I know than the bronze serpent I don’t know.

The very fact that we get a choice in all this is confusing to me. I don’t understand what God is up to here. I don’t know why God gives us the freedom to choose our own destruction. But I take hope in the fact that God has also given us the freedom to come to the light.

In the work of Moses and in the life of Jesus, God does a strange, almost incomprehensible thing: He gives us choices and respects our agency. He offers us love, but doesn’t force himself on us. He comes to save, not to conquer.

Jesus comes with love, not with judgment. A lot of people think of God as being judgmental, but in Jesus, God has left the judgment to us. We get to make a decision. We are free to choose the light or retreat into the darkness. As Jesus says in our reading this morning, “This is the judgment: that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.”

We may retreat from the light because we don’t want to be seen. But we must be seen, we have to see ourselves, so that we can be healed. Just as a doctor has to remove our clothing before performing life-saving surgery, we must consent to being naked before God and ourselves if we wish to be transformed.

I’m lucky enough that, so far in my life, I haven’t required surgery. I feel grateful, because the idea of surgery terrifies me. I would never want to have a doctor cut  me open and make changes to my insides. But many people I know have had just this experience. Maybe you have. Maybe you’ve suffered from illness and trusted that the most sure way to be healed was through a frightening, uncomfortable medical procedure. Despite your desire to avoid discomfort, pain, and risk, you submitted yourself to surgery. Why? Because it was better than the alternative.

  • Have we reached that place in our own lives? Does the life that God offers us seem worth the cost?
  • Do we love the light, even when it burns and shows us things that we don’t want to see, or do we still cling to the darkness and hide in shadows?
  • Where are the places in your life where you see darkness?
  • What does it mean to turn to the light, and follow it, and be healed?