The Numbers passage is an odd and difficult passage. There are levels of interpretation and meaning. If we stop or identify any one of those interpretations and meanings as The meaning, we will miss what God is saying to us in our scriptures. To hear what God is saying we must hear all the levels of meaning in light of God’s ultimate revelation of Love, that God so Loved the World.” But we can’t understand that revelation without understanding how the meaning of this story in Numbers is enfolded into that revelation of God in Jesus Christ. We’ll take some time with various possible interpretations of our Scriptures.
At first read and most obvious read God sends deadly poisonous snakes into the Israelite encampment because the Israelites are questioning and complaining. Then when the Israelites admit it was wrong to question and come groveling to Moses in order to get God to take the snakes away. But, God doesn't remove the snakes but invents this odd ritual object and ritual. A bronze serpent is made and put on a pole and if an Israelite gets bitten by a snake all they need to do is look at the Bronze snake and they will be healed of the snake bite. Even after the Israelites confess God doesn't remove the punishment God sent but merely offers a way to not die from the punishment. This interpretation isolates this episode from the larger story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their liberation from slavery. If you string together these stories as stories of complaint and punishment this story could be read as saying God really, really dislikes people questioning God, and pointing out what is wrong with the world.
n the story of the Exodus of the Israelites and travels in the desert. This is just one moment of what is nearly constant complaint of the Israelites even though they have seen God’s consistent mighty acts and signs of God’s care for them as a people. The complaints begin when Moses first came to the Israelites as slaves even after God brings plagues to convince Pharaoh that he should let the slaves go, they first complain which is understandable that Moses is stirring up trouble and making life more difficult than it was before he showed up and began to demand the Israelites freedom. Then once Pharaoh Then changes his mind and sends the Egyptian army to to prevent their leaving Egypt. God then both provides a way of escape and resounding defeat of the oppressors. God Even gives a sign of God’s presence with the Israelites through an epiphany of a cloud by day and hovering fire at night. Once in the desert without food and water Israelites legitimately complain about lack of food and water, and God provides water and Manna (what in our scripture text for today, the Israelites in their complaint call “miserable food.”) In this larger context the passage given that this is just an episode in a long line of God does amazing and astounding things for the Israelites, gives them food and water, is leading them to the “promised Land” where they will be able to be free, and at every step of the way as if God has done nothing before, they complain and accuse this God that has done truly astounding things and freed them from slavery. From a human perspective God has some reason to be a bit peeved and somewhat justified in sending a plague of serpents upon the Israelites, not for questioning but seemingly assuming God really never intended anything any good but has only intended death, so God sends them what they think God is giving them, death in the form of poisonous serpents. The Israelites get what they expect, imagined God giving them. This interpretation like the first one though still leaves the same question as the first, why doesn’t God s end the snakes away if God sent them in the first place. The creation of a ritual object that needs to be gazed upon to be healed of a snake bite isn’t completely accounted for here..
If however, we continue to reflect on the larger context of this episode and see it as much about God as the Israelites, we can begin to interpret it as a story of God’s steadfast love in the face of continual rejection. God can’t do enough for the Israelites. The Israelites have a profound lack of trust. In fact the Israelites continually expect death from God. We could interpret “God sent venomous Serpents” as the Israelites interpretation. It’s makes sense God sent plagues of frogs and locust upon Egypt when Pharaoh upset God, so they say we've clear upset God so God must have sent the serpents. Yet, God’s solution calls into question whether God actually sent the serpents. The presence of the serpents and a direct act of God is more in line with the Israelites perception based in their complaint that God was trying to kill them anyway. If God sent the serpents as punishment for complaining and calling into question, then why wouldn't have God just removed the snakes once the Israelites have become obedient again and contrite. The plague worked, and if they get out of line again God could just send another plague. But God’s response shows a different concern, not obedience but trust and being in relationship. The presence of the poisonous snakes offers the Israelites a chance to yet again trust God. God’s wrath, the presence of the serpents coincides with the attitude of the Israelites about and towards their God. They see themselves in an adversarial relationship with God.. However, the coming of the serpents as being the act of God, is bound up in that the coming of the serpents providing an opportunity for God to once again show God’s patience and love and longing for relationship with God’s people. God doesn't send the snakes away because the snakes aren’t sent like the plagues of Egypt, rather they are sent in that their presence with a people turning to God in their time of need, is an opportunity for God to show his love and care and for the Israelites to show their faith and trust in the one who has liberated them. They can begin to associate God, not with death, but life.
We could perhaps feel pretty good about this interpretation and leave it there, we resolved the abusive and petty tyrant charge that could be laid at God ( and kind of was what the Israelites keep accusing God of being.) but then Jesus seems to find in this story something that has larger significance, and prefigures the Crucifixion , and God’s overall solution for the separation between us and God and each other. All we need to do is look upon Christ have faith that God is and was at work in Jesus of Nazareth and we will be whole. We all, all humanity, have a deadly venom running through our veins. Paul puts it that we were dead in our trespasses and sins. We were or are dead the way someone is dead when they have the venom of a poisonous snake in their veins without access to an antidote. Your heart may still be beating but with each beat the inevitable death is drawing closer. We were dead in this sense, in that before Christ we were we to remain in our separation form God and each other no antidote for the human condition existed, no way out. In a sense before Christ, the Psalmist is correct to say that the dead don’t praise god from the grave. Our physical death without Jesus Christ renders our separation, from each other, from God’s good creation and from God’s own self, permanent.
We can get a little hung up on Paul’s lists here and elsewhere, about what constitutes actions that show or indicate that we have poison coursing through our veins, the poison of distrust and self-seeking protection of what is ours, the signs that we are dead and separated from God. The Israelites showed they lived with the reality of the poisonous serpents before the serpents ever came. They were convinced that death was the most real thing there was, and no matter what sings God provided no matter what God gave them they trusted the reality of death as more sure than the love of God. Paul says we are all like that, we are all dead in our trespasses and sins. We are, all of humanity are, the Israelites grumbling in the desert unwilling and unable to trust in the reality of love and God’s faithfulness. As Paul says elsewhere even our good deeds apart from faith and trust, that is relationship with God, are bound up in this logic of death. That is the lists of what we once were are simply systems of what is true for all no matter what we do apart from Christ. In fact being caught up in ensuring that we aren’t doing Paul’s lists shows that we are trusting in our ability to avoid the serpents rather than God’s solution which is faith.
The antidote is Christ hung on the cross lifted up, the antidote is to trust God’s weakness and foolishness in becoming human and accepting a horrible and humiliating death of a criminal, as the power and strength of God.
Signs and wonders don’t help us trust. If they did there wouldn't be story after story of our human belief that god wants our death, in the story of the Israelites Exodus from Egypt. That story is the story of our humanity not just a people in a particular time. Thus, if we are honest with ourselves, we can identify with the feelings and view point of the Israelites. But what God asked then and asks now is the same, faith. And this is Paul’s consistent claim. God of the Torah asks the same thing of us as the God of Jesus Christ, that we trust in God and God’s ways, so that we may be restored to relationship with God and each other, and in that restoration be freed from the logic of fear and death.