Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9
“You have lacked nothing!” (Deuteronomy 2:7).
Surely this is a late pious endeavor to cover up the realities of that meandering trek through the wilderness. Surely it is a naive attempt to provide a rosy picture of the life of faith. The desert is only painted. Life in the wilderness? Yes, indeed! But always in the wilderness. This story is about a people stuck between promise and fulfillment.
The wilderness wanderings, or at least their length and breadth, were a surprise to Israel. Instead of a land of milk and honey, they get a desert. The promise falls short. Deliverance at the sea leads into the godforsaken wilderness. The Red Sea seems but a point of unreal exhilaration between one kind of trouble and another, only the last is certainly worse than the first. Bondage with security and resources seems preferable to freedom and living from one oasis to another.
And the wilderness seems permanent. Forty years is a long time in the old sandbox. Even that grand mountaintop experience at Sinai looks like a one-time thing. It is out of the wilderness only to be led right back in! It is beginning to look a lot like home.
What does it mean for God to create a people out of those who are no people, the grandest of all creative acts, only to leave the rest of the world he gives them in chaos? Into the jaws of the wilderness, where demons howl and messiahs are tempted, where familiar resources are taken away, and lifelessness is the only order upon which one can depend! It is life beyond redemption, but short of consummation; but the former seems ineffective and the latter only a mirage.
The promise has been spoken, but who can live by words alone? The hope has been proclaimed, but the horizon keeps disappearing in the sandstorms. Trust in God turns to recalcitrance and resentment. Faith erodes with the dunes. And judgment is invited in to share one’s tattered tent.
Snakes! Those ubiquitous fertility symbols found in any sanctuary worthy of the name adorned the regalia of every demigod of the nations around Israel. Meanwhile, in Israel’s own tradition it was the serpent who was the culprit. Eve, first theologian or not, is taken in by ophidian subtleties. But with all this, here we find Moses, with nary a word of censure from a long line of text transmitters, constructing an image of the creature and using it as a medium of divine healing for a poisoned community. And at the command of God!
Furthermore, this bronze reptile is entwined on a pole, carried to the land of promise, and eventually ensconced in the holy of holies, there to remain for 250 years or so. The old serpent ran into trouble at the hands of the reformer Hezekiah, but for much of its life it was no doubt an orthodox fixture in the sanctuary (2 Kings 18:4). And some people still have trouble with guitars!
Snakes again! But here it is God who gives us pause. What kind of a God is it who makes moves like this? Sending poisonous snakes on the rampage into sinner’s tents! We New Testament types much prefer the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the fires of hell. Eternally! It’s a whole lot easier handling hell than snakes. We can somehow transport the gory details off to another world. Then we only have to deal with God’s grace and mercy here and now.
Or, perhaps, we will do somewhat better, and spiritualize judgment make it all a matter of mental anguish or the stricken conscience. But then we will make the divine healing a totally inward matter, too. Down deep, perhaps we’re all Gnostics.
Or, from another perspective, we may view judgment simply in forensic terms, as if every judgment were due to an explicit divine decision. We may forget that judgment is commonly perceived to have an intrinsic relationship to the sinful deed. But even if we do remember this, we so often become uncomfortable with Israel’s relating God so immediately to the maintenance of such moral orders. We prefer a little dab of deism.
At another point, the entire healing procedure in this text smacks of sympathetic magic, controlling an adversary through manipulation of a replication. All this brings to mind those spooky snake-cults which would charm diseases out of people in the most unorthodox of ways. And that raises the God question for us again – he actually commanded the whole business!
Who is this God who resorts to such quackery in the accomplishment of his purposes? It is almost as bad as Jesus’ use of saliva and clay to open the eyes of the blind! We believe we have somehow got to control the means when it comes to this healing business. Only the marvels of modern medicine will do. And we thereby limit the means God can use and make healing into a relatively modern phenomenon. We forget that God makes use of the means available to him in every context to achieve good purposes. But the means is effective only because of the promise!
Yet even in the wilderness God is responsive to the needs of his complaining people. He provides what the context could not. The protests are answered, the cries are heard, quite undeservedly. There is a gift of healing where the pain experienced is the sharpest. Deliverance comes, not in being removed from the wilderness, but in the very presence of the enemy. The movement from death to life occurs within the very experience of godforsakenness. The death-dealing forces of chaos are nailed to the pole.
But then the pole of life is carried to Jerusalem and ensconced in the Temple. And the serpents are gradually domesticated. The desert is painted. Whitewashed. And so one day the pole must reappear in another godforsaken place, high on a hill, overlooking the holy city. God himself has taken to the pole! Once for all. So that all those who know they are dying in the wilderness can be healed. Look up to him and live… in the wilderness.