Just before those beloved words of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” – just before this Jesus compares himself to a poisonous serpent, mounted on a pole, hoisted up for all to see and have life. This is one of the reasons why I love the Bible. Even the most familiar and comforting words are just about always in the same contextual neighborhood as something completely jarring and disorienting. The double and triple take it gets out of us requires us to go deeper, and to question whether we can really understand the one familiar part without knowing how it relates to the other.
The specific wording of those two verses before John 3:16, coming from the mouth of Jesus, reads like this: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Last Sunday morning there were six of us scratching our heads about this one during the Sunday school hour. This reflection flows out of conversation that we had gathered around Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:11-21. The people being William Brenneman, Dustin and Tiffany Miller, Carol Monson, and Judy Herbold.
One of the themes emerging from these Bible studies is certainly the cultural distance that we bring to these biblical texts, especially the Hebrew Scriptures. Our first instinct is often one of critical distancing of ourselves from the apparent plain reading of the text. And why not? The Numbers story feels, in some ways, like it is begging us to label it as bizarre and archaic.
It begins with a familiar enough tone. The Israelites are again on the move, wandering in the desert, freed from their enslavement in Egypt. But the desert is a fearful place. They are completely dependent, day to day, on the gift of manna, which, over the years, doesn’t make for a very tasty and diverse diet. They are always a few days away from death and speak out against God and Moses, who together had the brilliant idea of taking them away from their dependable daily rations in Egypt and bringing them to this place of no food and no water.
So far, so good. We all feel lost at times, wandering in a strange and fearful land, dissatisfied with life, pretty certain that God isn’t holding up God’s end of the bargain, whatever the bargain was.
In response to the complaints in Numbers 21:6, it says: “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” Now we’ve crossed a line where we’re not willing to go along for the ride with the story. We had various reactions to this. God is supposed to be the deliverer, not the destroyer. One felt that this story is a misrepresentation of God. Another marveled how quickly the people, and the text, make natural happenstance out to be an act of God. You’re wandering in the desert, you come across a bunch of poisonous snakes. What did we do wrong that God is punishing us? It’s a kind of connection that we still find deeply troubling. A Tsunami or tornado or earthquake takes out a whole countryside and some are quick to assign moral value on the event and God’s involvement in it.
The Lord plays the part of the destroyer, but also that of deliverer. The story goes on: 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 on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
We wondered about this graven image that Moses made and thought that seemed counter to other parts of the Israelite experience. Previously, Moses reprimanded the people for making a golden calf and looking to it for their salvation. The second of the ten commandments proclaims that the people are not to make an image in the form of anything in the heavens or anything on the earth beneath that they might worship. This bronze serpent feels like it’s pushing up against that boundary of idolatry. If this thing really works, it is so easy for people to see it as possessing power in itself, rather than the power being in their own faith. One person commented that the solution could have been anything, as long as the people believed it. “Cut up a serpent into three parts, throw it over your left shoulder, and you will be saved.” One person commented that the whole story feels too patriarchal, too much top down control over of the people.
The text, as we have it, offers the bronze, or copper, serpent on the pole as the prescribed remedy. “Bronze serpent,” is a pun in Hebrew, the two words sounding similar, “Bronze serpent,” (NeKHoSH NeKHoSHeT). Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests that a good English rendition of this could be that Moses makes a “copper viper,” or a “super-serpent,” or a “copper copperhead.” A (NeKHoSH NeKHoSHeT)(http://www.theshalomcenter.org/node/275) So, there is an underlying playfulness that is part of the people’s salvation. The evil threat gets caricatured and posted for public view.
What is the cure for these unwelcome serpents of death? The cure is to bring forth a serpent of our own, one of our own creation, that we carefully fashion and playfully? mold into the image of these poisonous serpents. It has a likeness to those that destroy life, but is its own creature, purposefully made and offered. Within the peril lies the seed of our salvation. We each get a small dose of the threat, and it no longer has any power over us. Homeopathy for the community. Hoist up the copper viper for all to see, the very thing destroying you. Now lift up your eyes and look death in the face. In looking at it our eyes are taken off our own ankles and find a common focus. Keep watching and be amazed as death loses its power over you. The symbol of death becomes the symbol of life. The serpent on the pole. And salvation comes to the community. Now walk with bold faith, free from fear.
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
As we were working with this connection between the Numbers and John passages, we found it helpful to clarify some of the terms we were working with in John.
One of those terms is “Son of God.” One member of the group has been reading a book that discusses how this title was one that was already claimed in the ancient world. Caesar Augustus claimed for himself the title “Divi filius,” “Son of the Divine One.” This divi filius was inscribed on Roman coins in circulation in Jesus’ time that also had the image of Caesar on them. This would have been the coin Jesus held in his hand when he said, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s.” Our group agreed that seeing “Son of God” as a contested title, rather than one Jesus creates for himself, affects our reading of the New Testament, especially as John claims that Jesus is the only Son of God. The self-giving love of Jesus is the real personality of God, rather than the dominating power of Caesar, the imposter.
Another term that shows up here in John is “eternal life.” This makes the passage sound like its primary concern has to do with what happens after we die. And that belief in Jesus, and the meaning of the cross, is focused on the afterlife. But the term for “eternal” speaks to quality rather than duration of time. The point is life, full, abundant life, as Jesus says elsewhere in the gospel, and the time for that life is now. “Eternal life” could be translated as “fullness of life that keeps on going and going.” The group made the observation that in Numbers, the effect of the copper viper was not so that the people would be saved after they died. It was to give them life that day. To lead them into a deeper, richer, abundant life and save them from the toxicity that surrounded them. The same holds true for Jesus.
One other clarification of terms in John is that whenever Jesus talks about being “lifted up,” he is talking about the cross. It’s John’s way of flipping our standard view of what it means to be exalted and glorified. This is mentioned explicitly in 12:32-33. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself,” Jesus says. After which John adds, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” How much more unexalted can you get than being lifted up on a cross? But that’s what we’re given in John. It’s jarring and disorienting.
So how we understand those terms – Son of God, eternal life, and lifted up, has a big impact on our reading of Jesus’ words in John.
When Jesus is saying all these things in John chapter three, it’s all about bringing into the light the things kept in darkness. He is talking to the Pharisee Nicodemus, a man who knew the Hebrew scriptures well. A man used to mining the scriptures for wisdom, playfully engaging the language of these texts to lead people toward the heart of God. OK Nicodemus, teacher of the people, what can you make of this one? “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” A riddle from one rabbi to another. A human being lifted up on a cross is like a copper copperhead lifted up on a pole. The way that the community can receive true, abundant life now.
Seeing a man nailed up on a cross would not have been a new sight for Nicodemus or other listeners of Jesus. In Ohio, we issue our death penalty out of public view; behind thick walls, within the confines of Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. In first century Rome, enemies of the state were crucified publicly. A document from a Roman source of that time says, “Whenever we crucify the condemned, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this terror. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect.” (Pseudo-Quentilian, Declamations 274; quoted in Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Hanson and Oakman, p. 92)
I think this must have come from the first century Wiki-leaks, because it reveals the exact intention of Roman crucifixion. Crosses were an open display of the power of death, meant to inject the paralyzing venom of fear into people, a deterrent to anyone having thoughts of undermining the reign of the empire.
After a while, one might get used to these crosses and stop seeing them for what they are. You just accept them as part of the landscape. Or, you intentionally stop looking. Convinced that if you keep your eyes to the ground, focused only on avoiding those obstacles that threaten just you, minding your own business, you can save your own life and escape all this death around you.
With an innocent man lifted up on a cross, this avoidance of the truth no longer becomes possible.
What is the cure for our addictions to domination and the destruction of innocent people? For our paralysis of fear that keeps us from living an abundant life? The cure is this innocent person, a Human One, who carefully and playfully? bears the form of our own victims of violence. It has a likeness to that evil that is destroying us, but is its own creature, purposefully enacted and offered, this caricature of Rome’s power to dominate. The true Son of God peacefully overthrowing the ways of the imposter. Within the peril lies the seed of our salvation. We each get our eyes opened to the violence in which we passively participate, a small dose of the threat, and it no longer has any power over us. Homeopathy for the community.
Hoist up the Human One for all to see. Now lift up your eyes and look death in the face. In looking at it our eyes are taken off our own narrow worlds and find a common focus. Blink once and you see the fangs and venom of the Caesar Son of God looming over you. Blink again and now see the Christ Son of God who has detoxified the whole regime. Once and for all rendered it powerless. Keep watching and be amazed as death and violence and fear lose their power over you. The symbol of death, the cross, becomes the symbol of life. And salvation comes to the community. Now, Believe! Walk with bold faith, free from fear, in fullness of life that keeps on going and going.