IS A SNAKE AN AGENT OF HEALING OR CORRUPTION?
Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107, John 3:14-21
April 2, 2000 by Tad Mitsui
I used to take a group of boys to camping in Lesotho, Africa. There was a 11 year old bully called Morgan Archer, who was a son of a Canadian Professor of Education. He could sustain one burp long enough to sing "Twinkle, twinkle little star." Naturally, other boys respected him. They followed him everywhere. He took them on a snake hunt. They all pretended that they were not scared. They carried their catch in cotton bags. In the middle of the night, a fight broke out. They were fighting over snakes. It seemed that some snakes crept into the wrong bags. So, I had to keep all the snake bags in my tent to keep the peace. Everybody managed to sleep a little that night, except me. Fifteen years later, I ran into Morgan Archer in Toronto. He was a manager of a Second Cup Coffee outlet near the church office on St. Clair Avenue. I asked him if he still loved snakes. He said he never did. He just pretended that he liked snakes. What a price to be a bully!
The snakes have a bad reputation. They are often seen as a symbol of evil. They bite and kill people. This is why today”s scripture lessons surprise us. A bronze figure of a snake was lifted up by Moses as a symbol of healing and salvation. The Gospel according to John compares Jesus Christ, who was lifted up on the cross, with the bronze snake. It sounds puzzling. A snake first appeared in the Bible as an animal who tempted Eve into eating a forbidden fruit, thus caused the first rebellion against God. This incident branded the snake as evil ever since.
Careful reading of the Bible, however, shows that this characterization of the snake as an evil creature is incorrect. Take the first account of the snake in the Genesis. It says that the snake was the most cunning animal God has created, but does not say that it was evil. Snakes appear 58 times in the Bible. But only two times in the Book of Revelation, the snake is called Satan. Even there, it speaks about a huge dragon referred to as "an ancient snake". The Revelation was speaking about a different kind of creature, not a normal snake. All other references to the snake characterize them as cunning or clever, though it may have to crawl on the ground and eat dirt. Christ even commanded us to be like a snake saying, "You must be wise like a snake, and gentle like a dove." A snake as a model of wisdom certainly is a different image from what we used to think of it as a creepy and crawly vermin.
Back in Lesotho, Morgan Archer and the boys knew that most of the local snakes were harmless through Prof. Thelejane”s research project. He was a biologist doing a research on the snakes in the region, and had a huge collection of them in a tank. Most of the poison snake bites happen when people accidentally step on them. In fact, snakes are the ones who avoid people. We are the most dangerous enemies for snakes. When you walk on the grass in a snakes infested country, you should wear heavy boots, cover the legs, and always carry a stick and beat the grass ahead of you as you walk. Snakes do not attack you, if you give them enough warning. Generally speaking snakes are safe, if you know how not to bother them.
It is interesting to notice that the people of Israel were bitten by snakes, after they started to complain to God and Moses about hardship that the life of freedom brought to them. They said, "Did you have to bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert? We have to find water and food here. In Egypt, we did not have freedom but at least we had lots of food." Food was more important for them than freedom. They had not yet understood that dignity which freedom gave them was the most important gift from God. That was a sure sign of immaturity. We expect babies to want milk without worrying about their nakedness or wet bum, because they are babies. But if adults do not see the value of dignity, they have a serious problem. The problem with addiction, for example, is the fact that things like alcohol, drug, gambling, money, or even work take over their lives, and dignity is forgotten. They become slaves of substance or habits, and abandon the marks of adulthood such as dignity and responsibility. If such immaturity dominates adult”s life, anything, even the good things in life can become poisonous.
This is why I think the image of a snake as a metaphor for salvation as well as poison is very meaningful. Venom from poison snakes makes serum – a remedy for snake bites. We know that all drugs are poison, if we abuse or misuse them. They are medicine, because we know how to handle them. A mature adult knows how to remain in control of our environment, things we consume, and our habits. A snake meant disaster for immature Israelites, because they couldn”t handle responsibility therefore couldn”t appreciate freedom. A child can not handle freedom, so do not understand why one has to take responsibility. An immature person hates freedom and responsibility, like darkness hates light. The immature people never understand the value of dignity. They do not understand what healing and salvation mean. The Gospel according to John spoke about the coming of Christ and said, "The light came into the world, but the darkness rejected it." This is why those who did not see the true meaning of healing and salvation killed Christ on the cross. They thought that Jesus Christ was a disaster – a traitor to their dream, like the Israelites who thought that God and Moses were killing them by giving them freedom.
Life is a life long process of learning. We never stop growing and learning until the end. When you stop growing, you become a living dead no matter how young you are. Let us keep growing towards maturity without stopping at any instant gratification of a superficial pleasure. When you can see infinite possibilities that freedom of the wilderness offers, and when you can see healing beyond the frightening appearance of a snake, you will appreciate the meaning of salvation Christ brought to all of us.