March 18, 2012

 

      ON SNAKES ALIVE AND BRONZE

                                                              Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                                 at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 18 March, 2012
 
                                                          Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Numbers 21: 4-9
                                                          Reading from the Gospels:                       John 3: 14-21

 

Last week our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures was from Exodus 20 and it included the words about not making graven images and worshipping them.  Yet this week we have been given a passage from Numbers 21 in which the LORD instructs Moses to make a representation of a poisonous serpent and to set it up so that those who were suffering the ill effects of snake bites could gaze upon it and be cured. Is God being inconsistent here?  At first glance it would seem that he is.  Is there some sort of explanation?  There has to be. 

Those of you have been attending our Bible study sessions over the last ten years or so will readily perceive one possible explanation.  In the passage from Exodus the Name of the Divinity is translated as “God”, representing the Hebrew word, Elohim, Power, whereas here in Numbers the Name is translated as the LORD, representing the Hebrew word, Yahweh, Life or Being.  Basically we are dealing with two stories from two different sources, and at the time each was composed neither writer knew of the material of the other.  Later, when the two accounts were brought together, both of them were held in such reverence and respect that the compilers had to include both. 

This is not a rare phenomenon in the Hebrew Scriptures.  There are two very different accounts of the Creation in the very first two chapters of Genesis.  Similarly, there are at least two, if not three, different accounts of the Flood in the time of Noah.  There are different accounts of how Saul became the first King of Israel, and of how David was introduced into the circle around Saul.  There are two different versions of the so-called Ten Commandments.  And we find similar phenomena in the New Testament writings.  Last week we read the account of Jesus cleansing the Temple as it is recounted by John.  In a couple of weeks we shall read of the cleansing of the Temple as recorded by Mark.  Yes, it would seem that Jesus did indeed cleanse the Temple, but John has it happen at the beginning of his ministry whereas Mark has it a few days before the end.  And then there is the old question as to what sort of a meal the Last Supper was and where it was held.  And when and where exactly did the Ascension take place, and when was the Holy Spirit given to the followers of Jesus?

So one explanation would be that the different accounts were held in such high regard by the compilers of the Scriptures that they could not leave them out, nor did they feel that they could or should bring them into alignment and agreement.  Perhaps the lesson to be drawn from all this is that we need to respect each other more and to listen to each other more as we recount how God, or the LORD, has impacted upon our lives and experience. 

But it might well be that there is another explanation, one that we may lay alongside the first rather than seek to replace it.  In the two accounts of the giving of the so-called Ten Commandments, although they are said to be at two different places – Mount Sinai in Exodus but Mount Horeb in Deuteronomy – the Israelites are discouraged from making a peçel.  The King James’ Version translates this as “a graven image”, the phrase with which those of an older generation are familiar, whereas modern translators have used the word, “idol”.  One modern scholar has used the term, “shaped image”, to express the idea behind the Hebrew word.  However we might choose to translate the term, it indicates something made by a human being which is meant to be used as an object of worship. 

Is that what we see in our passage from Numbers 21?  Well, for a start, the word peçel does not occur in this passage.  Indeed, it does not occur in the entire book that we call Numbers.  So the LORD is not telling Moses and Aaron to make an object for worship.  But if it was not meant to be an object of worship, what was it?  Perhaps we can get a clue from another story in the Hebrew Scriptures – from I Samuel 6.  This is a story that seldom, if ever, is read in the course of public worship, probably because it is somewhat indelicate!  In I Samuel 5 we may read how the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant at the time when Eli the Priest was the Judge of Israel.  The Philistines took the Ark back to their own country, but wherever they housed it disaster befell.  Suddenly there were hordes of mice and the people began to die of what sounds like a form of bubonic plague, and those who did not succumb totally were afflicted with what the King James’ Version has it were emerods.  Modern-day translators use the word, “tumours”.  When confronted with this dilemma the Philistines consulted their wise men who advised that the Ark be sent back to the Land of Israel, but that it should be accompanied by ten gold images, five of mice and five of emerods.  What the latter looked like is probably best left to the imagination!   But the point is that in ancient Palestine and Cana’an there was the belief that if you made an image of the object that was afflicting you and gazed on it that you would be healed.  Such an idea might be alien to our twenty-first century Western ideas about medicine and medical knowledge, but who is there who has not tried some of the remedies that their grandmothers have passed on to us from their grandmothers?  And sometimes those remedies have worked, haven’t they? 

The sad thing was that, while the LORD may well have told Moses to make the bronze serpent, and those who gazed upon it once he raised it high were indeed healed, later generations held this image up as an object of worship.  They even gave it a name, Nechushtan, a reference to the copper in the bronze alloy.  They made offerings to it, and it was so venerated that King Josiah, the great reformer-king, had it broken up when he ascended the throne.

We cannot be sure what the original idea was behind the creation of the image of the serpent, but it would seem to be that if a person were to cast what was causing them to suffer at the image, then that cause and so that suffering would be removed.  This is not an uncommon belief.  For example, the Turkana people of North-west Kenya even today have a rite in which they metaphorically cast all their troubles towards what or who it is that they believe is troubling them – usually a neigbouring tribe with whom they have a dispute!  The Anglican Church in Kenya has picked up on this idea and adapted it to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Just before the Blessing, the congregation stands and the Minister says, “All our problems”, and the people say, “We send to the cross of Christ”, and as they do so they make a sweeping gesture of their arms towards the cross behind the Holy Table.  Then the Minister says, “All our difficulties”, and the people make the same response with the same sweeping gesture.  Then the Minister says, “All the devil’s works”, and the people again make the same response with the same gesture.  Then the Minister says, “All our hope”, and this time as they make their response, “We set on the risen Christ”, the people make a sweeping gesture towards Heaven. After this the Minister pronounces the words of the Blessing, prefacing it with the words, “Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine upon you and scatter the darkness before your path …”    

It is surely something similar to this notion that lies behind the words of Jesus at the beginning of our reading from John 3 this morning.  It is as we look at the Jesus who has been raised up, whether by his enemies on the Cross, or by his Father into Heaven, that we are able to experience the lifting of the burdens of this life, physical, moral and spiritual, so that we may experience life in its fullness.  Jesus goes so far as to say that we shall have eternal life if we do this.  It is not the plan of God that we should be weighed down by so many problems.  We can send them to the Cross of Christ.  It is not the plan of God that we should be beset by so many difficulties.  We can send them to the Cross of Christ.  It is not the plan of God that we should be entrapped by the devil’s works.  We can send them to the Cross.  And when we have done that, then we may know in our inmost being that all our hope we set on the risen Christ.