Num. 21: 4 - 9
[T]he people spoke against God and against Moses, "...we have come to loathe this miserable food." (5) It is quite appropriate, during Lent, for us to make a "reality check" of our attitudes. Of course, this presupposes our being honest with ourselves-- and before God. Recall the lesson from Gen. 17: walk before me, and be thou perfect. (1, KJV) "God is watching all that you do."(1)
Never forget who the people are: the chosen, the beloved of YHWH, whom God, in mercy, had already saved, delivered out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage (Exo. 20: 2). They stand as a type for the Church-- you and me. We need to constantly remind ourselves that the Hebrew Scriptures are not about "them"; they are about us. And, in one way or another, at one time or another, we have come to loathe this miserable existence.
The LORD sent seraph(2) serpents against the people. (6) (Remember, this is the God of grace, mercy, peace and love.**) As a result, The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you." (7) We regard this as a commendable response; the Israelites recognized and confessed their sin. So YHWH forgave them, right?
If you think so, then you need to read the passage again. The LORD sent ...serpents against the people, but God did not take them away. Instead, a symbol(3) was erected, to which those who were bitten might look for healing. But they continued to be bitten, even after having confessed their sin! Why?
Because, to God, their grumbling (which has continued through several chapters) was not their sin, but a manifestation of it. Their (our) sin-- which the people neither acknowledged nor confessed-- was their(4) bad attitude.
This Psalm opens with a prelude (1-3), continues with four stanzas which describe various states that people were (are) in: Some lost their way in the wilderness, (4) Some lived in deepest darkness, (10) There were fools who suffered for their sinful way, (17) and Others go down to the sea in ships, (23) one stanza that describes YHWH's responses (33-41), and closes with a postlude (42-43).
In each of the four stanzas, we read: In their adversity they cried to the LORD and, for no apparent reason other than that they did so: and [YHWH] rescued (6, 13) or saved (19, 28) them from their troubles.
This renders a good picture of a just, but loving and merciful God. The problem is that it is not an accurate picture; it does not accord with the story of the serpents and the bronze serpent. Apparently this "idol" continued to be used, at YHWH's direction, because it continued to be needed-- because the people continued in their sinful way-- until King Hezekiah broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made (2Ki. 18: 4). Obviously, looking up to the bronze serpent was only a "temporary fix".
Yet we have this text placed in juxtaposition to the story from Numbers. And the Psalm states: [YHWH] gave an order and healed them (20). Going back to Numbers, the "order" that God gave (via Moses) was: "if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover." (21: 8) Look up to the serpent and be healed, and live to be bitten another day. This is God's grace?
Perhaps we are missing the point because we want too much from the Psalm: immediate and total salvation. But YHWH, in Numbers, is showing us the truth-- not so much about God, as about us. We are not going to commit just one sin in our life, but many; and even after we have been "rescued", "saved", we will find ourselves in continual need of a bronze serpent raised upon a staff to which we may look for healing.
Look again at those "deliverance" passages. In each case, what is it that we are saved from? Our sin? Our guilt? Our deserved punishment? No, but from our "troubles". Nothing more.
"We will find ourselves in continual need of a bronze serpent raised upon a staff to which we may look for healing." As true as this statement is, I find it troubling. Not because it accurately describes my condition, but because of the potential analogy between the serpent on the staff and Jesus on the cross. I have heard that analogy preached; the former as a type and the latter as the antitype. And, until now, I have been comfortable with that.
But now I wonder to what extent-- if at all-- this type-antitype comparison may be valid. My fear is that some may be led to think of the cross as a "quick fix", a "temproary fix". After reading Hebrews 9 and other texts, I believe that Christ's death on the cross was a "once for all" event, a "final solution" to the problem of sin(5).
Now I am left with a dilemma: that I continue-- and shall continue, want to or not-- in my sinful way is a certainty. Do I need merely to glance up at a crucifix in order to be saved? The Hebrew Scriptures say "Yes"; but note: according to the Psalm, this action will save me only from my "troubles", not from my transgression or its ramifications. So, then, what does "once for all" mean? Wretched creature that I am, who is there to rescue me from this state of death? (Rom. 7: 24)
You once were dead because of your sins and wickedness; you followed the ways of this present world order, obeying the commander of the spiritual powers of the air, the spirit now at work among God's rebel subjects. We too were once of their number (1-3). Paul's verbs are in the past tense, and we wish above everything that this be true for us. But is it? Or do we still follow the ways of this present world order, turning the "temple" into a marketplace(6) and the Gospel into a profitable sales item?
The Apostle continues with some wonderfully encouraging words. But before we read them, I think we need-- each one of us-- to make a "reality check", to see if they are, in truth, applicable to us. Am I, are you, still in this state of death? Do we need to look up to a bronze serpent on a staff? Or do we need something more?
According to John, Jesus Himself made the analogy between the serpent on the staff and Christ on the cross. Now read the attached reason: in order that everyone who has faith may in him have eternal life. (15)
How does this compare with the Numbers lesson? As I read it, looking to the bronze serpent was an act of hopeful obedience; the troubled people were told to look at it, and those who did found healing. Jesus, however, replaces the element of obedient action with, simply, faith.
One thing this teaches is that obedience and faith, although to some extent comparable and equally effectual, are not congruent or identical. Obedience does lead to salvation, if we accept the Hebrew Scriptures as truth. But it is not permanent. Faith, on the other hand, leads to eternal life. This indicates that faith is superior to and more powerful than obedience. So why does the Church still preach obedience?
Did you catch the slight difference in phrasing given by the NEB? [E]veryone who has faith may, in [Christ], have eternal life. (commas added) This raises an interesting question: must we have faith in Christ in order to receive eternal life, or, if we have faith, do we receive eternal life in Christ? Go back now and read Eph. 2: 4-10 again.
** We have difficulty at this point mainly, I think, because we have too narrow or limited an understanding of God's grace and mercy. Grace is not opposed to judgment, but includes it; mercy's purpose is not to prevent or assuage punishment, but embraces it. Love is the impetus for God's grace and mercy; and peace-- Shalom, Emanuel-- is the result.
1. 1 See b17, Mar. 19, 2000.
(comments to Phil at ENAPXH@aol.com )
(comments to Phil at ENAPXH@aol.com )