From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And 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 upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. Numbers 21: 4-9.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3: 14-16.
The first passage, from the Book of Numbers, deeply challenges our understanding of Yahweh, and confronts our imaginations. It takes place against the backdrop of the consistent theme within the Exodus narrative: forty years of wandering in the wilderness, marked by the people’s resistance, God’s punishment, the people’s repentance, and God’s restoration. As the people near the end of their journey, a campaign of rebellion arose against both Moses and God. The text reports that God addressed this issue through an infestation of seraphs (poisonous snakes).
One might reasonably conclude that there were already poisonous snakes among the Hebrew people, spreading this contagion of destructive grumbling. While we may struggle with the notion that God sent the snakes down upon the Hebrews, I want to suggest that those vipers were merely visible tokens of the toxic rebellion that already enveloped them. The serpents which would lead to their deaths were already there. God merely revealed a physical sign of the spiritual reality they already confronted. It’s as though the Lord were telling them, “This is what your way looks like.”
In this fitting Lenten passage, when the people acknowledge their complicity for their situation, God intervenes to save them. God instructs Moses, who creates a bronze serpent placed upon a pole. When those bitten by snakes look upon this image, this icon, God heals them. Out of this destructive pattern of sin and death, God will raise up a way of healing. This leads us to the Gospel reading for today.
In the Gospel passage, we encounter the terribly interesting figure of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who secretly followed Jesus. Immediately prior to this passage, Jesus challenges Nicodemus’ imagination, teaching about the need for a man to be “born again”. Jesus then reveals his messianic role, drawing on the iconic image of Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness. This statement carries with it the double-meaning of the Christ being raised up as the Messiah and of Jesus raised up on the cross. As with the earlier passage from Numbers, Jesus describes a spiritual reality that the world cannot yet comprehend.
The cross will become the source of healing this broken world. Just as with the bronze serpent, that which we perceived as an image of fear and death becomes the source of our new life. Again, it’s as though God said to the world, “All right. This horror on Golgotha is the result of the way you want to do business. But I can still create life where you see nothing but death and shame.”
Jesus teaches Nicodemus that believing in the Son “lifted up” provides the way to eternal life. It’s important to note that the Greek phrase John uses isn’t actually “believes in him” but rather “believes into him”. In other words, Jesus isn’t describing an intellectual assent to a set of propositions, but rather a radical submission and new way of life. Jesus offers eternal life, therefore, to those who join in His way of life. Thus, St. Paul could accurately say “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Gal. 2:20.
John’s Gospel offers us a deeply rooted theology of the cross. In fact, for St. John, the cross operates as the fulcrum point upon which all of human history turns. This passage seems to answer, perhaps a little obliquely, Nicodemus’ question, “How can these things be?” John 3:9.
Jesus points to a spiritual reality we cannot yet see, that we cannot yet understand. Our new life, our eternal life, in Christ originates in one mysterious, glorious, incomprehensible notion: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes into him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Salvation arises through God’s love, revealed on the cross. In the depth of this Lenten season, that’s good news.
© 2012 James R. Dennis
Moses and the Bronze Serpent © Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.