Friday, May 1, 2015

Curing a Snakebitten World

There's a very strange story in one of the books of the Hebrew Bible:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. And 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 loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21)

There is no explanation why looking at the bronze serpent on the pole would heal someone of their snake bite.  Does looking at the bronze serpent somehow suck the venom out of the victims before it can kill them?   I'm not sure, but it sounds like a possible explanation. 

Now what is interesting is that Jesus refers to this story when explaining his own significance:

  “14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3)

So what connection did Jesus see between the story of the bronze serpent in the Hebrew Bible and himself?   Well, most of us are familiar with the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and how it tempted humans to eat of the forbidden fruit, which resulted in their eventual deaths.  We could say that they had been snakebitten, and that the serpent's venom - sin - has been coursing through our veins ever since.  Could it be that is what Jesus had in mind?

If so, it would explain what John the Baptist says about Jesus earlier in the same gospel,

"Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"  (John 1:29)

In the sacrificial system of ancient Israel, on the day of Atonement, the high priest would confess the sins of the people over a goat, which would then be driven out into the wilderness.  (See Leviticus 16) Once the goat was gone, the people were considered to be cleansed of their sins.  Their sins had been taken away.

What is interesting is that the goat isn't just driven out into the wilderness.  It is driven into the wilderness to Azazel.  Azazel was probably the name of a demon.  Could it be that the goat is returning the sins - the venom - back to the serpent from whom it originally came?

Likewise, when Jesus was raised up on the cross, he absorbed into himself the sins of the world - the venom from the serpent - and perhaps returned it to its original source.  That seems to be the cure that God has offered to our snakebitten world.

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