Monday, March 11, 2024

The Nehushtan


John 3:14-21

Lent 4 / Year B

This morning we encounter one of most peculiar stories in the entire bible: the divine punishment of snake bites in the wilderness and healing power of the Nehushtan, an image of a bronze serpent crafted by Moses and mounted on a pole.  And if the cliff notes are not bizarre enough, wait until we dive into the details.  We Christians might care little about this story except Jesus himself identifies his own Crucifixion with it right before one of the most famous verses in all of scripture: John 3:16.

Here is what we can make of the passage.  It is one of the wilderness ‘murmuring’ stories where the people complain about the hardships they are enduring: no food and no water are high on their list.  God responds to previous murmurings by providing; first, water from a rock and then, on a nightly basis, a flakey substance so odd the people name in ‘manna’, a Hebrew word which literally means what is it?.  What it is? is crusty material similar perhaps to our communion wafers: bland, tasteless, and, if it is your sole dietary allotment, something you would tire of quickly.

What is it? figures prominently in today’s reading.   Our first text tells us the people complain to Moses saying, “We detest this miserable food.”  Robert Alter, in his translation of the first five books of the bible, notes the intensive sense of the first person-plural and all the words following.  He renders the verse as “we loath this wretched bread.”  What is it? is so bad people gag whenever they try to swallow it. 

So what is the divine response to the ‘murmuring’?  Wandering in the wilderness, the people suddenly find themselves in a snake pit – literally.  Creatures are slithering out of the rocks and striking out Godly retribution through their venomous bites. 

Serpents play an interesting role in the bible, don’t they!  In Garden of Eden the serpent is the agent of temptation and deception.  For Isaiah, a serpent-like creature places a flaming coal on his tongue as a part of the prophetic commissioning process.  Here, in the wilderness, the serpent is an agent of divine punishment. 

But the diverse role of the serpent gets even more weird as the story unfolds.  The people plead with Moses to intercede with God on their behalf.  “We have sinned,” they say, “Tell God we are sorry and ask God to get rid of these snakes.”  God responds by instructing Moses to fashion an image of a snake, mount it on a pole, lift it up, and show it to the people.  “Whoever looks at the snake will be healed,” God says.  “Whoever does not will die.” 

Moses, as if adding to the absurdity of it all, elects to craft the snake out of bronze.  He could have chosen any material – wood (easy to chisel), stone (he had already worked with it on the Commandment tablets), but in something of word play/pun Moses elects to make the snake (nehash in Hebrew) out of bronze (nehoshet).  He makes a nehash nehoshet, an object which, over time, comes to be known as “the Nehushtan”, and do you know what, it works!  The means of rejection, judgment, and punishment becomes the means of forgiveness, redemption, and healing because God’s power works through it.

It is this aspect Jesus picks up and connects to his eventual death on the Cross.  The instrument of his own rejection, judgment, and punishment will become the means by which the world will be forgiven, redeemed, and healed.  The curious episode in the wilderness becomes a looking glass into a wonder the whole world will eventually see when Jesus is lifted high upon the Cross.

Eventually the Nehushtan comes to reside in the Holy of Holies, the place in the Temple where God’s Spirit dwells.  It remains here, along with the Ark of the Covenant, for centuries until King Hezekiah has it destroyed around 700 BC because people are bowing down to it and worshiping it.  Over time, what had been given as a divine gift becomes an object of reverence apart from the Holy One who acted through it.

I suppose it is a good lesson to remember when we are in need of healing, comfort, or forgiveness.  In the healing service we hold in the Chapel once a month after the Sunday morning service I read the liturgy which at one point states:

May God make you know and feel that the only name under heaven given for health and salvation is the Name of Jesus Christ.

Every time I read it I think to myself, but don’t ignore your doctor’s advice and take your medications as directed.  Still, the medical profession, along with clinical counselling, the fitness movement, and a host of other vocations aimed at improving and prolonging the quality of life can become for us a Nehushtan; objects we revere devoid of an awareness of how it is actually God who works and through them.  Just like those wilderness murmurs who looked at the bronze snake on a pole and were healed, whatever our need and no matter where we turn for help, our response when we find it is always “Thanks be to God.”

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