03.15.2015 Preaching Text: “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that my Israelites died.” (Numbers 21:6)
No sooner had I trumpeted the clarion call (yet again!) for Christians to be both discerning and wary of trusting Western secular culture to respect the church and its values than I ran across a new study from Great Britain’s Orwellian-sounding Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The study’s conclusion? That many Christians in the U.K. are actually “frightened” to admit their religious beliefs to colleagues at work. When they do, the study found, they often are mocked or treated as “bigots.” They also reported that their children are ridiculed at school.
“A recurring theme among employees,” states the commission report, here speaking of all religious respondents, “was the pressure they felt they were under to keep their religion hidden at work and feeling discriminated against when it came to wearing religious symbols or expressing their beliefs. This was particularly felt by Christians.”
Ironically, a lawyer a few years ago working with this very same commission referred to the spread of Christian views using the word “infected”! How far things have come in the Christian West!
With this fresh in my mind, I opened my Bible and read this morning’s lectionary passage from Numbers. In verse 6 we read these uplifting words: “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”
While it’s true that this was in reaction to the faithlessness of the people and serves as a prelude to God’s ultimate act of mercy and healing, the story is disconcerting nonetheless – perhaps especially to us contemporary Westerners.
Of course, if we’re already pre-disposed to reject religion, this story only serves to confirm our sense of things. It’s but one of many such biblical stories we could cite in arguing our case.
But if we’ve acquired a bit more sympathy for biblical logic and are willing to read a little deeper into things, we might see this story as the normal reaction of a primitive people to events occurring around them.
In other words, it’s probably a historical fact that while the Israelites were “wandering” in the desert, after having escaped slavery in Egypt and making their way to the as yet unrealized Promised Land, there was indeed a plague of poisonous snakes that caused a number of deaths.
In order to properly understand the way this passage treats this particular historical event, though, we need to appreciate how and why the Old Testament was written.
In and around the time of the Babylonian exile in the 586 B.C., Jewish theologians set about to write down the stories that had been passed down from oral tradition through their ancestors. In so doing, they were writing theology, not straight history, as we commonly understand history today.
And their theological mission was altogether unique to the world of their day. For the Israelites were, it must be noted, the first peoples to profess that God is involved in history and that what happens here on earth matters profoundly to our Creator.
Up until that time, the gods were not only distant and remote, but were completely unconcerned about our earthly welfare. In contradistinction to their contemporaries, they believed that history was moving toward something, rather than simply betraying a random or repetitive stasis.
As such, Israel’s religious thinkers set about to chronicle their ancient history with the novel purpose of “plugged God” into its various, seemingly random happenings. In so doing, and by inference, they established a new perspective on how God was at work in our world, not only in the past but in the here-and-now.
I’ve long felt that this ‘new perspective’ is one of the greatest contributions of the Old Testament. For one of life’s most basic tasks is to find meaning and purpose amidst its varied and seemingly indiscriminate experiences.
Life is, after all, lived forward, and often only in hindsight is its meaning made clear. If we are able to ‘see’ the invisible hand of God at work in and through the seemingly unrelated events of the past, perhaps we will be better able to discern where God is at work in the here-and-now. Seeing the thread of history guides us toward the present.
The key to understanding the story of the poisonous snakes is that it’s all about theology, not straight reporting. It reflects the ancient Jewish belief that, since God was and is involved in every aspect of life, God must have willed whatever happened.
Moreover, lest we forget, the Bible was written by human beings. And human beings not only sometimes get things wrong, they often disagree about the meaning of things.
In 1 Samuel, for instance, we find a downright glowing account of how wonderful it was that Israel had crowned its first king, Saul. Within a matter of mere paragraphs, however, we also find an utterly scathing critique of Israel ever even having a king.
The first account celebrates Israel’s royal lineage as an unalloyed good, while the second argues that Jahweh grants Israel a king only as a concession to its weakness.
Israel’s reason for wanting a king, in other words, had to do with its less than lofty desire to be like other, more influential nations, nations that trusted in the power of kings rather than God. (It’s also important to note that Israel’s kings ultimately proved more than a little disappointing, which likely swayed these nay-saying theologians, albeit post facto.)
The reason for this biblical “discrepancy” (and that of countless others) is that ancient theologians, being products of their time and place, disagreed about whether having kings was a blessing or a curse – in much the same way theologians and interpreters, similarly bound by time and place, disagree about certain things today.
Many of today’s “cultured despisers” (and uncultured despisers as well!) fail to take this simple fact into account. They fail to appreciate that the church has always been a place of lively, ongoing debate. Rather than interpreting scripture woodenly and without intelligence, the church, at its best, has always sought mightily to discern how the invisible God is at work, not just in scripture, but in all of life.
That being said, and at considerable risk of sounding Pollyannaish, I therefore interpret our reading this morning from Numbers as a story of God’s profound mercy, healing power, and steadfast love. Moved by the plague of poisonous snakes, God provides the means of salvation. And while one can focus on the appearance of God’s harsh punishment of wrongdoing, one might just as easily find in this God’s grace.
This is not mean that I accept the oft-cited view that the Old Testament is all about judgment while the New Testament is all about forgiveness and mercy. Such a view falsely argues that in the Old Testament God never forgives, while in the New Testament God never judges. Neither, of course, is true.
God’s love has always been, and ever shall be, a “double-edged sword.” It is both judgment and mercy.
For Christians, it’s simply inaccurate to say that God’s law is denied in and through Christ’s saving acts. For the “law of Christ” requires that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength – and our neighbor as ourselves. This is, without question, far more demanding than anything Mosaic Law requires us to do, which was, in theory at least, humanly achievable!
In the end, while it’s culturally trendy to dismiss the claims of biblical faith as harsh, foolish, and even life-negating, to the thoughtful, discerning, and faithful, they are but life. Amen.