When we approach the Bible, we tend to skip over the book of Numbers. It can be a challenge to find relevance in a book that is mostly all about…numbers. Really. This book could have been written by an accountant.
The setting is the desert between Egypt and the land of Canaan. The Israelites are travelling out of slavery toward Canaan, which they also know as the Promised Land. But the book starts with a census of all the tribes of the Israelites—and the results go on for pages. After that, there’s a long, detailed list of who sacrificed what to God: how many pounds of silver and gold, how many bulls, how many rams, how many goats and lambs. How many bushels of flour and quarts of oil—and were they separate, or mixed together? And then God commissions the tribe of Levi as the temple workers, and specifies what their allowance will be, in gold, silver, bulls, rams—you get the idea.
And then there’s another census.
So, we do tend to avoid this book. And that’s too bad, because it also includes some very good stories—and this is one of them. A lot of those stories are very similar. Over and over, the Israelites whine about how much they hate the desert, hate the manna, hate the travelling. They want to go back to Egypt, where they may have been slaves, but at least they could eat meat every day!
At one point, early in their journey they’re actually at the boundary of the Promised Land, when they panic and decide that this time they’re really going back to Egypt. They even elect a leader to take them there. And at this point, God has had enough. It’s clear, God says, that these people aren’t ready for the Promised Land, so they will wander for forty years until an entire generation has died. Their children will enter a country the elders will never see.
That’s a very long time-out for bad behavior. But that number, forty, tells us what’s really going on here. We’ve looked at this number in the Bible a few times before. It signals a period of testing and preparation for the next stage of growth. So—the rain falls on Noah’s ark for forty days and nights, and at the end of that period, the world is new and clean, and Noah and his family—and in fact, the whole human race—can start again fresh. The prophet Elijah snaps out of his depression and walks for forty days to Mount Horeb, where he will learn to listen for God’s still, small voice in silence. Jesus experiences a calling at his baptism, and he hides out in the desert for forty days to prepare himself to fulfill his mission. He also spends forty days on earth after his resurrection, before ascending to heaven. And we spend the forty days of Lent preparing ourselves to affirm new life out of death, whatever form death may take.
So whether or not the journey to the Promised Land actually took four decades of years, it is a time of transition—from a huge crowd of ex-slaves, looking wistfully back over their shoulders at abundant food, to a nation, an army, a people united by their vision of nationhood and peace and prosperity, and by their faith in the God who sends food from the sky and water from a rock.
But it’s a long, slow transition, and the Israelites backslide, over and over, on their way to maturity. In this story about the snakes, the Israelites have recently encountered two rather hostile native kings. The first one, whose name is Edom, refuses to let them cross his land. They ask again, nicely. Edom refuses again. They offer to camp only on the highway, and to pay for anything they eat or drink. No way, says Edom, and sends out his army to look fiercely at them. So the Israelites go around his land. And on the detour, they encounter the second king, and they utterly destroy his towns on their way through.
But they’re not content with that victory. Rather, they’re annoyed that they still have to go the long way around. And they start complaining again. And they unwittingly invent a joke we still have with us:
So, how was that desert tour you took?
Oh it was awful! The food was terrible, and the portions were so small!
So God, once again, loses God’s temper, and God sends a plague of particularly nasty snakes to bite the people.
Now, if you’ve ever hiked or lived in a desert, you know snakes and snakebite are not unusual. When I was a small child in northern Nevada, my dad always carried a snakebite kit in the glove compartment. You just did it. It was as essential as a flashlight.
So it’s not shocking that the Israelites would encounter a plague of snakes at least once during their journey. But the Bible is in the business of creating meaning and purpose, and it says that the snakes were a punishment for the people complaining once again about the difficult conditions of their freedom. And it says that they knew they had sinned. They confessed to it. And once they had told the truth to God and to each other, the cure was found, in the actual instrument of punishment.
The cure for snakebite here is More Snake. As you heard, Moses makes a bronze snake, and holds it up on a pole—Snake on a Stick—so the people can look at it and be healed.
This is a very early example of Truth and Reconciliation—and notice that reconciliation always requires truth first.
So why was complaining such a “sin”?
Remember that sin is anything that separates us from our God of love and justice. In this story, the Israelites have committed at least four of what are called the seven deadly sins. They have indulged in gluttony, sloth, anger, and envy. After almost forty years—that is, after a long period of testing and preparation—they still fall back into their old habits.
And worse, these sins have separated them from the faith and vision that brought them out of Egypt. They have given in to such despair and cynicism that they look back longingly at slavery, where at least they had meat every day—or so they think they recall. They have lost the vision of freedom.
And now, the plague of snakes wakes them up—again—and they realize how far they have slipped. And so Moses confronts them with the consequences of their alienation from God, and they see it, and they are made whole again, and the rift between the people and God is closed. The relationship is restored. Reconciliation with God and with our fellow humans can come about through confessing and confronting hard truths.
This season of Lent—our forty days of testing and preparation—can be a good time for us to find reconciliation for ourselves by speaking the truth. What goes unsaid in our families, in our relationships, even in our friendships that needs to be spoken? What wounds do we not mention? What topics are forbidden? What family secrets do we believe we need to keep silent?
They come out in strange ways if we try to hide them. Slips of the tongue, little accidents, behavior in kids that reflects the parent’s secret…Emotional and psychological pain can burn as badly as snakebite, and can cause just as much damage, even across generations. How do we heal these wounds? How can we declare truce and pardon to old feuds, old crimes, old insults? How do we unfold our arms, relax our clenched jaws, open up to each other? How do we open to a vision of love and shared dreams?
It starts with lifting up those hurts, looking at them, talking honestly about them without trying to hurt someone back. It starts with confessing those unkind or thoughtless words or actions. It starts with remembering, together, our hopes and visions for our family, our relationship, our friendship, even our church. Maybe we need a therapist or a mediator or an inspired poet or the Bible or other scripture to help us say the words that will reveal without further wounding, that will help us heal and reconcile and move into a renewed life.
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And this so needs to happen for us as Americans, too. The Declaration of Independence includes an affirmation of the “self-evident” truth that all humans have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are painfully aware that this document was created by men who believed they owned the bodies and labor of other humans, who pursued a policy of genocide against the inhabitants of land they coveted, who treated women as the property of their fathers or husbands. It’s true that the reality fell very far from the ideal—but the vision was there, and it has been there all along to inspire every movement for liberty and equality in our history. Every demand for justice cites that vision of what America promises.
In the last few weeks, we’ve witnessed a brave group of very young people lifting up the ongoing horror of mass murders in public places. They are demanding that we look directly at the pain and terror and grief that follow every one of these incidents, at the trauma that affects us all as schools, movie theaters, concerts, malls, college campuses, and even churches become places where we might be shot. These students are showing the world the corruption of the National Rifle Association and the politicians it has paid for. They have the facts to back their demands for gun safety laws.
And there are so many more bronze serpents being lifted up for America to look at.
A group of women who call themselves Mothers of the Movement are lifting the bronze serpent of racist violence that murdered their children—Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, and so many, many more. And because these victims were African American, it’s easier for the media and many Americans to ignore the voices of those mothers, even while we listen to the stories of attractive young white students. So there’s another bronze serpent to show the pain of racism.
The water protectors at Standing Rock lifted up the bronze serpents of greed and racism as they showed the world what was being done to them to profit oil companies and the politicians those companies have bought. And even though they failed to stop the pipeline, they found a new vision as a people that has inspired indigenous peoples across the world to stand up for their land and their sovereignty.
The young African Americans of the 1950s and ‘60s who marched in the face of fire hoses and police dogs lifted up the cruelty of institutional racism. And their heirs, the Black Lives Matter movement, are lifting up the trauma of police who are equipped and trained like an invading army and who treat Black citizens in their own homes and neighborhoods as the enemy.
The millions of women and men and children who knitted pink hats and turned out to march in the January cold lifted up the pervasive, often violent sexism that goes on at all levels of American culture, including the White House.
Sit-ins, die-ins, marches, boycotts, anti-AIDS activists who refused to be polite about dying, thousands of citizens who showed up at airports to protest the ban on Muslim immigrants, images and videos captured on cell phones and shared on social media—these are America’s bronze serpents
Each image, each march, each demonstration gives America, as a nation, the opportunity to look steadily at what is being lifted up, and to confess to the sins that separate us from God and from each other—racism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, addiction to violence, and all seven of the deadly sins.
The question is whether or not America—its citizens, its lawmakers, the wealthy and powerful—will look at those bronze serpents, acknowledge our collective sins, and begin to heal.
When we look at the bronze serpents raised by the victims and survivors of these sins, when we acknowledge the pain these sins have caused, we have taken the first step in reconciliation. This is true in our personal relationships as well as in our collective lives as a nation.
The power of God is to heal, and our loving, healing God of justice yearns toward reconciliation. John 3:17 tells us that God did not send God’s son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world through him might be saved. Or healed. Or reconciled.
So let us take Lent—and beyond Lent!—as an opportunity to lift up our own Snake on a Stick, and to look steadily at those serpents raised by others, so we can start the healing.