When a Sign Goes Bad (Lent 4B/Numbers 21:4-9)

Yesterday I wrote about the equivocal nature of the sign of the serpent lifted up in the wilderness, and how it was both a symbol of death, and a symbol of fertility and life in the ancient near east.

Today in my reading I checked the notes in the The Jewish Study Bible and found an interesting note.  It seems the Rabbis were uncomfortable with this use of the serpent, which seems to be an apotropaic symbol (symbol that turns something away).  In magic, such a symbol might be an object that is particularly resistant or harmful to what is to be turned away (garlic with vampires, for example), or, as in this case, something that looks like the danger itself.  The Rabbis preferred to think that it was turning to God that provided heal.  While doubtless theologically correct, we are left with the fact that God’s command was to look at the symbol.

Now what’s more interesting is the later history of this serpent in Israel.

He [Hezekiah] removed the high places, shattered the standing stones, cut down the Asherah poles, and broke up the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites were burning incense to it.  It was named Nehushtan. He [Hezekiah] trusted in YHWH his God, and there was no one like him among the kings of Judah who came after him, nor among those who were before him. — 2 Kings 18:4-5

As you see, Hezekiah is commended for his actions.  Moses was commanded to make the serpent and did.  Hezekiah destroyed it, and was commended for it.  What made the difference?

“Well,” you may say, “that’s obvious.”  And it is.  But have you considered the implications?  The people’s use of a divinely mandated symbol results in the need for it to be removed.  A thing that was once good becomes a source of temptation because of the way people react to it.

Now let’s think about prayer for a moment, just as an example.  How can prayer turn into idolatry?  When we act according to God’s will and then we decide that it’s our method that brings healing.  We take a particular set of actions that result in someone being healed, and then we assume that if we repeat those actions, healing will result every time.  When it doesn’t we will often simply pursue it more diligently as if we are trying to cast a spell but haven’t got the wording just right.

But God isn’t a magic object that we can control.  He may command a particular action, as with the serpent, but if the symbol is turned into an idol, as it was in Hezekiah’s time, it’s time for it to be broken up to release some perfectly good metal for a proper purpose.

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