I encountered a question recently that I’d like to explore a bit. The question comes in three parts, or perhaps with three perspectives.
- When God commanded the Israelites to look to the bronze serpent to be healed, was God commanding idolatry?
- Why would God give this command?
- Was this a good command?
It’s easy to dismiss the question by simply saying that it is God’s command, therefore good, and further cannot be a command to sin. But if we consider that, as Paul says, “these things are examples for us” (1 Corinthians 10:6), perhaps we might want to explore just why God would command such a thing.
Let me first note that idolatry is rather easy to fall into. We are very much idol-making people. I often use Paul Tillich’s vocabulary in this, that idolatry is making something that is not ultimate your ultimate concern. We can take a book, such as the Bible, from which we get God’s Word, and make the book, the thing, into the object of worship.
An example of this would be using the Bible as a sort of magical talisman. I have seen people who expect the possession and use of the physical book to accomplish miracles. Not so! The power of scripture is in revealing God who is the one who takes action. It is not minimizing or dismissing the book to realize that it is what conveys to us God’s will rather than being magical or an object of worship.
An unopened Bible sitting on the shelf in your home in a prominent place might well become your idol. You believe you are closer to God because of the object. A picture of Jesus might function in a similar way. It displays to others your faith. The question is, are you in Christ and Christ in you? That same picture on the wall might either be a reminder or it might be an idol.
I have three crosses over the door to my office. If I treat them as an object of worship, and forget what they symbolize, they could easily become an idol.
Some Objects and Commands
The ark of the covenant became a problem in this very way in scripture. It was commanded by God and built according to God’s instructions. It was supposed to be there in the temple. There was some critical symbolism involved in that under those cherubim, where there would have been an image of a god in a temple of another religion, there was empty space. Empty, at least, to human sight.
This was part of the ritual of Israel’s worship. It played a key role. But when the sons of Eli decided to take it from the tabernacle and to war, something else happened. Idolatry broke out! In 1 Samuel 4 we have the story, as Israel gives this triumphant shout, the Philistines hear it and decide that the gods have come into the camp of Israel.
Israel’s actions were idolatrous. They thought that God was confined to the thing. Now the thing was good. It was commanded by God, but it was being used in a way that was inappropriate. Idolatry is dangerous, because it disconnects us from God and connects us to, and limits us by, our own power.
As a public event, this idolatry also provided a false witness to the Philistines, who believed that God was again limited to the object.
So the question becomes, why did God want the ark built if it could be so misused?
In this case, we have considerable evidence to suggest why this should be. The ark provided an important symbol in Israel’s worship, and even an antidote to idolatry in what it symbolized.
At the same time we see one of the key sources of idolatry: We really like to have something to take hold of, something we can see, and a course of action that will let us take control. When Eli’s sons took the ark, they were trying to force God’s hand. If God wouldn’t save them from a distance, they’d bring God to where God could do what they wanted done.
We combine that with liking to repeat the action. If it works once, let’s do it again.
The Command to Worship
We have many rituals commanded in the Hebrew scriptures, yet the prophets tend to downplay these to some extent. I think a good place to look at this is Psalm 51. Here we have a prayer of repentance, which says that God doesn’t want sacrifice (v. 16), but then says that burnt offerings will be acceptable (v. 19). What’s the difference? Repentance!
The point of the sacrifice is a ritual that works with, reminds us of, and reinforces the actions that we need to take. It is a good ritual in that sense. But if we replace repentance with a ritual of repentance, the action itself becomes idolatry. It suggests that some action I take can box God in. “Oh well,” it says to God, “I may have sinned, but I offered a sacrifice so now you’re stuck with forgiving me.”
We have an idolatry of action, by placing the action in place of God. Only God forgives. Leviticus and Numbers are worded carefully to not suggest that forgiveness is accomplished by the sacrifice. Rather, forgiveness comes from God. The sacrifice is God’s command, and becomes a means of bringing us to repentance and keeping us there.
So here’s another command of God that can be abused, and in much the same way as the ark of the covenant was abused by Eli’s sons.
A Means of Healing
When Naaman comes to Elisha for healing he’s told to dip himself in the Jordan river seven times (2 Kings 5). Is there something particularly efficacious about the water of the Jordan river? Not at all! This is something God is commanding Naaman to do. The action doesn’t heal. God heals. God asks for that act of obedience before God heals.
Now we could make a cult out of Jordan river water, saying that it has special healing powers. Come to think of it, we do make quite a thing out of Jordan river water, being baptized in it, bringing back bottles of it from trips to Israel.
Now don’t get me wrong. Enjoying an experience isn’t idolatry. But if you for one moment think that being baptized in the Jordan river is better than being baptized elsewhere, that the water of that particular river has more power to cleanse from sin, you have fallen into idolatry.
The Idolatry of Places
When Jesus is transfigured, Peter wants to set up camp. It’s a sacred place. It’s a natural response (Matthew 17, see especially verse 4 for Peter’s response).
That response was also natural in both Jews and Samaritans. It’s better to worship on Mt. Gerizim. It’s better to worship in Jerusalem. All of which depends on what God has commanded. It is not the place that does it, though a place can help us. I like to pray in the church sanctuary. Is this idolatry? Only if I believe that it’s the only place God can reach me.
Jesus said that those who worship God will worship in spirit and truth, and not based on place (John 4:23).
Again, it’s easy to see how the command works. Gathering in a place is part of the human process of building community, so God commands a place. Making the place more sacred than God is our desire to bring things under our own control. A good command becomes an idolatry of the particular place.
About that Snake!
In the case of the snake on a pole (Numbers 21:4-9). Here we have a simple command of God that the Israelites are to look to the serpent and they will be healed.
Before I go to our three related questions, let’s look at two other scriptural points of reference. The first is 2 Kings 18:4. Hezekiah is reforming the land and destroying idols. He destroys the very serpent referenced in Numbers 21:4-9 at the time. Why? Because people were burning incense to the serpent and had even named it. This is idolatry. What God had once commanded and used for God has been turned to another purpose.
This is one of the best illustrations of the process of idolatry. We find something good, something that God commands or approves, and there are good results. Instead of realizing that it is God’s power in action, we make that set of actions, circumstances, things, or the very location the means of our receiving good. We are then worshiping the creature, rather than the creator (Romans 1:25).
In this case we have another scriptural reference point:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him can have eternal life.John 3:14-15 (my translation)
Here we have a symbol by analogy, so again the serpent, destroyed by Hezekiah, serves God’s purpose. Never underestimate God’s power to redeem, whether that redemption is of a symbol or of a person!
A key here, as back in Numbers, is that the person looks up to the serpent but is healed by God, and there’s a fulfillment in a person looking up to Jesus and seeing God. The lesser symbol points to the greater/greatest.
Is God commanding idolatry? No. God’s command is to look at, not to worship the snake. The healing comes from God. Idolatry would be to assume that the snake healed. But the text doesn’t say that.
Why does God command people to look at the snake? This one is harder. I don’t really know. By analogy, I assume it has something to do with teaching them other lessons. I can also look forward to the lifting up of Jesus. But how this act connected for the people I don’t know. I understand, however, that making a place of worship, providing an ark, and providing sacrifices each had an impact on the people, and I assume this did as well.
Was it a good command? God’s word doesn’t return empty. Just because I don’t know the reasoning, which is lost in history, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know. My guess is that Moses and the people understood this in a way I can’t, that it made sense in the situation. I have heard numerous explanations, and I can’t claim any one as definite. The fact that someone turned it into idolatry down the road doesn’t indicate that the command itself was bad. We are idol making machines. We make idols.
Was This a Good Question?
Perhaps I could word that differently. Should we ask this kind of question of God’s actions? Should we not just assume that God’s command is good?
I would suggest that this is an excellent question. If you don’t ask this kind of question of a story in scripture, you can’t really learn from it. Simply appending a moral that says, “God said it, so it’s good,” doesn’t involve much learning.
There are commands in scripture that are much more troubling, I think, and we need to be prepared to examine and see what we can learn.