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Sunday 10 March 2024

The snake and the Christ: defamiliarising the biblical text

 Texts: Numbers 21.4-9; John 3.14-21

I begin by acknowledging that we worship this morning on the unceded country of the Eora federation. I give thanks for the ancestors who formed this country and the elders who have nurtured it for 5000 generations. I look forward to the day when there may be a more just settlement for all Indigenous peoples.

Today we encounter the Hebrew story of the serpents in the wilderness. So, trigger warning right at the top: this homily discusses snakes! Which few of us are entirely fond of because in these parts, on this continent, most of our snakes are venomous. Their bite can kill you. And so, we are justly and understandably afraid of them.

That the people of Israel, who were winding their way from Egypt to Canaan, were also afraid of them, is made pretty clear from the story we read. When Yahweh their God sends ‘fiery’ snakes amongst the people as punishment for their complaining, they are terrified and beg Moses, their leader, to intercede for them. Moses does, as he has done on many other occasions, and Yahweh relents. Sort of. The snakes continue to afflict the people. But Moses fashions a bronze serpent and places it on a pole. All who look at it, all who fix it in their gaze, are promised life and healing.

This is a puzzling story, to say the least. From the perspective of moderns—most, if not all, of us in this church today—there are many, many questions. What kind of god would meet a complaint about hunger and thirst with a punishment like this? Only a nasty and vengeful god, surely? And why are the snakes ‘fiery’? What on earth does that mean? Also, if their god wanted to provide a way of salvation for the people, why did he not just remove the snakes? What’s all this about fashioning some kind of talisman, some kind of idol, and placing it on a pole for the people to gaze at? Seems kinda weird for a monotheistic religion, hey? In this connection, it is interesting to note that the snake of bronze was apparently kept in Israel for many hundreds of years after this incident. And that it was eventually destroyed by King Hezekiah because the people regarded it as a heathen god and burned incense to it (2 Kings 18.4).

So many questions. How does one even begin to process them?

Perhaps like this. In the Mesopotamian world from which these old, old stories apparently emerge, snakes were seen as magical, even semi-divine, figures because they possessed both the power of life and the power of death. Their power for death is obvious from both our story and from our own experience. But think about the power of the snake for life. This comes from the fact that almost all species of snakes shed their skin as they grow. To the ancient human observer, this looked like a magical transformation, a rebirth from death. What other creature is able to die and be reborn? Many ancient far-Western cultures, including the Canaanite societies from which the story we are reading today partly emerged, therefore saw the snake as a creature that was able to kill, certainly, but also to grant life and healing to the sick. 

But why are the snakes ‘fiery’? The Hebrew root of the word translated like this is ‘seraph’, which is also the root of ‘seraphim’, mysterious winged creatures who occasionally appear in the First Testament as messengers of Yahweh, or symbols of Yahweh’s divine glory (cf. Isaiah 6). What is common to both is the notion of light or fire. Many snakes, like the seraphim, have scales that catch the light and create colourful displays. They shimmer with light, with glory. In ancient cultures, this property of light was seen as divine, reflecting the capacity of divinity to push back the darkness, which invariably contained evil and chaos.  There is a sense in which our story therefore preserves that ancient Mesopotamian understanding. The snakes somehow participate in the capacity of divinity to push back the chaos, the darkness of life and fill it with life and with healing.

Rainbow Serpent by Donna Hensen
It is interesting to me that these ancient, far-Western, stories about the divinity of snakes are quite similar, in many ways, to the even more ancient snake dreamings of Aboriginal nations here in Gondwana. In the dreaming of the Yolgnu people from north-eastern Arnhem land, for example, the snake is Yurlungurr, the most important of the creator-ancestors who formed the landscape and gave the law. Yurlungurr is associated with the rainbow because his scales are lavishly shimmering and coloured; but also with water, because you can always find the snake near a water-hole in the bush; waterholes which, in the evaporating mists of early morning, also form rainbows. Yurlungurr is the one who is said to have emerged from deep beneath the earth and formed the grooves in the landscape which became rivers.

Think, for a moment, about the symbols in play here. The snake who shimmers like divine light as he pushes back the darkness and creates a space for life to emerge. The snake who, like water, has the power to both sustain life and to take it away. The snake who is divine, a creator ancestor, whose venom can both kill and—if combined with the properties of certain berries—can also provide the basis for an anti-venom which will save your life.

What I would like to suggest to you this morning is that these stories—both local and far-Western—preserve a certain wisdom about the divine nature of country itself. Wherever we look in country, whether it be in the life-cycle of snakes or in the power of water or even in the cycles of light and dark that make up a day, you will see the divine power to give life and to take it, the power even to create life from death. Think of the capacity of fire to crack open dead seeds or the power of plants to draw on composting bio-mass for new growth.

If you read the biblical story of the fiery snakes in the wilderness through this lens, the personal vengefulness of the Hebrew god might just fade into the background somewhat. And you will see, instead, this more ancient understanding of the divine: that power which is able to create new life from death, and heal through illness, and push back the chaos of darkness with divine light.

For that is what my trawloolway sensibility picks up, also, in the homily from Jesus in John’s gospel, chapter 3. Note that in John’s gospel, the cross of Jesus always communicates a dual power that is consistent with the power of the fiery serpent. It is both death and the very first moment of resurrection. Even as the Son of Humanity is killed by the Romans on the cross, he is also ‘lifted up’ or glorified as a divine figure who has the power to be reborn. Just as the image of a fiery snake was lifted up on a pole on Canaanite country, so the divine Son of Humanity is lifted up on a cross, that everyone who looks to him, who trusts in his magical and transformative ways, may have the kind of life that is able to persevere even beyond death. For, in this same passage, Christ is seen as the one who can drive back the darkness in people’s lives, the one who can bring truth instead of lies, the one who, by his sacrifice on the cross, communicates the love of the divine not just for people, but the whole world, the whole cosmos, that realm that we Aboriginal people call ‘country’. 

So how to we deal with these ‘texts of terror’, these images of personal divine vengeance that we find in the Hebrew bible?  By stepping back a little to see the bigger picture, the more profound and ancient wisdom, that lies at the root of the story. A wisdom that speaks of the divine capacity of country to persevere through death to life. A divine power to which we can be party as well, if we will simply trust in country’s ways and give ourselves over to the truth that we find there. For there is more than one sacred text, you know. The sacred texts of the bible, both First and Second Testaments, are relatively new to the scene. The more ancient text is country itself, of which William Wordsworth wrote in his poem, 'The Tables Turned':

One impulse from a vernal wood
may teach us more of man,
of moral evil and of good,
than all the sages can. 

Those English romantics were on to something, actually. In the wake of the industrial revolution in Europe they saw that people were losing their relationship with the wisdom of the earth and of country. A wisdom which teaches us of life and death, even of good and of evil, a wisdom that is destroyed just that little bit more as each tree is cut down and each species of animal made extinct for the sake of the ever-expanding empire of human beings.

When the European colonists came to this country, the unceded country of Gadi and Kami peoples, they brought that same instinct to kill and destroy as the Hebrew people brought to Canaanite land. For the lectionary text from Numbers neglects to mention what immediately preceeds this story of the fiery snakes. In Numbers 21.1-3 we read of a prayer of the Israelites to Yahweh which promises that they will utterly destroy the habitation of the Canaanites if Yahweh will agree to give them their land. And that is what happened, mostly. The land took a beating, and most of the Canaanites were killed or enslaved. Yet they persevered through it all because both country and its people possess the power of life through death, and healing through suffering.  As the Canaanites survived, so do we, the Aboriginal peoples of this land. For we also share in the divine power of country to live, even though we die many thousands of times over.

The good news of the gospel is that life perseveres. That life perseveres even beyond our stupidity and our appetite from self-destruction. For God has made it so. And God’s story is written everywhere: in country itself, but also in stories from the Hebrew and Christian traditions. Stories we have read today. Let us hear and rejoice. For though it might often feel as though our world is utterly lost in violence, self-destruction and darkness, this is not at all the last word on the matter. For all is not lost. Not at all. Life perseveres. God perseveres. And so, therefore, can we.

Garry Deverell

First preached for Lent 4, 2024, at Hope Uniting Church, Maroubra

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Wonderful. Beautiful. Thank you. One of my favourite places is at Tyrendarra-Budj Bim, where the serpent laid her eggs. The eggs-tumuli sit in tumbled piles, and poisonous snakes love to bask among them. They are awaiting the time of hatching. As she passed through, serpent carved great sinuous trails through the lava landscape which now shimmer with water and eels. Life and death and hope and fear and possibility, indeed.