Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Bronze Serpent

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food” (Num 21:5).

Which person living with depression has not felt this way? O Lord, why have you led me here to die? For you do not sustain me and have left me thirsting; I hate that which you have given me.

Who has not felt, at one time, that God has led them astray in a vast wilderness and abandoned them there with empty promises and worthless gifts? Who has not felt the sting of the sameness of their days, feeling like the promises of God are forever out of reach?

Why have you led me here to die?

The people of the promised land, wandering in the wilderness, ask this question over and over. In one sense, they strike us as whiny children, forever asking for more, and more, and more. This manna is not good enough, we don’t have enough water, are we there yet. They ask so many times, without seeming to give thanks, that it’s difficult to have sympathy for them. We keep waiting for God to smite them for their impertinence.

And smite them He does. The people speak against God, and He sends fiery serpents among them, killing many. They go to Moses, repentant, and God answers them, drawing out the poison that was their punishment (Num 21:5-9).

The snake is a multilayered symbol in the Bible. In Genesis, the snake figures in the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden of Eden: God puts enmity between the woman and the snake as the text sets up a dichotomy between the two and casts the serpent in the role of instigator (Gen 3:1-24). The snake is associated with evil and bad omens, and later comes to symbolize Satan.

Later, Aaron’s staff is transformed into a snake as a warning that the Egyptians are not following God’ will, a feat which they copy by magic and whose meaning they refuse to heed (Ex 7:8-13). The snake is both a warning-omen that a person is ignoring God, and a real and dire threat. In Christian iconography, Jesus and Mary are often depicted crushing the serpent, Satan, underfoot as a sign of their triumph over evil.

In Numbers 21:5-9 we read about Israel in the wilderness and their encounter with God’s wrath. Because they do not see the blessings God has given them, instead only cursing Him for their misfortune, God sends fiery, poisonous serpents to kill them. The drama of their exodus has repeated itself again and again during their forty year journey: the people curse God for leading them out of Egypt because they doubt God’s ability to lead them where they’re going. In return, God is angry at their lack of gratitude and begins to kill off his own people. God has destroyed an entire generation in the wilderness, but still the tug and pull between God and God’s people continues. Let it never be in doubt that God feels passionately about those He has chosen for His own.

But the people repent, acknowledging that they have sinned. To save them, and to be saved, Moses lifts up the bronze serpent, and every person who looks upon it will live.

The serpent takes on layers of meaning as it become both punishment and cure, evil omen and symbol of salvation. In other ancient near-eastern cultures, the serpent is used in traditional curative magic to draw off sickness, as well as to cast off evil influences (hence its place in the modern symbol of medicine). The bronze image, so reminiscent of the Hebrews’ earlier idolatry in the desert, was even worshipped by the surrounding peoples.

The different symbolisms of the serpent become entwined as Moses – and God – coopts and transforms it into something different, something new. Thousands of years later, in the Gospel according to John, the writer uses the bronze snake to prefigure Christ: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-15). The bronze serpent is incorporated into the Messianic pre-narrative as the thing which draws the poison of sin from a repentant people.

Jesus does not symbolize new life, but is new life. Jesus is lifted up as God Who Himself has come to save us in his reckless love: “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17).

Why have you led me here to die?

Who that has lived with depression has not felt in their hearts the cry of being lost in the desert, and the fear of not being found? Who has not turned to the bronze snake to save them: the promises of medicine, of prophets, preachers, healers, and magic? Who hasn’t heard the spectacular stories of success, people healed by pills, by faith, by crystals, by diet? In His mercy and love, God has given us many ways to be lifted out of the darkness of depression and despair.

But who hasn’t also heard the stories that don’t end quite so miraculously?

Depression is not like the fiery snakes in the wilderness because it is not a punishment from God, though it would sometimes be easier if it was. And while healing comes from many sources, and its hope is attractive, it is not the same as the bronze serpent because Jesus does not offer healing as the wages of repentance.

As the symbol of the serpent is transformed, so too our covenant is with God not the same. Mental illness is not the price of individual sins, and prosperity is not the result of righteousness. We do not live by arithmetic or by signs but by faith. We will not all gaze on the bronze serpent, and we will not all be healed. We are offered something more difficult to see, and infinitely more precious.

Our experience of depression is transformed when we conceive it as part of what it means to journey in the wilderness. Embrace healing when it is offered, but do not make an idol of the bronze serpent. It is okay to doubt, because we are held firm in the unwavering faith of Christ. Above all, finding oneself deep in the desert, or in the darkness, or in the storm, is an opportunity to throw yourself heedlessly on God’s mercy, trusting in the fathomless depths of His love.

1 comment: