Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21

On Leaving It to the Snake*

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Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21

On Leaving It to the Snake*

By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
Randal Berry, the son of Betsy and Gerald and member of this church, is the herpetologist at the Little Rock Zoo. That means he likes snakes. I once asked Randal when he discovered snakes as his calling. He told me that when he was a boy his dad would take him to the Rebsamen Golf Course. Gerald would play golf and Randal, who never took up the game as far as I know, would hunt for snakes. He would actually go looking for them. Imagine.

Randal Berry likes snakes. Naked mole rats, too, but his main concern is snakes. He’s been fascinated by them for a long time.

If you’ve been to the zoo lately, you will know that they keep the snakes in glass cages. Rightly so, I would think. Some of them are poisonous, of course. Others are not. But it doesn’t make any difference. If we’re not Randal Berry, and none of us are, and if we’re going to get within close proximity to a snake, that is where we want it to be… at the zoo, with the slithery creatures safely encased in glass. Or, we might not want to get even that close. We may think the only good snake is a dead snake.

In 1999, a Harris Poll said that nearly 40 percent of Americans listed snakes as the thing in life they feared the most. And yet, that same 40 percent don’t think a thing about getting behind the wheel of a car and hurtling down the highway at 70 miles per hour with other people coming at them and going around them doing the very same thing. Go figure. I have a sister-in-law who is deathly afraid of snakes. Just the thought of them virtually makes her apoplectic. If she were here today, she’d probably have already walked out just because we’re talking about them.

When I was in the eighth grade, our junior high basketball team played in the state tournament in Harrison. We had some free time between practices and games, and the coach let us venture around the downtown area. Some of us made it to the dime store where we bought several, very authentic-looking, rubber snakes. When it came time for us to go to basketball practice, we put them on top of the TV in our motel room.

We forgot one thing. The room hadn’t been cleaned yet, and when the housekeeper came in she practically destroyed the TV with her broom in her effort to kill the snakes. Later, when I told my brother about it, he said, “It’s a good thing Angie wasn’t there. She would have taken out the whole room.”

We all have our snake stories, don’t we? How many of them are filled with sweetness and light, and give us a warm, fuzzy feeling? That’s what I thought. It’s impossible for a cold-blooded reptile to warm our hearts.

It’s the very nature of the creatures. They slither around on their bellies, stick their tongues out, and shed their skins. They hide behind rocks and like dark, secret places. It just doesn’t seem to us to be natural, and for that reason, if we are not afraid of the creatures we certainly give them plenty of distance and respect.

Yet, we find them figuring fairly prominently in scripture and are the centerpiece of this strange and hard-to-understand story from the Book of Numbers. Even more strange, we find Jesus alluding to this story in his conversation with Nicodemus, to the point that he virtually refers to himself as a snake.

What are we to make of all this?

Well, those of you who think the only good snake is a dead snake need to understand that people in the ancient world did not look at it that way. They lived in an arid land, perfect for vipers, and for that reason had occasion to run into them on a fairly regular basis. In other words, they lived side-by-side with the creatures, and had a more intimate relationship with reptiles than do you and I.

Snakes were seen not just as the enemy but also as symbols of protection. The pharaoh in Egypt often wore a head piece that displayed a hooded cobra. The snake was there to protect the pharaoh, to spit venom at his enemies should they try to hurt him.

Ancient people realized the irony in snakes. The venom found in snakes is the source of medicine by which snake bites can be healed, so the symbol of two intertwined snakes, called the caduceus, is used even today by the American Medical Association. Why? Well, if any of you have ever had surgery, as one minister puts it, you “know that if you get mixed up with these people who work under the symbol of two snakes twined on a staff, they often hurt you in order to make you whole. Keep that thought in mind.”1

I spent the better part of Wednesday in local hospitals. Our good friend Otho Hesterly had heart bypass surgery at UAMS, so I visited with Bobbie and the family until his procedure was completed. Then I went to see Angie Greer and Marshia Adkins, both of whom had had surgery on Monday at Baptist. Finally, I went to St. Vincent and paid a call on Mark George who had had a major procedure two days before. Mark is the son of Ruby and Marcus, long-time members of our church.

These four people ran the gamut of conditions. One was still unconscious from surgery, and another of the patients was running a high fever when I prayed with him and left his room. The other two were in different stages of recovery. One was ready to go home, the other was wishing desperately that she could. And yet, every one of them had consented to these procedures… procedures that had made them so sick. I think they would all tell you that if they had it to do over again, they would prefer not to have had these operations. But they all know that going through these difficulties are the only way for them to find healing.

I think this is a good point for me to repeat the quote I gave you just a moment ago… “if you get mixed up with these people who work under the symbol of two snakes twined on a staff (referring to the medical profession, of course), they often hurt you in order to make you whole.”

It brings us to the story we read earlier from the Old Testament book of Numbers. The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness the better part of forty long, interminable years. Aaron, their priest and the brother of Moses, has died. They’ve had some skirmishes with the Canaanites, and though they have won these battles, the people are getting tired of it all. They still don’t have a land to call their own, which means they’re still sleeping in tents. They’ve been eating the same food all this time, with absolutely no variation in the menu. They’re harping at Moses, which means they’re complaining about God. And frankly, who can blame them?

Put yourselves in their place. How would you like to eat nothing but manna, a tasteless bread picked up off the ground, every day for forty years? Their enemies are starting to take up arms against them, and not one time have they seen a sign that says, “Welcome to the Promised Land, the First Place the Israelites Called Home.” Impatience has become the name of the game.

So they do what people do when they become impatient. They grumble. Kind of like Razorback basketball fans have been doing – yours truly included – since the Hogs were eliminated by Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And just like Razorback fans, they appear to have good reason for their discontent. Did you notice? In the very first part of our reading we are told, “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea…” Red Sea?! Wait a minute… Didn’t God part the waters of the Red Sea when they escaped Egypt? And wasn’t that forty years ago?!

Think about it… It’s been forty years and they haven’t gotten anywhere. They’ve being doing nothing but wandering around in circles, eating the same manna and sleeping in tents. No wonder the people are impatient!

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” the people demand of Moses. And you can bet that if they’re confronting Moses with this, their complaints are just as much directed to God. “There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable manna.”

And what does God do? Does God say, “Now, now, be patient, my children. Soon, very soon, I’ll give you the land I have promised you”? No. Forty years to God is like a day-and-a-half. God doesn’t tolerate impatience, so the Lord sends poisonous snakes into their camps to bite them, and as a result a lot of the people died, those who complained and those who had kept their mouths shut… died what I would imagine is a slow and agonizing death.

It gets their attention, let me tell you. Finally, they appeal to Moses, admitting their sin, and ask him to intervene on their behalf before the Lord. “Pray to the Lord,” they say. “Pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” Suddenly, when you’ve got snakes slithering around you, ready to take a bite out of your ankle, the idea of eating manna and sleeping on a cot isn’t such a big deal. And Moses does just that. He’s had a couple of close calls with the vipers himself. Who’s to say that just because he is their leader, and has a personal and close relationship to God, that he will be spared from being bitten? It is in his own best interest to get rid of the snakes, so he is more than happy to oblige their prayer request.

So, upon hearing the appeal of Moses, the Lord removes the serpents, right? Nope, the snakes remain right where they are.

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This is the really strange part of the story. It’s also where the lesson from this story is found. The Lord has Moses construct a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. Everyone who is bitten by a snake is to look at the serpent, for in doing so they will be miraculously healed. Scarred, but healed. In other words, Moses made a replica of the very evil the people feared.2

These poisonous snakes were referred to by the Hebrews as fiery serpents, for that is how you feel when you are bitten by one of them… fiery, feverish. The Hebrew word for it is seraph, from which the heavenly being is named, Seraphim. The snake, which brings a terrible, painful death, is also the Seraph which gives life.

It is all strange. Very strange indeed.

But Jesus says it is the nature of salvation… that in the hands of God, “evil and good, threat and promise, life and death are all somehow mixed up.”3

He talks about it during his conversation with Nicodemus, the religious leader who comes to see him at night. Nicodemus would have known this story of Moses and the snakes, and probably is quite shocked that Jesus would use it as an analogy for himself.

It has been suggested that Jesus may have thought of this story because of the nature in which Nicodemus has come to see him… at night, slithering in quietly under cover, not wanting anyone to know he has come to see the controversial Galilean. So “Jesus speaks to him of slithering serpents, darkness, death, light, life and salvation, all mixed up together in him.”4

William Willimon tries his best to explain all this. He says, “The Gospel of John therefore refers to Jesus, not only as the good shepherd, but also as the good snake. He surprised us, came in among us, slithering in to our illusions of stability and safety. We reached for the ax to beat him to death. He opened his mouth, and spoke words that cut us like a sword, venomous, prophetic words.

“And we beat him, whipped him, and lifted him up high on a pole. And in lifting him up from earth toward heaven, his poisonous, prophetic words of venom became the anti-venom, the means of salvation. And even those who had killed him, standing at the foot of the pole, were able to look up and say, ‘Truly this is the Son of God.'”

And then, Willimon admits, “I don’t know what this means.”5

I don’t either. So if any of you have a good idea, please let me know. But I do think this… In that Old Testament story, when the people prayed for deliverance from the snakes, God seems almost eager to respond to their prayer, even before they asked. God is always eager to offer redemption, but redemption on God’s terms and not ours. The Lord didn’t grant their prayer in the way they wanted, did he?

Neither did God do things in his Son as we would have done them. If you had been in charge of making it so that your sinful creation could have the means of salvation, would you have chosen to send your child, allowing him to be hung up on a cross? That’s what I thought.

God doesn’t think the way you and I do. So to confess that we don’t understand this is not defeat. It is simply a way of admitting that we are not God, and that such things are best left up to One who knows a whole lot more about redemption than we do. The only thing with which we are left is to accept the grace God provides us, leaving the why of it all to the One who knows better than we how redemption takes place.

It is God’s will that none of us perish, but “have eternal life.” How God chooses to do that is God’s business. Let’s accept it with gratitude, even if we have to look the snake in the eye.

Lord, save us, sinful as we are. Forgive us our impatience and teach us to accept the mystery of redemption offered through your Son Jesus. Amen.


1William Willimon, “Saved by the Snake,” Pulpit Resource, Vol. 34, No. 1, Year B, January-March, 2006, p. 54.

2Ibid, p. 55.



5Ibid., p. 56.

*with apologies to Harvey Cox.

––Copyright 2006, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.