If you think about it, it actually comes as no surprise that the Bible can be challenging to read. After all, it is God’s Word. Who says it will be easy to understand, and to apply to our lives? God’s thoughts are far from our thoughts, and God’s ways are far from our ways. In order to understand the Bible, we have to look at the passages in the context of the cultures in which they were written.
Take the laws that seem fairly arbitrary and strange, like the law against mixed fibers found in Leviticus 19:19. God’s Law doesn’t forbid all mixed fibers, just the combination of linen and wool. It’s laws like these that lead people to argue that the Bible has no relevance, no significance for today, and we should just throw out the whole thing. But that would be kind of like saying we should ignore the Constitution and the Bill of Rights because, according to dumblaws.com, in Detroit, Michigan it’s illegal to scowl at your wife on Sunday. (Ladies, you’re welcome.) We have to look deeper at the reasoning for the law.
The medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides explained that in Canaanite, idol-worshiping cultures, it was common practice to plant different types of seed together, or weave different kinds of fibers together, as a fertility rite; you were “marrying” different things together, and that would lead to greater fertility. It was, we might say, a way of doing magic. God wanted his people to stand out from others; to be set apart, to be holy; and to trust God rather than relying on magical rites. That message is still helpful for us today; so many of us try to control our own lives, through magical thinking; if wear these socks, my team will win. If I eat right and exercise, I’ll never get cancer. The truth is, we aren’t in control, and we aren’t meant to be. God invites us, rather than magical thinking, to trust in his power and love, that he will provide for us in every circumstance.
Apart from the seemingly strange laws, a lot of people, myself included, are highly disturbed by the violence in the first five books of Moses. Particularly, it’s disturbing when God himself sponsors violence, or actually just comes out and kills people. Like the followers of Korah, the Levite who wanted his tribe to have more of a role in the Tabernacle than just hauling it around; they get swallowed up by the earth. Or the ten spies—remember, of the twelve who peeked into Canaan, only Caleb and Joshua were optimistic—in response to the ten spies’ lack of faith, they get killed by a plague. To our eyes, it looks disproportionate. But this kind of thing seems to be happening all the time in the book of Numbers. In the passage we read today, the people get bitten by snakes, apparently for being too whiny.
Don’t we believe in a loving, merciful God? How can we reconcile the God Jesus described with the God who kills thousands of people in a moment?
Theologian Cameron Howard reminds us that God is not safe. A recent study of young Americans described the typical young person as a moral therapeutic deist. What in the world does that mean? Most young Americans believe there is a God, who created them, teaches them right from wrong, and helps them when they need it. This kind of god can be called upon in our hour of need, but doesn’t necessarily need to be part of our everyday lives; doesn’t need to be worshiped, or feared. This is a domesticated god, a tamed god, who shows up conveniently to help us and then quietly lets us be.
This is not the God of Scripture. Put simply, He is not a safe God.
In the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis uses the biblical image of the Lion to describe God. In a passage from The Silver Chair, a little girl named Jill first meets this Lion as He is sitting next to a stream. And it just so happens that what she most desperately wants and needs is a drink of water.
“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I am dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
Our God is not safe. He is not tame. He cannot be made to do what we want, when we want, and then disposed of until we need Him again. He made all that is, and holds all things in His hands. Life, death, and eternal life are His to determine, not ours. And in Scripture, at certain times, He chooses to teach us eternal truths through eternal means.
As here, in the story of the snakes. The Israelites, yet again, are complaining about the wilderness conditions. As I’ve told you before, the wilderness is an intentionally boring place. Manna every day. Tents every night. And why? Because it’s a teaching place. It’s a blank slate. Because when you’re chalkboard’s all filled up, there’s no room to learn.
But the people don’t like being in this teaching place; they’re sick of manna and tents, andthey’ve come up with their own solution: let’s go back to Egypt! Bricks without straw? No big deal. The slaughter of the firstborn? Meh. The food was to die for!
By now, the Israelites’ complaints are familiar. They’re even funny: verse 5 says, There’s no bread to eat! And, we hate this bread! A Jewish friend of mine told me a Jewish joke whereby an old couple is complaining about the food in a restaurant: the wife says, “that food was horrible!” and the husband replies, “yes! And the portion sizes were way too small!” Which is it, Israel? But this time, God sends a different answer:Snakes.
Why did it have to be snakes? Well, actually, there’s a very good reason. Where have we seen snakes before? Remember all the way back in Genesis 3? When the snake tells the woman, here, eat this fruit, and be like God? When humankind substitutes its own judgment for God’s?
That’s what the Israelites are doing here. They have substituted their own judgment for God’s. So God’s punishment has a message: you’ve tried this before. I want to give you milk and honey, the Garden of Eden, the Promised Land. This is the path lined with vipers, and it ends in death!
As people begin dying, they cry out to God for help. They ask God to take away the snakes.
But God doesn’t take away the snakes. He also doesn’t send over poison control with some anti-venom. What does He do? More snakes!
God’s answer is to command Moses to make a snake and put it on a pole, and hold it above the people. Whoever looks at the snake will live. Now, this makes no sense at all from a logical standpoint. Fight snakes with…snakes? Isn’t that like fighting fire with fire?
But God’s command makes all the sense in the world from a spiritual standpoint. The bronze snake would only when people looked at it! God wants the people of Israel to recognize what they have done; to see that this is the old pattern, the old enemy; to recognize that this way of life, trying to substitute our morality, our plans, our judgment, for God’s does not work. God won’t take away the snakes, because it’s the snakes we need to see. We need to recognize the consequences of our sin. We need to see what it is that we’ve done. We need to see the snake lifted high.
If you’ve never seen it, The Bridge on the River Kwai is about some British prisoners working at a Japanese POW camp. Their job is to build a bridge. And the British officer in charge of this detail, Nicholson, gets obsessed with this bridge. It will be the greatest bridge ever built. It will symbolize the strength and might of the British people. It will be his life’s work.
And then, as the bridge is finally completed, Nicholson finds dynamite, and wire; he learns that this bridge is central to Japan winning the war; that this bridge was never meant to be built; and he laments, “My God, what have I done?” Ultimately, he himself blows up the bridge, as his final dying act.
Sometimes we get so caught up in our own plans, and thoughts, and judgments that we lose sight of what’s important. We get so caught up in our whiny-ness that we want to go back to Egypt and miss the Promised Land. God has to show us the consequences of our sin; he has to send the snakes. Sometimes those consequences are very hard to face.
When we look up, and see what we have done; where our own wisdom, our own judgment, our own decisions as to justice and righteousness lead; they lead to the snake lifted up; our understanding of what right and wrong should be leads to Christ, hanging from the cross. It is only then, when we look up, and recognize the great price of our sin, that we can be healed.
So if you are in a wilderness place, if you are tempted to turn back, if you are tempted to substitute your own judgment for God’s—look up. Look up, and remember. Remember that God is much, much bigger, much, much wiser, than we are. He is not safe; but He is Good. Remember, and be healed.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.