Day 39--Healing Snakes (ugh!)--"Unruly Holiness" Num 15:1-18:32
February 8, 2021, 7:00 AM

Day 39—Numbers 19:1 – 21:31

We get some of the usual today—complaints, sacrifices and death. I’m not saying that to be flippant—but I assume this is becoming more familiar to you as you read. I almost picture the clump of complaining Israelites like a cartoon crowd wailing in concert at this point.

But we also have my absolute LEAST favorite story in the bible, and we learn more about price of disobedience in leadership.

Disobedience is clearly a theme of this 40 year journey. The people can’t seem to get the point that God will save them, that God is faithful, that God will provide. We rarely, if ever, have to have that kind of dependence on God. My sermon yesterday was about the scourge of abundance. Something that sounds so good in our lives—abundance!—can be the very thing that separates us from radical dependence on God.

Moses knew better. Moses has been listening and speaking to God intimately in his "glory" conversations, including the one that he and Aaron both have with God and “the glory of the LORD appeared to them,” (Num 20:6). Moses knows that God is faithful and that God will keep his word, and thus far, Moses has done the same. Remember those verses about humility, that God referred to Moses as the most humble man in the world? Well, today is the day that ends for Moses, with devastating consequences.

When the people are complaining, again, that they are in the wilderness with no fruit or grains or water, Moses and Aaron approach God. They know that the only solution is to appeal to the LORD. They fall on their faces, unable to bear the full reality of God’s glory, and God speaks to Moses, telling him to speak to the rocks at the camp and water will gush out for the people. A pretty simple assignment really, and a solution with very little drama.

But I think here’s what happened: Moses had frustrations and anger and resentment against the people of Israel. He was tired of hearing them complain. He taunts them when he comes out the tent, calling them names: “Listen you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Uh oh. Piece of evidence #1: Moses says ‘we’ not ‘the LORD’. He is claiming for himself the power of God; he is leaning on his relationship with God to show his superiority over God’s people. He’s acting like he and God cooperate to make decisions. Nope.

And then, in a move that I think must have felt supremely satisfying, piece of evidence #2: Moses takes out all those frustrations and angers and resentments against his people in the simplest way—he hits the rock instead of speaking to it. And he hits it twice with his staff, a staff used for the holy work of God that helps guide the people, the staff that helped break Pharaoh’s will in order to set the people free. I think he really whacked that rock with all the accumulated emotion that was stuck in him, and he paid dearly.

So to review: Moses puts himself in an equal position with God, and then he does not do what God tells him to do, choosing the road of high drama and self-centeredness. See how fast that humility evaporated? The price of Moses' disobedience is that neither the (mostly) faithful leader nor his brother Aaron will step foot in the Promised Land.

Could Moses have quit at that point, throwing down his staff, pouting, rebelling, protesting, railing against God? Of course. But he knows what he has done. He knows that he deserves the punishment for this crime. Once again, we cannot put our 21st century glasses on and say: “Well, he just disobeyed a little!” To disobey a little can have catastrophic consequences in the desert. To disobey a little puts all the people at risk. What if God had not provided water because of Moses’ disobedience? The people would have died. But God remained faithful and had to correct Moses’s pathway on the journey. Leaders chosen by God are held to the highest standards. and not only Moses, but his brother Aaron, who had been with him and who had heard God speak to Moses, were kept from the ultimate victory of seeing the long journey through to its completion. The Primised Land remained only a promise to them both.

Now, my least favorite passage in the bible that gives me nightmares: the horrific image of the serpents biting the people. Cannot bear it. It is my most awful fear. But there is salvation for the people of Israel. Moses built, on God’s orders, a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Whenever the people looked at that serpent, even if they had been bitten, they survived.

First of all the horror: how long did it take to make that serpent on a pole? How long did they have to endure the biting/death experience? Then an additional horrorful (I know that’s not a real word) realization: even though the people lived if they looked at the bronze serpent, THEY WERE STILL BEING BITTEN. The serpent on a pole did not stop the serpents from biting. But they were saved from dying. This is kind of like an antidote to the Garden of Eden story (remember? Adam, Eve and snake? Ultimate fall from grace? Cast out of the garden?), and as we will see, it is exactly that and more.

Many of us know John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” but do you know the verses just before it? John 3: 14 – 15 says this: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. Here we go again with the foretelling, the golden thread in our story of salvation, the direction we are marching toward slowly but surely, which is the power of Jesus to save. The serpents may keep biting (shudder!), but we will not die.

One writer put it this way: “Jesus was “snake-bitten” for us. He became our sin on the cross—the sin we’ve inherited, the sins we have committed, and the sins we will commit—all of it hung on the pole of the cross in the person of Jesus. Look! The sin that is killing you is hanging on the pole of the cross! God has put away your sin. Look to Jesus in faith and live!”

I did not know that God would work so clearly in my life as I do this study to show me all the places where Jesus IS in the Hebrew Scriptures, but I find my self to be in awe as more is revealed. I pray this is your experience as well.

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One other totally COOL note: ever wonder about the medical symbol of the snake on the staff? Yes, it is traced back to Moses, and was then co-opted as an image for the Greek god Asclepius, who held the rod with a single serpent as a sign of healing. The Rod of Asclepius is the logo of the World Health Organization and the symbol of the American Medical Association, and it came from this story in the book of Numbers.

Be blessed, and be a blessing to others,

ML

 

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