So does God send snakes to punish the people for complaining?
Our title for this book, “Numbers,” comes from a census that is taken at the start of the book (Chapters 1, 3, & 4), but the Hebrew title is a better description on what this book is about. The book is bemidbar, “In the Wilderness.” The story is about Israel’s journey from Mt. Sinai to the Promise Land, and that’s where this bronze serpent appears, in the middle of the wilderness.
The people are impatient and cranky. They’re not sure if they can trust that God knows what God is doing. They complain about having no food (even though there is plenty of ‘manna’ available) and that the food they have is awful. And after the complaint comes snakes. The text doesn’t explicitly say that God sends the snakes because of their complaining but the people believe as much. They ask Moses to bring their prayer and sorrow to God. Moses does and God responds in a very odd way. Rather than taking the snakes away, Moses is instructed to make a bronze serpent that, when looked at, will heal and keep them safe. The snakes are in the grass and the threat of their attack is all around. Yet, by looking at an image of their problems, the people will live.
We tend to not see God as dangerous but, in our text and throughout Scripture, God is very dangerous indeed. God is completely free to do what God wants. And, in that freedom, God is dangerous. A God that we have figured out is a God that is domesticated, comfortable, and controllable. But that isn’t a God who will bring people out of slavery, lead people through the wilderness, and drag people, kicking and screaming, into the promised land. A dangerous God is a God who moves and loves. A dangerous God is willing to send Jesus into the world to die on a Cross. A dangerous God is a God who brings salvation, love, and mercy in unexpected ways. The serpents in our lives, swirling at our feet and in our souls, are never far from us. But God is with us, standing in the middle of our serpents, and, in a completely free and dangerous way, offering us a way to new life.
Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 3/15/2015.