In Tuesday’s mass readings we got the story of the Bronze Serpent from Numbers. Now this story has always bugged me. Even though St. Paul clarifies that we should see it with a Christological significance, and I see how that works, sorta, I still have a problem with the literal meaning of the story. What is the significance of the seraph serpents that bite the complaining Israelites? How did the Jews understand this story? What did it mean for them to look on the bronze serpent? How was that not an idol like the golden calf?
So Dom and I went online (ok,mostly Dom) and found some good resources for Bible study. This one, Textweek.com, has each week’s lectionary readings with a treasure trove of scripture study links.
Entering “Numbers 21: 4-9 pulled up more resources than I knew what to do with. Links to various translations and commentaries (the links go not to the generic link, but to the specific passage I’m searching for) links to historical references, commentaries and comparative texts (including rabbinic commentaries), links to articles, sermons, Sunday school lessons, dramas, graphics and bulletin materials, I could go on and on.
I found that this sermon, Brazen Serpents, had what I was looking for. It begins with a study of Jewish commentators and the difficulties they’ve had with the text.
The ancient rabbis equated both the primordial serpent and Satan himself with a force known as the “yetzer ha-ra.” This Hebrew expression is often translated as “the evil urge,” but this translation is dangerously misleading. According to the Jewish understanding, the good Lord implanted into every human being this yetzer ha-ra, a drive that combines features of ambition, greed and sexual desire.
An extraordinary myth found in the Talmud relates how the Jewish sages, shortly after the Babylonian Captivity, were determined to put an end to this formidable threat. Encouraged by their recent success at eradicating the “urge” to worship idols (an urge that had been such a constant stumbling-block to earlier generations, but which no longer held any appreciable attraction to the Jews of their time),—these sages now felt (understandably) that they were “on a roll.” So they decided to seize the opportunity to capture and destroy the “yetzer ha-ra” itself. And they were successful. They caught the beast and bound it in chains, eagerly awaiting the moment when they would remove it from the world for all time.
But soon strange reports started arriving: Nobody was showing up at work anymore. No one wanted to marry or raise families. The chickens were not laying eggs!
Now these sages came to the realisation that they had misunderstood the nature of this “evil urge.” For the drives represented in that faculty are essential for the proper functioning of humanity as God planned us to live our lives. The urge is not “evil” in any absolute sense, but only when it is allowed to trespass beyond its legitimate domain. Sexuality is a wonderful gift when invested in a loving marriage and family, but can be perverted into a force for hatred and abuse. And ambition can be an admirable quality when it is channelled towards spiritual creativity and service of humanity, but is a fiery scourge when it is twisted into unrestricted covetousness. It was this failure to set limits to the “yetzer ha-ra” that was represented by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. This made the serpent a suitable instrument of divine punishment—but also of healing.
The conclusion from all this is that our role as humans is not to eliminate the “serpent,” the yetzer ha-ra, but to keep it under control and direct it to a productive course. Jews believe that this is best done by following the values and way of life set down in the Torah. Christians try to achieve it through their faith in Jesus.
Following from the ideas that I have just sketched, allow me to propose my own way of understanding the symbolism of the brazen serpent.
The Mishnah, that eminent compendium of Jewish oral traditions, has explicitly rejected any simplistic magical interpretation of the story: “Does a serpent really hold the power over death or life?” it asks rhetorically. “Rather, as Israel lifted their eyes and gazed upward, they would submit their hearts to their Father in Heaven—and this would bring about their cure.”
Perhaps, the meditation on the serpent image was intended to teach them something about their roles as a special, holy people. Living under the direct scrutiny of the Almighty does not require that they relinquish the normal, healthy human drives which he has given them. God, as a loving parent, wants nothing more than the happiness of his creatures. Let the serpent remind you of this basic truth, that holiness will be achieved through perfecting your humanity, not by denying it or seeking to transcend it.
But if I wanted to go further, dig deeper, find other interpretations, other commentaries, there’s a whole page of references waiting for me. And maybe I’ll go back and poke around some more… who knows what good stuff I’ll find.
Oh and another good Bible study resources is The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.
Now I’ve just got to remember to consult them more often instead of stewing in my own ignorance.
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