Lent 4: The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people
The story of the serpents in the wilderness is intriguing. The people of God had been rescued from slavery in Egypt and were making the long circuitous way to the promised land. The initial euphoria of freedom had worn off and they grew impatient. They spoke against God and Moses, trusting more in human sense than God’s faithfulness, trusting above all else their construct of reality. This never ends well.
In their panic and pain the people pleaded for deliverance. God rescued Israel, not so much from poisonous serpents, but from Israel’s own faithless and poisonous rebellion that had appeared long before the snakes. In that faithlessness, Israel had set itself against God. Israel’s rescue was a restored relationship with God, not simply escaping the snakes. The symbol of their salvation was a fiery serpent—a bronze serpent lifted up on a pole. The very image of suffering and death was also the image of life and salvation.
I have read Numbers several times and there is no indication that the serpents ever left. The plague of serpents remained an ongoing threat and the raised bronze serpent an ongoing reminder to turn to God’s healing power. This is what intrigues me, the word for fiery serpents is seraphim. Seraphim – the same angels who, with the cherubim, attend God. Could the snake angels be fiery guardian angels who bring us back to the truth that left to our own devices we are helpless and sometimes dangerous?
In the ELCA March 10th is the commemoration of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Both women devoted their lives to dismantling the sinful human construct of racism. Harriet Tubman was called Moses. She led her people to freedom. Sojourner Truth spoke with a fiery passion that bit deep into the false world order that propped up slavery. They were seraphim. We need seraphim today.
Ignite your refining fire, O God. Burn away both the lie of one people’s supremacy and the lie that leads another people to doubt their worth. Amen.