That’s how I felt as I started exploring a couple texts for last Sunday’s message.
The Old Testament reading for Sunday morning was from Numbers 21. It’s a challenging text, one with poisonous snakes biting and killing people with God’s permission. The snakes followed a session of complaining about food and water and the wilderness and leaving Egypt. And then, after the people repented of their complaints and cried out to God and Moses, a bronze serpent is mounted on a pole and recovery for everyone who is bitten and looks at the image.The text was coupled with a text from John 3, where Jesus refers to that bronze image and says that he will be lifted up like that, and people who look at him and believe will have life.
As I looked at the common thread of the bronze snake, I wondered whether there might be some symbolism that connected snakes and Egypt and Israel which can help us understand the difficulty of the story.
It turns out that among the Egyptian gods was the snake god Apep. The god of chaos, the personification of evil. The god that couldn’t be defeated, but only driven away.
Having been raised in Egypt, Moses and the other Israelites would have been very familiar with this god. They may have even picked up a superstitious fear of it, the way we often pick up superstitions from people around us.
When Moses and God had their first conversation, God told Moses to throw down his shepherd’s staff. It became a snake. Moses ran away. God said to pick it up by the tail. It became a staff again.
When Moses met with Pharoah for the first time, when he was proving his position, he had Aaron through down a staff. It became a snake. The Egyptian wisemen threw down their staffs. They became snakes. Then Aaron’s staff-snake ate their staff-snakes.
God may be modeling a power over the snake god in these staff stories.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at a possible symbolic connection between these stories and the Numbers story. Stay tuned.