Being “snakebit”

I gave a small lecture recently to a Lenten class at our church. It was more a rant, really, but they seemed to be a tolerant mood. I called some scripture texts “flat” in the way a Pepsi might get “flat” if you opened it and left it out for a few hours.

But that’s not the only way to discover flat texts. There are some texts that, if you see snakebit 6what is being said, simply bristle with aggression or twist with implication and you never really noticed. That’s why it was flat to you. And when you notice what is being said, you wonder how you ever managed to pass it by as if it were not remarkable.

The class I taught fell between a church service—just before my class—and a Vespers’s service late in the afternoon. John 3:16 and a few surrounding verses were read at both services, [1] but the Numbers passage (Chapter 21) was read only at Vespers and Numbers shines a very bright light on John 3. And I read John 3 as if I had just been awakened—which is unkind, but just about accurate.

Having been raised in the church, I am familiar with John 3:14. It is a kind of taxiing passage to prepare you to take off at John 3:16. And I think that rhetorically, that is just the way John uses it. But today I want to look at what it actually says and play a little with the implications.

Jesus says [2]

14 as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up 15so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.[3]

The Fiery Snakes

Presumably, the reference to the snake directed the attention of all his hearers back to the incident in the desert, when God sent poisonous snakes among the Israelites to call them to repentance. I know that sounds odd, but that is the perspective of the authors of that story in Numbers. Here is that passage from Numbers 21.

4They left Mount Hor by the road to the Sea of Suph, to skirt round Edom. On the way the people lost patience. 5They spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert? For there is neither food nor water here; we are sick of this meagre diet.’ 6 At this, God sent fiery serpents among the people; their bite brought death to many in Israel. 7The people came and said to Moses, ‘We have sinned by speaking against Yahweh and against you. Intercede for us with Yahweh to save us from these serpents.’ Moses interceded for the people, 8 and Yahweh replied, ‘Make a fiery serpent and raise it as a standard. Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will survive.’ 9Moses then made a serpent out of bronze and raised it as a standard, and anyone who was bitten by a serpent and looked at the bronze serpent survived.

Let’s look at the pattern first. My reason for doing that is that I believe John is reminding his readers of the whole sequence of events, not just the climax. So the people lost patience (v. 4) and spoke against God (v.5). So God sent fiery serpents (v.6) and a lot of people died. Then they repented (v. 7) and God provided a solution of sorts (v. 8,9 more on that later) and those who accepted the solution God offered, survived. Presumably, the others did not. It is that sequence I am referring to as “the pattern.”

Clearly, Jesus says he is like the snake who was lifted up. [4] And he says that salvation is available to those who “believe on” him. “Believing on” is the analog to “looking at” in Numbers.

snakebit 1But what is John saying about everyone else? That takes us back to the wilderness. The snakes were a punishment from God and they afflicted Israelites generally. They did not seek out the ones who had been complaining and bite them and leave the rest alone. Furthermore, God did not withdraw the snakes when the people repented; God just provided a remedy for some of the Israelites. And to be saved from death, the Israelites had to “look at” the bronze snake on the pole.

There are some oddities in this account when you look at it carefully, but the essential transaction is very clear. If you believe what Moses says—and he did, after all, do that thing at the Red Sea—and you are bitten by a snake, all you have to do is go to the pole and look at the bronze snake and you will be healed. In cause and effect terms, this is like taking an aspirin when you have a headache.

There were some people, surely, who didn’t believe Moses and refused to do somethingsnakebit 2 as nonsensical as “looking at a snake on a pole.” [5] Believing Moses wasn’t always the obvious thing to do. He had had his good moments and his bad moments. And they had just had their hands collectively slapped about the golden calf and here is this “brazen image” thing again. But there is something very persuasive about feeling that you are dying from a poisonous bite and looking at the snake on the pole as you were told to do and recovering from the poison. People who had seen that done might very plausibly exhort others to “take the treatment” and be saved.

The Cursed Condition

John draws on all of that, but the analogy is stark. Jesus says that he, himself is the snake, and that he is going to be “lifted up,” which is the term John uses for crucifixion. So where does that leave the people he is speaking to? If Jesus is the remedy, in the same sense that the snake was the remedy, then the people he is talking to are snakebit. [6]

Several substantial problems flow from this. First, John’s use of this analogy comes at a time of substantial conflict. Quite a few of John’s slurs against “the Jews” have the rhetorical flavor of “Yeah, and your mother wears army boots!” Second, this relates to a condition, not to an event. A guy who has been bitten by a snake knows when and where. There is no “event” of “not believing in Jesus.” That is a condition. Furthermore, it is a condition fully sanctioned by the traditions of your people.

Third, while “looking at a snake” is an action clearly understood and immediately taken, “believing in” Jesus is neither. It is not “an action”—thousands of Billy Graham appeals to the contrary notwithstanding—and it is not clearly understood. What on earth does “believing” mean in this context? And what does “eternal life” mean? [7] The hearers didn’t seem to know.

And finally, there is a much different role for evangelists in John’s setting. “Evangelists” snakebit 3are people who tell the good news. In the desert, the good news is that you really don’t have to die because you were bitten by this snake. You can go to the pole and look at the snake and you will live. Not “eternally,” but you will not die today. People who carried that message to their friends and neighbors who would otherwise by dead by tomorrow, were carrying “good news” indeed.

The role of the evangelist—the bringer of good news—in John’s account is that however you might feel about your life, you are, in fact, cursed. You are “snakebit.” And for this implausible diagnosis, we offer an equally implausible treatment. “Believe in” Jesus. That is like “looking at the snake” and it will have the same effects. It will keep you from dying. That is the role of the evangelist in John.

So the premise of the “if I be lifted up” passage is that you are all snakebit and I am the way God has provided for you not to die. That’s the premise. That’s what makes everything else in John 3 understandable. This isn’t at all like Matthew’s scribe (Chapter 13) who brings treasures, both old and new, out of the treasury. It isn’t like Luke’s (Chapter 5) wonderful old wine in comfortable old wineskins. This is a blanket diagnosis of the condition of life the hearers are experiencing but not understanding.

And I thought that text was flat? What on earth was I thinking? [8]

[1] The lectionary readings for the fourth week in Lent in Year B include readings from Numbers 21, John 3, Psalm 107, and Ephesians 2
[2] This is the Johannine Jesus speaking and as I read it, he is directly addressing the issues contemporary with the writing of John’s gospel. The church and the synagogue were, by the end of the First Century, in full contact battle with each other.
[3] All scripture quotations are from the New Jerusalem Bible.
[4] If you like doubling back on the metaphor and you are drawn to the role of the “serpent” in the Garden of Eden, please don’t let me stand in your way.
[5] Naaman couldn’t understand why he had to bathe in the waters of the Jordan when there were so many better rivers back home in Aram. It took world class staff work to get him to do it.
[6] It’s a recent word, first recorded in 1957, but it was so apt that I decided to use it anyway. Merriam-Webster says it means “having or experiencing a period of bad luck” but the Urban Dictionary comes closer to the uses I have heard when it identifies it as “cursed.”
[7] The Greek is zoē aiōnion, which can legitimately be translated “eternal life,” but which can just as legitimately be translated “life of the ages” or “life for the ages.” That expression refers much more clearly to a kind of life, not to an extent of time, which is why I prefer it.
[8] Heartfelt thanks to Caroline Litzenberger, who spoke briefly at Vespers and laid these two texts down side by side for us and who, in doing that, knew full well what she was doing.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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