Monday, April 14, 2008

The Israelites Worship Moses's Giant Snake: Numbers 21

This post is part of a revoluitonary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

The exciting accounts of war and killing I wrote about yesterday are strangely interrupted, halfway through, for some more complaining from the Israelites. Apparently they're getting tired of eating manna day after day after day. According to the last chapter on this subject, the Numbers account of the quail episode (in which God struck the Israelites with poison and plague), it tastes a bit like olive oil. I guess I'd be tired of olive oil after so much time.

God, of course, is not sympathetic. According to Numbers's unusually brief account of this particular little rebellion, God "sent poisonous snakes" into the camp to bite people. The Bible says simply that "many Israelites died."

The survivors, as has become predictable, assemble before Moses and ask for forgiveness. Moses agrees to pray for them and, between the two of them, he and God hit upon what is apparently a fair resolution to the conflict. Moses "makes a snake" out of bronze and puts the idol up on a pole. People who are bitten by a real snake are commanded to come and look upon the fake one; when they do, they are healed.

Why? Who knows! One of my conservative former pastors once said this was kind of like an early analog to Christ being raised up on the cross, but that doesn't make any sense. The snake is a symbol of wrath, judgement, and death here. And in a text notably suspicious of idol worship, for no apparent reason, God decides that the usual sin offerings aren't good enough and orders this strange process put in their place.