It’s not the most famous wilderness story, but it’s the one Jesus references when he talks with a religious leader:
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
The story is that when the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness, they had a poisonous snake problem. God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake-on-a-stick, and when people would get bitten by poisonous snakes, they could look at the snake and not die.
The old story from the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrews depends on a kind of sympathetic magic, a bit like drinking “the hair of the dog that bit you.” Somehow just looking at the image of the snake would mitigate the effects of snake venom.
The author of John uses this as an analogy for Jesus. Somehow, looking at Jesus on the cross and understanding him as the son of God mitigates the effect… of what? Apparently we’ve been bitten and poisoned by something, and seeing it exposed and lifted up saves us from death.
In both stories, something scary is transformed into medicine. Many people have a fear of snakes and react to them with horror and revulsion, so it is counter-intuitive to make the image of a snake into a healing symbol. Likewise, the cross was a form of Roman propaganda, a tool of oppression that terrorized occupied people. But seeing the Son of Man lifted up in this way also becomes a healing symbol. We need fear neither snakes nor human evil. God can save us from such poison.
Many Christians focus on the personal pain and torture that Jesus endured on the cross, as though the redemptive act is made efficacious by how much he suffers. But in this passage Jesus seems to be saying that it is in being lifted up, and in being seen and believed that God saves the world from death. God has no interest in killing, only in saving us from our self-imposed systems of death and power.
Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here:
You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia.