Reading Numbers 21. 4–9
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
During Lent, we go in heart and mind to be with Jesus in the wilderness as he prepares to start his ministry. Many of the readings of the season touch on the wilderness theme, and tonight we find the Israelites there, between their escape from Egypt and their eventual arrival at the Promised Land, under attack by snakes – imagine it – a scene of primeval horror, and one that reminds me of a moment at school when I realised the power of the written word. DH Lawrence’s poem ‘Snake’ describes his encounter with one of these creatures by a water-trough in Sicily. The sight of a snake usually provokes fear and revulsion, but Lawrence describes this one so beautifully, so reverently – ‘one of the lords of life’. When he says that, despite his fear, ‘I liked him’, I could see how. I felt that, seeing the snake through Lawrence’s eyes, I might have liked him too.
Lawrence says that in feeling the way he did he was going against ‘the voice of my education’, but he was going against more than just that, for the snake, with its alien appearance – no legs, armoured face, forked tongue – the speed of its attack and the deadliness of its venom, touches our deepest fears.
When our ancestors in faith asked themselves why the world often seemed an alien place, they were inspired to tell the story of Adam and Eve. The story needs a character to lead these prototype humans astray, and for this the old enemy the snake is perfect. The verdict of God, ‘Cursed are you among all animals,’ and ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman,’ (Genesis 3.14-15) suggests that snake phobia is as old as humanity itself.
Tonight, in the harsh, inhospitable home of the snake, many Israelites die. It’s God’s punishment for arguing with God, they say. In the New Testament, the book of Revelation calls Satan ‘that old serpent’; and Paul (to the astonishment of the locals) walks away unharmed from a snake-bite, just as Jesus promised his disciples they would (Revelation 12.9, Acts 28.3-6, Luke 10.19). To this day there are Christians in the USA who take this most literally. If we want to live dangerously in worship, we sing a chorus and might even clap to it; to show their faith in the authority of Christ over the powers of evil, they pick up rattlesnakes. I once saw a genuinely funny religious cartoon – I see very few of them – which showed little children playing with a worm tray – it was entitled ‘Sunday School at the snake-handling church’.
Lawrence was right, though, snakes need not always be our enemies. We ‘milk’ snakes, extracting their venom to make serum and other forms of medicine; and in our story, God tells Moses to make a friendly snake, a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole: all who look on this ‘killer’ shall live. So it is that the serpent, the old, lethal enemy, is also a symbol of healing, whether it is Moses’ snake or the serpent which Asclepius, the Greek God of healing, has curled round the rod he carries.
One or other of these frequently appears in modern medical iconography, like on the badge of the Royal Army Medical Crops. The snake is a particularly good symbol for military medicine, which has an ambiguity about it – making well those whose task is to wound – but it’s also a reminder of the risks of medicine, in which hurting and healing live so close to each other. The Greek word pharmakon means both ‘poison’ or ‘medicine’, for that which is harmful can also be that which heals – or it can be the other way round.
In fact, the serpent is a good symbol for our entire experience of this ambiguous world of ours. There is what may appear to be an easy way of seeing the world, in which all that is good and wholesome comes from God, and everything that is harmful or sick comes from the devil. But if you really look at the way the world works, you begin to see that accident and illness are woven into the fabric of creation and so must in part be the responsibility of God. You begin to see that God, who of course wills our health and wholeness, also permits things that deny these. Then the world does begin to look ambiguous.
It may be for this reason that John in this morning’s gospel reading used this picture of Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness as a sign of what would happen to Jesus – for he too would be ‘lifted up’ (John 3.14). You think that John must mean the resurrection or ascension of Jesus, things that are obviously glorious and ‘uplifting’, but he means Jesus being lifted up on to the cross. For him, the suffering of Jesus and the glorification of Jesus can’t be neatly separated: for Jesus, glory will come through sacrifice.
Now all of this is interesting but intellectual. We here tonight have real and specific concerns, real pains and illnesses, real hurts. We have on our hearts the real wounds of the world, from Syria and Ukraine to the ghastly puzzle of the missing airliner, as each week brings news of the suffering that comes from natural disaster or human wickedness. And in the face of suffering that is actual and specific, any argument about the place of evil and suffering in our world is not so much wrong as beside the point.
I see that much that is awful in the world is the consequence of human freedom, and that God can’t abolish one without abolishing the other, I see that God may need to give the whole material world some autonomy, that God must make the world make itself, if genuine freedom is to emerge, but still there is this problem, this pain, this particular life of yours or mine or of someone you care about. And this makes the pressing concerns severely practical. This thing that is assailing me or you, is it the serpent that kills, or the serpent that brings life? Or could it be either? What must we do battle with here, and what must we embrace?
In the space that this service provides, and in the space we must clear for God each day, part of our job is simply ‘look upon’ these things, as the Israelites look in fear upon the poisonous serpents and look in hope upon the serpent of Moses. We ask for the wisdom of God to show us the true nature of whatever is before us. And then we ask for the energies of God to be with us and within us for whatever we must do next.
‘Snake’ by DH. Lawrence
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me.
He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of
the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.
He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?
Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.
He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.
And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.
I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.
And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
And I have something to expiate: