Snakes on a Plain
There are very few passages in Scripture as graphic and frightening as God’s sending “fiery serpents” in response to the grumbling of the people. Everywhere they turn – like Indiana Jones in the pit of vipers – they are surrounded by them. In a desperate panic they plead with Moses to pray that the Lord would take away the snakes: “So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.” All is well…or so it seems.
Someone must have waited until the snakes left the camp and then taken down the pole and wrapped it in a blanket. They likely hid and kept it just in case there was another plague of serpents. I say that because eight hundred years later, the bronze serpent had become part of Israel’s worship. A whole cult had grown up around the bronze snake. It had, adherents believed, magical powers to heal and after hundreds of years it had changed from a one-time means of healing to another idol to be smashed by the new king Hezekiah. We do the same in many ways. We make good things into icons and then into idols. I imagine they had some form of serpent bumper stickers, serpent publishing, serpent knick-knacks, serpent jewelry. You get the idea. We take a symbol and make it magical. The symbol of the serpent did not heal. The symbol of the cross will not either. To think so is superstition. Yet, we are, as John Calvin said, idol making factories.
How many of us have seen the relics of the early church – like splinters from the cross or the shroud of Turin? The whole industry of shrines depends on our desire to turn symbols into magical things. We often do it without meaning to but we do it nonetheless. We start with reminders that become relics and then rivals for God himself. Some have turned Scripture into an idol. They worship the Bible. We even have a word for it – bibliolatry. Some have made an idol of the church for their own benefit.
N.T. Wright wrote, “We have lived too long in a world, and tragically in a Church, where the wills and affections of human beings are regarded as sacrosanct as they stand, where God is required to command what we already love, and to promise what we already desire.”
Not only do we persist in making idols but we do it by domesticating what was once dangerous. Over time, the serpent was no longer fearful. It had become a lucky charm and something that served their desires. It’s sadly the same with the cross. We’ve robbed it of its fearsomeness by turning it into a charm or a pendant or a bumper sticker.
Probably all of us would rather have another symbol that would stand not for foolishness but for wisdom, success, happiness, inclusiveness, sophistication and intellectual credibility. We hide the cross and hold up other things. We put education or liberty, capitalism or economic justice on a pole and look up to them. We put satisfaction, significance, purpose in life, security on a pole and hope it will give us our lives and free us from the snake – but they don’t. Sadly, we have robbed the cross of its foolishness and even its convicting power. Whether we do it the way Delilah did with Samson or the Israelites did with the bronze serpent, we want to make dangerous and unpredictable things safe and certain.
That’s really what idols and domesticated serpents do for us. We don’t worship them as much as count on them to make life more certain. Martin Carcasson wrote this week that “our brains yearn for certainty and have a multitude of tricks and shortcuts to feed that need for certainty.” Idols are the most practical things in the world, really. We don’t fear them. We use them. They serve us. They smooth out the bumps and bring us prosperity, well-being and lighten our load.
I do think Tim Keller is right about idols: “When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, it is essentially an idol.” But what the account of the bronze serpent tells me is this is a time to restore the sense of desperate need for rescue the people of Israel experienced in their wilderness. Maybe, hopefully, that is what our grumbling and anger will lead to in the end.