Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Numbers 21:4-9) transports me to a journey through male adolescence filled with intense rivalries that lasted into young adulthood. My neighborhood friends and I played out our first feuds with a Hot Wheels loop the loop drag race set, pitting the bright yellow Snake (a Plymouth Barracuda) against the cherry red Mongoose (a Plymouth Duster). The real feuding came before each race, though, as we argued vehemently over who got to “drive” the Barracuda. We all wanted to be Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, instead of Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen. There was some powerful attraction to the Snake. Then, a couple of years later, we fought it out over the Electric Football game, with its vibrating metal playing field and tiny felt football and plastic players. We painted the two sets of players the colors of one of the bitter rivalries of the day, with the black and silver Oakland Raiders battling the bright red Kansas City Chiefs. The contrasting qb styles of the rebellious Kenny “The Snake” Stabler and all-American good guy Lenny Dawson led to our pre-game fights, as we all wanted to be the Snake every time, so we could cheat and scramble our way to victory. Fast forward a few years to our obsession with championship wrestling, and the feud that developed between villainous Jake “The Snake” Roberts and good guy Ricky Steamboat. You can guess who we pulled for (and luckily, by this time I was a bit too old to be practicing the DDT move or having it practiced on me). Having classic rocker Alice Cooper in his corner gave added attraction to Jake the Snake.
All of these feuds and serpentine attractions mark my first experience with what Rudolph Otto named mysterium trememdum et fascinans, an encounter with a fearful and fascinating mystery. Had I been paying attention in Sunday School during those formative years, I would have seen the same attraction played out in today’s story of Israel’s wilderness wandering. The story here is filled with some intense rivalry, as the people are pitted against Moses and God. They are filled with bitter complaints about their liberated state of affairs in the wilderness. They miss the creature comforts life in Egypt afforded, even if it was an enslaved life. So God assumes the persona of Prudhomme and Stabler and Roberts, sending venomous snakes in to afflict the complainers. There’s nothing fake or choreographed here, though, as God’s snakes bring on real deaths. When Moses feels like the story line has gone a bit too far, he intercedes, and God backs off, but continues using the snake image, this time as a healing totem. People who were snake bit could be healed; all they had to do was turn their eyes and gaze on the bronze snake Moses crafted and lifted up on a pole. It now strikes me as a fearful and fascinating mystery that God commanded Moses to break the second commandment: Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth. This shows how just deep the archetypal attraction to the power of the serpent ran in the spiritual DNA of the wilderness wanderers, as it has in virtually every culture. The snake has represented wisdom, healing, and immortality in sacred stories around the world, in the ancient religions of Native American, European, Asian, and African cultures. Even today in the modern world we see it every time we encounter a medical establishment, with the AMA symbol featuring the single snake of the Staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.
So when Jesus started out his ministry journey and had the opportunity to define his vocation in the famous conversation with Nicodemus, it shouldn’t surprise us to see that of all the images he could have drawn from, he was attracted to this snake story. He said he was going to be like the snake in the wilderness, the wild and dangerous and subversive creature that brought healing, even as it contradicted the fundamental precepts of the faith community. When I’m lifted up, Jesus said, it will be like that, and I will attract all men to me. I don’t know about all men, and I don’t know about women, but I feel certain that this image carries a powerfully strong attraction to adolescent boys.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.