Staring at Death – Finding Life

They complained against God that their salvation from Egypt had put them in a place with no real food, inadequate water and the food they did have, Manna from heaven, was detestable. What ingratitude!  As a consequence they found themselves ankle deep in snakes and people are being bitten and dying.  They petitioned Moses to  ask God, nicely, to have the snakes leave. Instead of the snakes being driven out – like St. Patrick –  forget for a moment the divine injunction against making idols, God tells Moses to craft a “nahash n’hoshet”, a serpenty serpent, a copper viper, and put it on a pole for all to see as the cure for people bitten by the fiery serpents. And what were they to do with this super-serpent?  Look hard at it. “Stare hard at the source of your impending death”, Moses tells the people, “and you will be freed to live.” According to the rabbis, it was not the snake which healed but what looking at the raised snake causes us to do. Whenever Israel looked upward and submitted their heart to God, acknowledgeing their dependence on God, they found wholeness.


 

 

Numbers 19-21 gives us three visual paradoxes.  They all seems so counter intuitive. 

 

In order for Jews who had become contaminated by contact with death to be restored to the community, a ritual washing in a mixture of water and the ashes of a special offering was required.  It was as if once a person had touched the body of a deceased person their obsession with death would render them unable to go on with the normal aspects of life in community, much less relate meaningfully with the source of life.  This sense of being unclean was extended to other events in life that connected human beings with the cycle of the generations participating in the ongoingness of creation, such as a woman’s normal cycle, the birth of a child, and the intimacy of a sexual relationship.

 

With the full attention of the priest, literally with his eyes fixed on the process, staring at the burning, a red heifer would be burned in red fire with red cedar wood and red dye and red wool to create a great cloud of red smoke (Num. 19: 5).  In other sacrifices the blood of the animal had first to be drained away because blood was considered the very seat of life. Not so with the red heifer, that animal would be burned whole.

 

Most other such sacrificial animals would be eaten thus the blood needed to be drained, not so with this one.  The ashes that resulted from this burnt offering were gathered up and as needed mixed with water to be used in cleansing rituals, rituals designed to assure the worshipper that he or she could again go safely into God’s presence.   Is it that way today? On one hand worship has become entertainment and people ‘attend’ like they would a musical or theatrical production – just entertainment.  Yet others know ourselves so well that we fear to enter God’s presence, feeling ourselves to be unclean, impure, inadequate, unacceptable. Washing with the ashes of this special death in some way opened up the spirit from its intense focus on death and restored a person to life.  According to the rabbis, it wasn’t the cow, the cedar or the smoke – it was acknowledging one’s dependence on God for life.

 

Later in this same portion of scripture (Num. 20: 8), when the people are desperately thirsty and rebellious God tells Moses to speak to a rock so that, before the eyes of the people, it would provide water.  Of course we all know that Moses didn’t stop with a verbal command. With the eyes of all the people focused on the rock, he struck it, for emphasis.  And water was released.    Can staring, speaking, striking hard at hardness, dryness, deadliness, unchangeableness, turns it to life giving refreshment? It wasn’t the rock that satisfied the thirst, it was consequence of the communities acknowledgement of their dependence on God, the source of life.

 

Is it still that way, that we can become so fixed on our dryness that we are lost to the community of faith, so taken with our thirst that we threaten rebellion?  Evidently the solution wasn’t to go looking for an oasis in the desert.  All we find in our own pursuits are visions of refreshment, mirages of empty promises.  The antidote for thirst, this story tells us is to stare at the rock in the expectation that God will provide.

 

Then we come to the third story in the text, which is really our Old Testament reading for today, (Num. 21: 4-9).  They complained against God that their salvation from Egypt had put them in a place with no real food, inadequate water and the food they did have, Manna from heaven, was detestable. What ingratitude!  As a consequence they found themselves ankle deep in snakes and people are being bitten and dying.  They petitioned Moses to  ask God, nicely, to have the snakes leave. Instead of the snakes being driven out – like St. Patrick –  forget for a moment the divine injunction against making idols, God tells Moses to craft a “nahash n’hoshet”, a serpenty serpent, a copper viper, and put it on a pole for all to see as the cure for people bitten by the fiery serpents. And what were they to do with this super-serpent?  Look hard at it. “Stare hard at the source of your impending death”, Moses tells the people, “and you will be freed to live.” According to the rabbis, it was not the snake which healed but what looking at the raised snake causes us to do. Whenever Israel looked upward and submitted their heart to God, acknowledgeing their dependence on God, they found wholeness.

 

For us who struggle with the challenges of life and at times with the quandary of its loss; who choke on the dryness of our lives;  who fear the burning serpents that insinuate their way into our very souls, these passages are for us.

How is it that life comes from death?   We generally think that death is the conclusion of life and here, repeatedly we are shown that in facing the source of our dying and acknowledging our dependence on God, we are granted life.

 

Have you ever been challenged to write your own obituary?  Maybe it is a good reminder that starkly standing between us and Easter is what has been called “Good Friday”.  The hope of Easter can not blossom until we face, in Jesus’ death, our own death. 

 

The Apostle Paul’s take on this is that we were already dead. He wrote: You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. …

4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:1-2, 4-5)

 

These passages in Numbers are not far removed from what for many is the core of our faith. It is the preface of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:14-21).  He wrote: 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“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. 17“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. 18Those 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. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

 

The logic of John is not that if we believe God will love us.  No, John declares that God’s love for us is unconditional and preexisting. It is something that we can count on.  Salvation is not a reward for belief.  But salvation is a consequence of acknowledging our dependence on God.  We have this choice to make between darkness or light, choosing life on our own terms, like the children of Israel or acknowledging our dependence on the source of life itself. 

 

 

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