The snake as a biblical symbol—and the surprising places where it shows up
A Reflection for Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent
Find today’s readings here.
For Christians, reading the Old Testament in light of the New Testament is sometimes almost like a game: Where is Jesus hiding? How is Jesus prefigured this time, in a story set thousands of years before he was born?
In today’s readings, we have a weird one: The Hebrews complain that they’re hungry, that they would have been better off in Egypt. God, annoyed, sends snakes to bite them, and many of them die. Then the people ask Moses to ask God to take the snakes away.
So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses, ”Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live.” Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
The people are wounded; they look at this thing raised up on a pole at God’s command, and they are saved. This is clearly a prefiguring of the Crucifixion.
So in this scenario, Jesus is prefigured by…a venomous snake. That’s weird! It’s not how we think about our beloved savior, prefigured or otherwise. It’s not how we think about salvation.
Here are some ways to make sense of it:
First, the people ask God to remove the snakes, but instead, he offers them a way of not dying from the bites. This feels very familiar. That’s how it is: Sin and death and suffering are in the world. God doesn’t remove them, but he gives us a remedy so they’re not fatal.
If the snake association feels uncomfortable, maybe it’s because we’ve become a little too comfortable with looking at the crucifix.
Second, the snake recalls the story of how sin and death came into the world: Through the sin of Adam. Jesus is the new Adam. Just as sin came into the world through Adam (with the help of the snake), life came into the world through Jesus.
And I could go on. Other, more learned people have had plenty to say on the passage.
Does any of this make the image of a brass snake as a proto-Jesus stop being weird? Not at all!
And that’s probably a good thing. If the association feels uncomfortable, maybe it’s because we’ve become a little too comfortable with looking at the crucifix. It’s a little too familiar, and we’ve stopped being shocked by the sight of it.
Maybe the weirdness of the brass serpent story will help us remember: The cross is supposed to be weird and ugly, shocking like a near-death experience in the desert, frightening like a violent, venomous snakebite, painful like a prefiguring that doesn’t sit comfortably and doesn’t snuggle in softly with a fairy-tale kind of Christianity.
That’s the point. It’s strange, it’s shocking and you may actually die of its bite. You may die, unless you look to Jesus to save you. So do that.