In Numbers 21: 4-9, we read of how the Hebrews lost patience with their journey and with God, and began to bitterly complain against God and to blame Him for taking them out of their security in Egypt. So God, as a response to their grievous sin, permitted venomous serpents to strike the people, causing many to die. The people recognised their sin and approached Moses to help them mediate their situation with God. God then told Moses to raise a bronze serpent in the desert, so that “everyone who has been bitten will look at it and recover.” Accordingly, “Moses made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever the serpent bit someone, the person looked at the bronze serpent and recovered.” (v.9)
Today, this symbol of the serpent on a staff, is a symbol of Pharmaceutical Science, and can be found on the emblems of hospitals and medical guilds. It is a symbol, that has been popularly and wrongly attributed to Asclepius, a physician who tended to the wounded soldiers of Troy around 1280 B. C.. By circa 380 B.C., Asclepius had already attained cult status and had been assigned demi-god status by the Greeks (Encyclopaedia Britannica, n.d.).
Biblical scholars have mapped out the dates of the Exodus to before the reign of Meneptah, son and heir to the Pharaoh Ramses earlier than the year 1270 B.C. and have calculated the year of Exodus to be around 1440 B.C. (Sayce, 1897; Sayce, 1894). As such, the chronology suggests that the Greeks would most likely have appropriated this imagery of Moses lifting the bronze serpent for their own attempts to legitimise the healing powers of Asclepius.
Nonetheless, the enigma of why God would have chosen the symbol of a serpent and raise it up remains, when in Biblical imagery, the serpent is generally associated with evil and sin. The clue to the answer to this question may be found in the words of the mystic Julian of Norwich, “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.” The Hebrews had behaved in the manner of a brood of venomous snakes, and thus were sent the literal representation of their sin, which in turn wounded them and poisoned them to death – again a beautiful reminder that it is our sin that will wound us and lead us to death. When the Hebrews repented and looked upon the symbol of the bronze serpent, they could finally see their sin, and when they recognised their sin, God stepped in with his tender mercy to begin healing the people. When we see our sin, the healing process can begin.
If the bronze serpent is a symbol and representation of the people’s sin, then it is significant that Jesus is raised on a cross as well, for “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, more so the Son of Man be lifted up, that those who believe in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.” (John 3:14) The repetition of the motif, tells us that Jesus came to redeem and to fulfil the law and the prophets, but greater than that, is how in His love, Jesus, the Sinless One took on the sins of humanity and bore our iniquities for himself, that having ransomed us from a debt that we ourselves could never have had the means to pay, we may be saved in totality. See the beauty of God’s amazing plan?
Nonetheless, in the discussion of sin and God’s everlasting Mercy, the narrative has mostly swung in favour of sin, guilt, name, shame, and blame. For a long time, the Church has failed to embrace the sinner, choosing instead a stance of condemnation and judgement. The mistaken idea that tends to cause us to keep falling into sin and keep repeatedly sinning, to the point of giving up and completely walking away from Confession and even the Church, is the fallacy that we need to earn the love of God and to show God how good we are. Worse, that because of our sinfulness, that we are not loved and cannot be loved by God. Such a viewpoint is flawed precisely because it sets people up for failure and impossible standards, and it primes people to be overtly critical of the moral flaws of another person. The fields of Psychology has shown that Negative feedback and criticism is important in warning us and preventing us from hurling ourselves over the cliff (in this case, of sin) – that “we’d really better stop doing something horrible or start doing something we’re not doing right away,” (Zenger & Folkman, 2013, para. 7) but “Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity.” (Zenger & Folkman, 2013, para. 8)
Now this is not to discount the words of Jesus, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) We often forget that this phrase is said and written in the verbial form: “be” – perfection, a life without sin, a life that is tuned to the will of God, is a process and we are constantly striving (and struggling) towards holiness. The suggestion is that rather than constantly reminding people of their flaws and guilt, the opposite may prove more effective – to remind others of what they are doing right and to speak and to remind people of the love of God our Father for us. Precisely because we have encountered the love of God, and we ourselves love God, thus we would naturally desire to not do anything that would keep us apart from God (i.e. sin). This is not to say that we gloss over our sins, or ignore them completely. We have to recognise our sin without disguise, or glossing over. We definitely need to bring our sins to the light. Here is where we turn the paradigm around to focus on Grace. We acknowledge our sins, but we turn to God who is greater than our sin for the solution. The Grace of God is greater and will help us overcome any weaknesses or sin, by turning it on its head. Sin is not something that we can solve ourselves.
The love of God is so immense and profound, that God our Father meets us where we are at – in our murky areas of sin and transgression. God even uses our areas of sinfulness as tools to save us. Fr. Joseph Corpora C.S.C. (2016) writes,
God loves us so much that he will use anything and everything to save us. He saves us as sinners, not as saints. God wins by making sure that we win.
For too many years we have failed to understand that the Good News is good precisely because mistake, failure and sin are all part of what redeems us. (Para. 5 & 6)
The mercy of God also compels us to feel a godly sorrow and contrition, not a deathly guilt. As 2 Corinthians 7: 10 says, “For godly sorrow produces a salutary repentance without regret, but worldly sorrow produces death.” Our story is the story that finds its resonance in the happening of the woman caught for adultery. The Pharisees determined to find fault with Jesus, and thus plotted the demise of the woman with adultery. They most likely were waiting and watching for her to fall, so that they could storm in most righteously and drag her out, naked, to be shamed publicly in the streets. Nevertheless, this is God’s tender response: “‘Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.”’ (John 8: 10-11)
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Corpora, J. (2016, August 8). Being Mercy: Getting it Right. Notre Dame Magazine. University of Notre Dame. Retrieved March 23, 2021, from https://magazine.nd.edu/stories/being-mercy-getting-it-right/
Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Asclepius. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved March 23, 2021 from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Asclepius
Sayce, A.H. (1894). “Higher Criticism” and the Verdict of the Monuments. London and New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. E. & J. B. Young and Co.
Sayce, A. H. (1897). The early history of the Hebrews. (1st Ed.) London : Rivingtons
Zenger, J. & Folkman J. (2013, March 15). The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved March 23, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2013/03/the-ideal-praise-to-criticism