There’s a pretty bizarre story about snakes in the Bible. Not the one in the garden, these snakes are out in the desert. It’s part of the story of the Hebrews being led out of Egypt by Moses and cared for by God in the wilderness.
Goes something like this. Having been freed from Egypt and now out in the desert, the Hebrews had complained repeatedly about things, including food and water, and God had provided for them. Now, they’re impatient and unhappy and complain about the food they have. So God sends them poisonous snakes. Not to eat. The snakes bite and kill many and the people go to Moses, saying that they’ve sinned and ask him to ask God to save them. He goes to God, and God tells Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole and hold it up. When they’re bitten, the people who look at the snake will be healed. And they are.
On the surface, it might seem like this is a pretty straight forward “punishment for complaining followed by a demonstration of God’s power” kind of story. After all, they’ve complained a lot since leaving Egypt perhaps God’s tired of their lack of gratitude.
Or … perhaps God understands that the complaining isn’t dissatisfaction, it’s fear. It didn’t take long for the Hebrews to move from celebrating their freedom to being afraid of the new unknown in which they found themselves. They question Moses - and God - from the very beginning. They seem to let fear overwhelm their faith in God’s presence, despite the constant evidence to the contrary.
So here’s a symbol, a sign of God’s presence. See it and believe and together, we’ll overcome this. The snakes don’t go away, they don’t stop biting, but their fear of the snakes is met with a sign of God’s presence and their healing can begin. The object of their fear, itself, becomes a sign so that all could see it and choose healing over fear.
There will be hard work and many challenges and it may be a long journey, but healing can begin with this covenant with God: I am with you, here’s a sign to show you, have faith that you are loved and not alone. Take the next step and build the next moment.
Later, the writer of John’s gospel will tell how Jesus referenced this story as a way of understanding the cross. Just like Moses raised up the snake on a pole in the wilderness, he’ll say, I will be on the cross, so that those who believe will have life. And that’s just the thing about holding up a sign: it’s a sign of something greater. It’s not to be held up and worshipped as itself, but as a way of connecting to that greater thing. That, however we know God, we are loved by God and we are not alone because God - and all God is - is with us.
There are a lot of poisonous snakes. We may find much to fear, many ways in which we feel broken, hurting, grieving, many feelings which might hold us back. They’re not going to go away, but we can face them, acknowledge them, and find a way forward. We are loved, we are love, we can share that love.