Staring At Snakes on Sticks

Modern medicine has come a long way. For example, if there was once a time when it was considered pretty good doctoring to put maggots on a festering wound. And if your baby did a lot of crying? In the 10th century there was a pretty good likelihood that she was a changeling and would need to be drowned. Don’t like that truth, do you? Well, if you go back even further, there was this one time when a bunch of people got bitten by snakes and then a guy with a stick told them to look at the stick. That was the cure.

If we did that kind of medicine today, it would be ridiculous.

Moses: So, you’re dying of rattlesnaks, eh? Take a lookie here at my magic stick and you’ll be fine.

Me: Don’t we have some kind of medical protocols? Can you suck out the poison or something—

Moses: MAGIC STICK OR DEATH

Me: Okay, I mean, sure I’ll LOOK at it, but that’s all? Should be, like, slapping the bites with the stick or making a poultice? Also, it’s kind of hard to see the stick from my tent. Can you bring the stick closer? Oh, man…I’m not feeling so hot…

Me: *Dies*

Moses: NEXT!

Honestly, if I had been an Israelite in the time of Moses, I would have probably had a hard time with the ol’ stick cure myself. On the other hand, in the age where we have ALL the diseases (COVID, AIDS, Cancer, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Alcoholism, Depression, Diabetes, and SO MANY MORE!), wouldn’t it be super great if a Moses showed up with a magic stick and gave us all a chance to glance at it and be cured?

Except…

I have been wondering lately if there already IS a metaphorical magic stick. I mean, modern medicine is pretty awesome, but you actually have to be doing it to get the life-saving benefits. But even more to the point, I think that there is something really powerful in the words that Moses says to the Israelites: “Look and live.”

It is a two-part recipe. And it’s a recipe for every malady that ails us, snakes or not.

Look

I think that it is no accident that the staff of Moses was the same stick that God has used to bring the Children of Israel out of Egypt. It is transformative to reflect on our past miracles. It is foundational to face the reality of what God has ALREADY DONE in our lives before He can do more.

But the staff was not the only thing that the Israelites looked at. They also looked at the snake. A brass one. It was a defeated version of the thing that was killing them. It makes me think immediately of immunizations, a great hot-button item that you can fight about in the comments if it makes you feel empowered. An immunization is the physical manifestation of the exact concept revealed by the symbol of the snake on the staff—to truly see and use the thing that is killing you to be healed.

It was a shadow and type of Jesus Christ’s atonement—an act of defeating death that was done on the world’s behalf even before anyone realized they needed it.

Live

The second part of the cure is about acting. It’s about choice. The story of the serpent on the stick is a story about agency. And while it seems totally stupid to many people that there were some in Israel’s Camp that chose not to look, there were. Their agency was sacred and protected, even to the point of death, if they wanted it.

They had to choose life.

We have to wonder how hard it was to wander in the desert. Were there people who saw their serpent bite as a way to bow out of an incredibly bad camping experience? Maybe. Or, like we are reminded every time this story comes up in church, they just refused to believe that a cure could be so simple and chose to not look out of sheer stubbornness and pride.

I’m sure there were a few of both. But there were some who realized that they wanted life enough to do something a little weird, embarrassing, or even silly and simple to get it.

In my head, there is also little bit of emphasis on the “live” part of the cure. I like to think that Moses walked around, very Gandalf-like, pep-talking his people into REALLY living. Not just looking and then surviving another grueling walk into the desert. But looking deeply into their eyes and reminding them that they needed to really be alive while they were alive.

Looking and Living Every Day

The thing I learned on my last read-through of this story is that I think it would have been easy to look once and be cured. But I wondered how my opinion would change if a footnote had been added to the scripture. Something about the fact that those who had been bitten didn’t just have to look once and then go about their business. What if they had to look every day? What if they had to keep their eyes continually upon the serpent to be healed?

All of the sudden, it makes much more sense that some didn’t look. Or got tired of looking.

I think we are called to do just this. Being a disciple of Christ is not about looking once to Him to save your soul. That’s a good start, for sure. But real discipleship is about looking to Him every day, eyes focused consistently on the actions and attitudes that bring healing and happiness to ourselves and those around us.

It’s human nature to want to stop looking. It gets exhausting trying to be the best version of yourself all the time. And we all fail at it. That’s not a news item for anyone. But when you choose to look and live again, even after years or decades of looking down, you find that the cure for whatever poison is killing you? It’s never moved. It’s never changed.

Look up. Choose to live.

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