Lectionary Reflection for Holy Cross Sunday

This excerpt comes from Numbers (BTCB) by David L. Stubbs, commenting on Numbers 21:4-9:

The serpents can be seen to be a judgment upon Israel that reveals and symbolizes their sin. The souls of the Israelites have been poisoned by the deceiver so that they do not trust in the goodness of God and his provision and plan for them. The people who committed themselves to the covenant with God instead adulterously follow after Egypt and the way of life it represents—a life where their immediate desires are fed yet they are enslaved, a life that falls short of what God intends for them in the promised land.

The serpents’ venom, like bitter water, has entered into the people and caused bitter pain, showing that they have indeed gone astray. As with Adam and Eve, the venom of doubt about the words, ways, and goodness of God had taken hold of Israel and was leading to their “spiritual death.” In response to the serpents, Israel is moved to confession: “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us” (Num. 21:7). As a result of this confession, God does relent. He does not simply forgive them of their sin and heal them outright, but rather commands Moses to construct a “fiery serpent” and set it on a nas (“standard”).

The bronze serpent represents to the people all that the fiery serpents represent. In it they can see the sufferings of their journey. But in it they also can see the judgment of God about them. Like the raising of a battle standard, this action ironically represents who the people are truly following: the serpent, rather than God. This people, this generation, have rejected God and his ways, and are following instead the ways of the serpent, the envious desire for power, the lust for the easy comforts of Egypt that makes them turn back from entering the land. It is a fitting symbol for all the rebellions of the people.

But the raised serpent is more than a sign of judgment. It is also a sign of God’s victory over the serpent. Like the head of an enemy placed on the tip of a spear and shown to the people, the serpent lifted up shows that God is more powerful than the serpent. God is able to cure the physical effects of the serpents’ poison.

By offering to the people this symbol of victory over the serpent, it also becomes a symbol of God’s compassion and desire to heal them and to do them good. It is a symbol that God did not send Moses to his people in Egypt to condemn them, but to save them and bring them life.

 

©2009 by David L. Stubbs. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Numbers (BTCB) by David L. Stubbs, commenting on Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29:

This passage does not comment on what precisely Israel’s sin was, what was wrong with their craving and weeping. However, Deut. 8:3 is explicit: “He [YHWH] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

The phrase “one does not live by bread alone” means that humanity—and specifically Israel—is called to something higher than simply meeting their basic needs. The phrase “every word” refers to “this entire commandment that I command you today” (8:1)—it is the covenantal way that leads to life.

The sin of Israel is that they worry too much about their daily bread. Their worry and lack of trust in God’s providence causes them to think fondly of Egypt, and eventually they begin making plans to abandon God’s plan and elect a leader who will take them back (Num. 14:4).

They allow a legitimate need and desire, the desire for good and tasty food, to become a craving that gets in the way of their calling as a people. Their faithfulness to God’s purposes is choked by their desire for material and bodily comfort, a desire that becomes a roadblock in their journey to the fullness of the life God intends for them.

Using the terminology of virtue theory, the people of Israel lack temperance, which is the virtue of being able to say no to the desires of one’s body—whether good or bad—insofar as they get in the way of the pursuit of higher goods (the classic Christian exposition is Aquinas Summa theologica I-II Q61.2-3).

 

©2009 by David L. Stubbs. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.