Snakes and Symbols     

September 14, 2017

Today’s reading from the Gospel of John contains what is probably one of the most familiar passages in all of Christian scripture: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

Did you read that and really concentrate on the words? Or did you just skim over that verse? Many of us have a tendency to skim over familiar verses, not really thinking about them at all, because we think we already know what they say.

If you read all of today’s Scripture passages together, you might notice that there’s a theme. And, it’s kind of weird. In Numbers 21, we read about the Israelites complaining about the food (they do that a lot!) and getting bitten by poisonous snakes; to save the people, Moses makes a bronze snake-on-a-stick and is told that snake bite victims can look at it and be healed. Huh? Just look at a bronze snake and be cured? What’s up with that? Now, hold that thought.

In the Gospel passage for today, there’s much more going on than that familiar sixteenth verse. The passage begins with “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have abundant life.” Huh? Again, this is kind of strange. Was Jesus predicting that he would be physically fastened to a stick (or a cross) and lifted up so that everyone who saw him could be healed? Or is something else going on here? Again, hold that thought.

When we get to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he says that we shouldn’t be surprised that all of this sounds like nonsense! “The cross of Christ is foolishness to those who are perishing…” Paul was trying to explain that some things just can’t be grasped solely on an intellectual level. There is something much deeper happening here.

So, what is going on here? There’s a reason that that these passages are all read together, just as there is a reason that they were all written down in the first place. When we remember that the Israelites wandered around in the desert for forty years, and their scriptures weren’t compiled into written form until hundreds of years later during the Babylonian Exile, it makes sense that some of the stories (many of which are strange to us) seem to be thrown in without any explanation. Oral histories were passed down with the assumption that everyone already knew all the background information.

What I find most fascinating about this snake-on-a-stick symbol is the similarity that it has to the Greek myth of Asclepius, who wandered around with his staff entwined by a serpent. Asclepius was a minor god in the Greek pantheon, but he was the god of healing and medicine. He was also associated with resurrection—that is, bringing people back from the dead! Hmm… does that sound familiar?

So—I am seeing a connection between Asclepius and his symbol of the serpent wound around a staff, Moses’ bronze snake-on-a-stick, and Jesus saying that he had to be “lifted up” so that those who believe may have abundant life or resurrection. Then, Paul calls all of it foolishness and a stumbling block to any of us who try to read these passages literally! Do you see an archetypal pattern developing?

We humans have an ingrained desire to be saved by something greater than ourselves. It was clear in the Greek myth of Asclepius; it’s clear in the story of the bronze serpent; it’s clear in what Jesus is saying in the Gospel of John; and it’s clear in the current popularity of superheroes. In fact there is an entire billion-dollar entertainment industry devoted to superheroes, in all realms from comic books to movies!

Believing that the serpent’s poison wouldn’t kill you if you gazed at the bronze serpent may have actually worked for a good number of people in Moses’ day, just as it may have also worked for followers of Asclepius. After all, snake-bite recovery was iffy back then. Antivenin hadn’t been discovered yet; even so, it’s quite possible that some folks who performed the necessary ritual (like the Israelites looking at the bronze serpent) were in fact healed. Maybe they were immune to the venom, or received a mild bite compared to another, but the point is, people look for cause and effect patterns. If you were bitten by a viper and you looked at the bronze snake and lived, then obviously gazing on the bronze serpent cured you.

However, if you read the Gospel closely, Jesus was reminding his followers that he wasn’t in the world to condemn anybody, but to draw everyone to a right relationship with God! Why? Because God loves us SO much! Try reading the passage from the Gospel of John without any preconceived notions about the cross, resurrection, or a ticket to heaven.

Try reading the passages with the view that Jesus not only became an archetype himself, but was demonstrating what abundant life and a right relationship with God could look like. His life is the pattern that we are to emulate; His life on earth is “lifted up” as an example for us. Rather than being transactional, it is a transformational proposition!



About the Author
  • Susan Hetrick is an RCA pastor, an artist and an author. She operates the Oasis Renewal Center, a small retreat center, in Sonoita, Arizona. When asked what she does, she says that she invites complete strangers into her home, lets them stay overnight, and listens to them. She and her husband David have 4 adult children, 3 dogs, 4 goats and 2 chickens. Susan loves Jesus and sushi, and she hates wearing shoes.

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

There are currently no comments. Why don't you kick things off?