Denial, Snake Venom, Same Thing

Photo credit: <a href="">S. Pisharam</a>

Numbers 21:4-9

From the huge mountain, they set out by the Great Marsh Road around Edom. As they traveled, the people lost patience with Moses, and began badmouthing Moses, and God too. “Why did you bring us from Egypt to the desert without food or water? Are you trying to kill us? And what’s with this awful bread?”

So God sent poisonous snakes among them. They bit the people, and many of those who were bitten died.

Then the people came to Moses saying, “We were wrong to say what we did about you and God. Please ask God to call off the snakes.”

So Moses asked God, and God instructed Moses, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and put it on a pole. When someone gets bitten, they can look at the replica and live.” So Moses made a bronze replica of the snakes and put it on a pole, so whenever people got snake-bit, they could look at the bronze snake and live.

Leave aside the theological problems of a God whose temper is like a short-fused short-order cook who wants to get even when people complain about the food. This is about a community in denial.

The people have been given freedom. They have been given the resources they need to make a new life. But freedom is hard. It’s much easier to have someone (call that person an Egyptian slave driver, if you like) telling you what to do. It’s hard to find your way where no one has been before. It’s much easier to follow a map.

It’s hard to do original work, to form genuine community. It’s much easier to nit-pick. Nit-picking is a symptom of denial. It’s a way of diverting attention from the work you need to do, by focusing on all the reasons you can’t do it.

Notice that God doesn’t call off the snakes. The consequences of the people’s behavior remains the same. People continue to get bitten. That’s how denial works. The longer you stay in it, the more it bites.

Never mind that looking at a bronze replica on a pole isn’t any kind of medical antidote to snake venom. What is illustrated is that the way through the consequences is to honestly come face to face with them. Denial does no good. It only allows the problem to fester even further until it goes from being just a setback to being fatal.

Name your community’s denial and its consequences for what it is. The sooner the better. Put it on a pole if you have to. And then keep moving toward the promise.

Vision Loss

Desert MoonExodus 17:1-7

From the Moon Desert, all the Israelites traveled in fits and starts as God led them. When they came to a place where they could spread out, they stopped there. But there was no drinking water. So the people started griping at Moses saying, “Give us drinking water.”

Moses said, “Why are you griping at me? Why are you always accusing God?”

But the insatiable people kept on griping: “Why did you bring us here from Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock by thirst?”

So Moses asked God, “Now what? These people are going to stone me.”

So God said, “Take some of their leaders and go on a little farther. And take your staff with you, the one you used to strike the Nile River. I’ll wait for you on the rock by the ruin. When you get there, strike the rock with your staff, and it’ll crack open a spring. Then the people can drink.”

So that’s what Moses did, in full view of their leaders. He called the place Griping Accusation, because it was where the Israelites griped and accused God of not being with them.

Being thirsty is one thing. Accusing someone of wanting to kill you is taking it to a whole new level. But then again, Moses hadn’t handled it very well, projecting the people’s frustration with him onto God. He gives the impression of carrying on the desert adventure a bit like Indiana Jones, “Give me a break, will ya, I’m making this up as I go along.” Traveling in fits and starts doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the leadership.

The story, in all, is a parable about what happens in communities under stress, when things aren’t going well and there is no clear direction. The people get grouchy, the leaders get defensive, leading to hyperbolic accusations flying in both directions. Bad scene.

The solution: a leaders retreat. Or rather, a leaders advance. And this is indeed what the church often does. And it seems to relieve the tension. At least something is being done about the presenting issue, and there is a short term solution. The people get something to drink. But the leaders retreat doesn’t fix the underlying problem. There is still no direction. They are all still stuck in the desert.

And the next thing they try to generate for themselves a sense of meaning, and for something to do: start a war. Exodus 17:8-15, has been conveniently left on the Common Lectionary’s cutting-room floor, but it’s an integral part of the story.

This story is, according to tradition, the moment where Moses screwed up. The incident at the “Rock of Horeb” is given as the reason he was unable to enter the Promised Land. And Horeb in Hebrew does indeed mean “ruin.” But the picture here is that there was more than striking the rock improperly that was involved in Moses’ downfall. This is the ruin where Moses’ traded his vision of freedom for a vision of establishing a new empire.

Gripe Gripe Gripe

Gathering Manna
Israelites gathering Manna, Ercole de' Roberti, 1490s, National Gallery, London

Exodus 16:2-15

Out in the desert, everybody started to gripe about Moses and Aaron, saying, “God should have killed us while we were still in Egypt. At least back there we had plenty of food. Instead, you brought us out here where we’ll all starve.”

So God told Moses, “I’ll make it rain bread, and everyone will be able to gather just enough for one day. Let’s see if this lot can even follow directions. On the sixth day, they will gather enough for two days, so they can have a break on day seven.”

So Moses and Aaron told the people, “Tonight you will remember that God brought you here from Egypt. In the morning, you’ll know that God is still here. Get off our case. All your griping is not really about us; it’s about God.

“Since God has heard your griping, God will give you meat tonight and bread tomorrow until you’re all stuffed. Get off our case. It’s God you’re really griping about.”

Then Moses had Aaron make an announcement to everyone: “Come and check this out!” God has heard your griping.” And as Aaron spoke God’s avatar appeared in the clouds. And Moses heard God say, “I’ve heard all their griping, so tell them that this evening they shall eat meat, and in the morning they shall fill up on bread, and then they’ll know I really am God.”

That evening, a flock of quail landed all over their campsite. And the next morning the camp was covered in dew. When the dew lifted, it left behind frosted flakes. People started asking, “What’s this?” Nobody knew what it was. But Moses said, “It’s the bread God has given you. Go ahead. Eat it.”

Notice that the provision of the “Bread of Heaven” comes with instructions about how much can be collected. The intention is clear that this is in answer to a legitimate need (people have got to eat) not a free-for-all dispensation of wealth. This bread cannot be stockpiled and traded. It cannot be used as a commodity.

The passing line, “Let’s see if this lot a can even follow directions,” indicates that this is a test, to prove that the complaints were never about the danger of starvation at all. They are really about the lack of gratitude that has taken root in the community. It’s their insatiable desire for more and better of everything that’s being starved in the desert, not their bodies. Jesus would later tell a story that speaks to the same issue.

Such is the case with nearly all complaints; the “issue” isn’t really the issue.