Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Price of Whine

 Feast of the Holy Cross (evening)

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.  -- Numbers 21:4-9

During the Exodus from Egypt it seems that a number of times the Israelites weren’t totally happy in the situation which they found themselves. They seem to like to complain, gripe, bellyache, kvetch,  whatever word you want to use for it, because things weren’t the same as they were in Egypt. Granted, in Egypt they were slaves and here they were more or less free, but by the same token in Egypt they had beer, onions, vegetables, melons, fish and occasionally, meat. It wasn’t easy to get those things in any quantity while trekking around a relative desert for 40 years, even on the major trade routes of the Middle East, so they griped, and kvetched, and whined again and again.

The lesson this morning shows that they were still at it. The manna from God, the miraculous food that fed everyone every day, had this little quirk about it in that it was totally utilized by the 248 parts of the body (according to the teachings of the Rabbis*) with nothing left over. It wasn't like regular food; it went in the body the same way as normal everyday food but it didn’t come out,  so it must stay in the body and rot which wasn’t good for the body or the person. This manna, though, didn’t work like that; God provided this miraculous food and they were worried about elimination.  In addition, the manna was boring. When you want a steak, fluffy scale-like stuff with the consistency of instant mashed potato straight from the box just doesn’t do it. So the Israelites griped and God got tired of it - again.

The punishment that God sent to the Israelites for their griping and complaining and bellyaching was for them to find themselves in a bed of poisonous vipers whose injection and venom felt like a fiery spark that kept burning. Snakes are usually individuals once they leave the egg, but some areas can be infested with a lot of individuals. It seemed that the Israelites picked the wrong place to kvetch this time. God was not only the punisher but was also the source of healing. God instructed Moses to make a “seraph”** and put it high on a pole in the middle of the camp where everybody could see it. Moses, whose people were Kenites (the word Kenite means a smith or metalworker) created a figure out of copper or perhaps bronze. It seems both Aaron and Moses were adept metalworkers.

This seems rather strange. Aaron had made the golden calf and got in trouble for it. Now here was God telling Moses to make a copper or bronze “seraph” and put it on a stick so that people could gaze at it and be cured of their poisonous snake bites. Didn’t God just say something back in Exodus about graven images? So why was God telling Moses to make what amounted to a graven image that was more like a magical charm than anything else? I know God has God’s own reasons, so far be it for me to question them, but it just seems strange, especially considering that the Israelites kept that artifact and put it in or with the Ark of the Covenant for centuries. It remained with the Ark in the Temple until about 700 BC when King Hezekiah destroyed it because the people were offering incense to it like an idol. Other civilizations with whom the Israelites had contact had cults where snakes were venerated and even were symbols of healing, so is that why Moses made the “seraph” in the form of a serpent? The sun glancing off the copper shape could very well resemble a burning and undulating snake that is slithering upwards or perhaps a dancing flame from a fire. It could also resemble a pointer going directly upward to the true source of healing, God. Perhaps the thought of that was why they had to gaze at it rather than just merely glancing before the cure was effected. The rabbis in the Midrash seems to take that view. Those rabbis were very wise men.

The whole point of the story is that there are always consequences, often rather unpleasant ones, and that God is both judgmental and compassionate. I think if I had to point one passage that I most closely identified God with human parents, I think this might be the one. Children need discipline and parents are the disciplinarians. By the same token, once punishment has been meted out, that very same parent will most likely wipe the child’s tears, take it by the hand and go get some ice cream or a favorite book to share. That’s sort of what God did with the Israelites; they acted like unruly children, God the parent punished them and then gave them a sign of healing. If that isn’t a parental act, I don’t know what else to call it.

What I need to take from this lesson is the reminder that kvetching doesn’t usually help and can make things immeasurably worse at times. That’s not to say the occasional complaint should never be voiced. Sometimes that complaint gets things done that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. Still, nobody likes a whiner, and apparently that goes for God as well.  I also need the reminder to look to God for what I need (but actually do something about it and not just sit and look pious and expect God to do all the work). I have to remember to really look at things, not just give a superficial flick of the eyes to it because I might miss something important.  I need to watch for things that point me to God, whether a snake on a stake, a flame on a flagstaff or even something as simple as a falling leaf, a twinkling star or a smiling infant.

The question isn’t when to start looking but how soon I can do it. There might be a snake sitting there somewhere close by with my name on its dance card.

* See Rashi's commentary on the passage. See also The Talmud - Yoma 75b  pages 225-7.

** Seraph can mean  “flame” or “fire” but is often translated as “serpent” although the term seraphim generally applies to anthropomorphized six-winged figures who stand closest to the throne of God, like the seraph who applied the coal of fire to the lips of Isaiah.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 14, 2013.


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