Thursday, March 08, 2007

Confusion at Meribah (Numbers 20-21)

We’ve come to a dismal series of short passages, which raise more questions than answers. At Meribah, the people find themselves without water again, and complain to Moses. He and Aaron ask the Lord what to do, and he responds:
Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.
So Moses and Aaron follow orders:
And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him. Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.
If this is all that was said, I wouldn’t have thought much of it. The passage reads much like the one in Exodus – it’s apparently the same place and might as well be the same event. Except for God’s reaction:
Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.
Soon afterwards the elderly Aaron dies, and the priesthood passes to his son Eleazar. The Lord wouldn't let him live long enough to see the promised land, “because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah.” It’s tragic that Moses and Aaron don’t get to see the fruit of all their labor. Perhaps it is a needed warning for the people that even great men like them are liable to fall from grace if they aren’t careful.

But the maddening thing is that, despite all this gravity, I’m having the hardest time discerning what exactly they did wrong! Was it hitting the rock instead of speaking to it? Was it their angry tone? Was it their use of the word “we” and not “your God”? We are left to speculate.

Anyway, for whatever reason, it seems that here Moses strove with God and lost. Immediately afterwards, the people of Israel come upon the kingdom of Edom (ruled by the descendants of Esau.) They request safe passage but are denied. Edom sends out an army to block their way and force them to take another route. Esau does not lift his brother’s face.

On their way around Edom, the people grumble again. This time the Lord sends poisonous snakes after them and they scream for mercy. The Lord then tells Moses to hammer together a bronze snake and mount it on a pole. Those who’ve been bitten need only look at it and live.

Now, if I hadn’t been told ahead of time that this was God’s direct command, I would have thought this idolatry. Looking to a metal statue of a snake to miraculously heal you from snake bites? Sounds like worshipping an evil snake-goddess to try to curb her wrath. What’s the difference between a bronze snake and a gold calf?

Perhaps part of the difference lies in the snake being the symbol of their suffering. The way to escape affliction is not to look away from it, but to stare it in the face. The cursed serpent, doomed to crawl on his belly, is now lifted up for all the people to look on and have life. Here, however cloudy, we see at least a hint of hopeful things to come: a shocking and hideous form that nevertheless heals even the most stubborn rebels and brings them into the inheritance promised to the faithful.

Glad to see you! Hope your Lenten journey is going well.

I wonder if we can use this passage to help convince the iconoclasts at the Sophia House? :)

I would feel a lot better about all this if it wasn't a snake... ;-)

Hey-- snakes are warm and cuddly... kinda...
But it does suggest that the Lord can use physical symbols to express His power, and that it is possible that we can also use them without committing idolatry. And if, like you said, the Lord can use even the most lowly of symbols-- why not symbols of higher things?

As far as this argument goes, I would think the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant would be the strongest example. Here is the center of Israelite worship, and it has angelic golden figures. So the prohibition against graven images was not absolute. There was certainly a restriction against representing God with some sort of image, on the ground that he hadn't revealed his image to them.

My hesitation with the snake example is that actually the snake is the symbol of the evil one. I'm uncomfortable about the passage anyway, so would have a hard time championing it as an example of icons in worship. But that's just me - John obviously wasn't so squeamish in his gospel, where Jesus compares his own crucifixion to the snake in the desert.

Interesting blog. The passage about Meribah just came up last week in a small group study and my reading fell on this passage this morning.
I never got the sense that the Israelites were being asked to worship the snake on a stick. If anything, it reminds me of how you deal with a small child who will not obey. You speak slowly, in short sentences with lots of checkpoints. Perhaps, this is where God is with his tribe. Get bit by a snake; look at the snake. When you can obey this, we'll talk about something more complicated.
Anyway, keep it up.

I'm definitely open to reconsidering my first impulse here. One passage that may actually be helpful is the beginning of Samuel, where the Philistines make images of their tumors to send back as tribute to the God of Israel along with the ark. They obviously weren't worshiping the tumors...

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