Where the Wild Things Are: Developing a Working Wilderness Theology
Lesson #8 — Healing in the Wilderness
…the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread or water, and we detest this wretched food!” (Numbers 21:4–5, HCSB)
As Israel re-enters the wilderness to begin a forty-year exile for the purposes of extinction, preparation, and preservation, the reader is confronted — yet again — by the same entitled, faithless attitude that provoked the wilderness exile to begin with.
Two ironic realizations arise from a careful look at these two verses. First, the Israelites have apparently become impatient only a few days into a four-decade long exile. This is something any parent will find amusing. Children never think parental discipline is swift enough. In their little minds, it always takes an excruciating amount of time. God’s people are like children; insatiably impatient at the very onset of their discipline in the wilderness.
Second, the Hebrew people have achieved a sort of confirmation bias. They will, in fact, die in the wilderness after being led out of Egypt; the very complaint they’ve been lodging since their exodus began. What the people have failed to understand is why they have arrived at this certainty. Depending on the narrative moment, it is either Moses and Aaron who are to blame, and sometimes it is God. Tragically, in their collective eyes, it is never the people who are to blame for their plight. But, this specific complaint is not only that the people are set to perish in the wilderness. No, this time the issue is compounded by the wretched food God has been consistently — faithfully — providing for the people. If the reader recalls from lesson #4, the very provision of daily bread was a test in and of itself. Here we have yet another failure. The first generation of liberated Hebrews will not enjoy the land of Promise because of their lack of faith, and they now have begun to curse the very provision of God that is sustaining them in a barren wilderness.
As a result, God in essence gives the Israelites over to the natural elements of the wilderness — fiery snakes, who’s bite is lethal. One cannot forget that the actual results of prolonged wilderness living — if not sustained by the God of the Wilderness — is certain death. Even in exile, it is important to Yahweh that the Israelites understand that He is sustaining them in a manner antithetical to their setting in the wilderness. The wilderness setting looms constantly in the early chapters of Israel’s history, and we cannot ignore it.
God gives the Israelites over to the natural elements of the wilderness… It is important to Yahweh that the Israelites understand that He is sustaining them in a manner antithetical to their setting in the wilderness.
These snakes were likely a species of desert viper; an unwelcome neighbor to a marauding nation. If the reader has been paying attention to the cyclical flow of the Old Testament narrative, one can likely guess what happens next. Israel cries out to God for deliverance. And Yahweh, the consistently gracious and steadfastly loyal God of Israel, once again provides deliverance.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake image and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover.” So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered. (Numbers 21:8–9, HCSB)
And now, a crucial wilderness moment ensues. This moment in Israel’s history will come to define the ethos of the Christian faith so many of us identify with today.
Yahweh commands Moses to forge a bronze version of the very thing killing the Hebrew people. Only in this scenario merely looking upon the menacing object will provide healing in the wilderness. There is so much to unpack here:
First, we must examine the very concept of looking upon an object for healing. What is happening here? Victor P. Hamilton wrote a brilliant three-volume handbook on the Old Testament. In Volume I, Handbook on the Pentateuch, Victor Hamilton offers a fascinating understanding of what God is saying to Moses in this moment. “The New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament ‘to look’ is ‘to believe.’” ( 343) The implication is that if someone afflicted with a bite from one of these fiery snakes were to look with eyes of faith upon this bronze serpent provided by God, the faith posture of the onlooker will bring healing. One discovers that this was actually not an unusual practice at this time in history. The following is an excerpt from the IVP Bible Background Commentary on the Old Testament:
“It was common in the Ancient Near East to believe that the image of something could protect against the thing itself.” (158)
And so, if an individual in the ANE desired to avoid snake bites, for instance, they would wear serpent-shaped jewelry to ward off snake bites. In this incident, however, it seems Yahweh has intentionally inverted the process. The snakes have already come. Now what? The opportunity for healing in the wilderness is one of dual engagement. Suffice it say, healing will not come to Israel without God’s provision. Remember, Moses is given the directive by God to fashion the bronze serpent on the pole. However, it is on the individual to set a believing gaze upon this instrument of restoration. In God’s wilderness, the Israelite cannot throw on a superstitious medallion and preventatively ward off trouble. Remember, this is Israel’s doing! No, each afflicted Israelite must believe the provisions of God in the wilderness are enough. This is another form of manna.
Each afflicted Israelite must believe the provisions of God in the wilderness are enough. This is another form of manna.
We cannot miss the irony of the fact that God calls upon Moses to fashion the very image of the agent of menace as the means to healing in the wilderness. It is almost as if this symbol of a serpent is supposed to be conjuring up inferences for the Israelites to make. This act of faith ought to be provoking the Israelites to remember their history and to remember their individual sin. It was indeed a serpent who was present for the emergence of original sin into the world. It was also serpents who had, in the immediate setting, brought death into the camp of Israel. And yet, that same image is now the conduit for restoration? The mechanism for healing in the wilderness flows out of personally confronting how one arrived in such a bleak place to begin with! It is almost as if Yahweh insists that people understand what leads to this lowly state, and that in this wilderness they sense God is still present and enthusiastically willing/able to deliver for them. The fact that they will be healed in a manner resembling their falling way is indicative of this. The presence of serpents is preceded by Israel’s failure to trust God in the wilderness. Thus, their restoration comes through a believing posture toward a forged serpent provided by Yahweh. If the Israelites are to be healed, they must meditate on what the root cause of this affliction was.
Victor Hamilton, once again, offers a compelling insight:
“In this particular incident perhaps the wrong prayer has been prayed. Instead of asking, ‘take away the serpents from us,’ the people should have prayed, or at least gone on to pray, ‘take away from us the attitudes that do not glorify and honor your name.’ Respite, not reformation is their concern.” (343)
The astute Bible reader has likely already made the connection this passage will go on to make later in the biblical narrative.
If not, stick around, as this study will continue to unfold with the rest of the Biblical presentation into a crescendo revolving around this very posture of the heart seen through Israel in the Wilderness. This will not be the last time the people of God are invited to look upon something that is representing their sin for the purpose of healing and restoration.
This was merely an episodic moment of healing for Israel in the wilderness. There will come a time when a cosmic invitation for healing will come through a similar God-ordained action.