Are there times when a poison is its own cure?
Today we hear the story of Moses and the people of Israel meeting snakes in the wilderness. It is an extraordinary story, a weird story, and yet somehow a powerful story. With Moses’ help, with God’s help, Israel has escaped from slavery in Egypt. And as sometimes happens, the glow of freedom is fading. Like a young person who has moved out of their parents’ home and, after a week of saying, “I’m free – I can do whatever I want!” they are now beginning to grumble and say, “I’m lonely, and no one seems to be washing the dishes.”
They start to complain. They say to Moses:
Why have you brought us out Egypt to die in the wilderness?
There is no food and no water and we hate the food.
(That is a line that suggests to me that the comedy of scripture is underappreciated.)
It is shortly after the people pose this question that the snakes show up.
Now, somewhere along the way, when folks first started telling this tale around the campfire, it became part of the story that God sent the snakes to bite the people, that God sent the serpents to teach an ungrateful people a lesson. I don’t know if I think that God does that sort of thing, but I admit that I kind of love this element of folk-tale comeuppance. There is something satisfying about the kind of Brothers Grimm slapstick justice: here is an echo of the guy who in boastfully announces that he is invulnerable and then is promptly crushed by a falling piano.
Regardless of why it happens, the snakes are here. And the people are soon dancing around in pain and grabbing their freshly bitten ankles, more than one of them falling over dead, X’s drawn over their lifeless eyes.
They turn to Moses and say, “help us.”
And Moses, who probably could be forgiven for celebrating this development –after all, the people of Israel can be pretty obnoxious – jumps into action. He resumes his ongoing conversation with God, he prays to God. And God tells him what to do:
Make a serpent. Put it on a pole. And then have everyone look at it. They will be cured.
Moses digs out the collection of bronze and his hammer and his fire and he gets to work. He puts the serpent on the pole and, the people look at it.
And they live.
The poison is its own cure.
Now, if you have ever taken a course on classical literature and mythology, then you may be noticing right now that there are echoes in this story of the Ancient Greek god Asclepius, the god of medicine, whose symbol is a pole with a serpent wrapped around it. (The pole and the serpent remains the symbol for medicine to this day.) Somehow across the Ancient World, there is this notion that if you have been hurt by a snake, you need to encounter a snake. There is this notion that drawing near to the thing that hurt you (or at a minimum to a safe or symbolic version of the thing that hurt you), is what is going to make you well.
And maybe that sounds odd until we remember that this notion of a poison being its own cure is not confined to the Ancient World. The famous and suspicious home remedy that involves trying to cure a hangover by consuming some of “the hair of the dog that bit you” – in other words, by getting up in the morning and drinking more alcohol – is an identical strategy. Or if you prefer a more evidence-based, or at least a more sensible, perspective on reality, consider what a vaccination is: a vaccine is a sterilized version of the very disease that it protects us against. I understand that a lot of anti-allergy medications are manufactured in a similar way.
And speaking of snakes: we cure the poison from snakebites by administering an anti-venom which is made out of… snake venom. (You may have seen a nature show in which one of those somewhat misguided animal experts wearing khaki shorts “milks” a snake to get venom out of it.)
Similarly, the psychological notion of exposure therapy is about doing the thing that you fear: if you are afraid of heights, go climb a ladder; if you are afraid of looking silly, go out in public wearing a goofy outfit; if you are afraid of rejection, give people opportunities to say “no” to you. This is the very thing that your Mom or your Dad told you when you were learning to ride a bike and you had your first really good crash: get back on, start riding again. This is what is going to let you test your limits, to grow.
Two weeks ago, Corbet shared an amazing sermon with us about resiliency. And the notion that the poison is sometimes its own cure is related to what he shared with us. Corbet talked about the research that says that resilient people have a vigorous support network, are able to reframe the stories of the things that hurt them in a way that gives them meaning, and they are adaptable. It is adaptability that we are talking about today. When we encounter the poison in a symbolic or safe way it frees us up to walk through the world with greater freedom.
Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be safe. There is fascinating research that says that children who have had a significant fall – say out of a tree – are actually less afraid of heights than those who have never had such a fall. That is the opposite of what you might expect. My guess is that what the research suggests is that the opportunity to test our limits – to get hurt and say, “that was bad, but I was able to survive it” – invites us into resiliency. That’s an important and hard lesson for those of us who are charged with the care of children. We have an instinct to protect our children from as much hurt as possible. But if we get carried away, we may end up inadvertently nurturing brittle people.
There are, of course, real and significant limits to a poison being its own cure. If you have a hematoma under one of your fingernails, you aren’t going to make it better by whacking it a second time with a hammer. If you are afraid of cars, the solution is not to run back and forth across the I-5.
Could we think of building the bronze serpent as a parable? A parable about appropriately and generatively engaging with the poison that has hurt us.
Three things happen when we follow the example of Moses’ parable. First, we name our pain out loud. Second, we allow the possibility that our hurt might have something to teach us. And third, we open ourselves to the presence of God in our hurt.
I’d like to spend a little time with all three.
First, naming. As Moses creates the serpent, he says: This is the thing that hurt you. He names that out loud.
There is something powerful and insidious about unhealthy secrets. They can end up having this huge gravitational pull over our lives. There is a reason that, in the Harry Potter books, Harry and Dumbledore refuse to participate in the practice of not saying Voldermort’s name. They are unwilling to give him that kind of power.
My cousin Mike – this is a sad story with a happy ending – was a closeted gay man well into his forties. (This was not 50 years ago: this was in the early teens of the 21st Century.) My read is that Mike had a story that his Dad, my Uncle, could not handle hearing the truth about Mike’s sexuality; that his Dad would blow up or disown him, that the news would kill him. Mike had a partner he had been with for 18 years. And his partner was never mentioned in the Christmas letter, never at a family gathering.
I don’t know what happened. But Mike – maybe with his partner’s help, maybe with his community’s help – found the permission to come out late in his Dad’s life. There was recently on Facebook a photo of Mike and his partner and his Dad and their whole family. It was a glimpse of the Kingdom, of what can happen through naming.
On a justice front, something similar is happening right with now with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. This is about what happens when people have the courage to name something. A year ago, it was an accepted and immutable fact that Harvey Weinstein was untouchable. And then some courageous women named his behaviour. And that changed reality.
It’s a big deal to name hurt out loud.
Naming leads us into learning. Vaccination, which we talked about earlier, is about allowing your immune system to learn from an illness, to become resilient. Our hurts, if we allow them, give us a similar opportunity.
I want to be careful here. Because I don’t want to get into a facile theology in which everything happens for a reason and God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. Those are problematic statements; they are often more about consoling the person speaking than consoling the person who is in pain.
What I am trying to get at belongs more to the realm of paradox. I think about certain griefs, certain hurts in my own life. This is stuff that I didn’t want to happen, stuff that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Somehow if I know anything about compassion it is because these things happened. Somehow if I know anything about justice it is because these things happened.
I have, as I’ve told you before, lost track of how many people have said to me: the time after the car accident was a spiritual awakening for me; the time after I got sick was a spiritual awakening for me; the time during my divorce was a spiritual awakening for me. Even though I didn’t want this thing to happen, it allowed me to understand something about myself, about my neighbour, about God.
I we allow them, our hurts will be our teachers.
Last, as the people look at the serpent on the stick, they are invited to see God in their hurt, to recognise that God is present in their woundedness. I don’t mean that God is responsible for their woundedness, that God sent the snakes (although that is a way of reading this story). Rather, I mean that they are invited to see that God shares in the pain.
My guess is that this is why John draws on the imagine of the snake on the pole when talking about Jesus on the cross. The message of the cross is that God endures and accepts the worst kind of violence and humiliation. And because of that, we are able to say that God shares with us in our suffering. There is no pain or lostness so great that we cannot say to God: You know what this is like.
If indeed we can read the story of the snake on the pole as a parable about naming, learning, and seeing God in hurt, then the question for you and me is:
What are the serpents that have bitten you and me?
We all come here wounded. We all come here wounded by trauma, grief, by an experience of unfairness – the list goes on. What would happen if we were to name these things, to learn from them, to see God in them?
We might be able to look at the serpent on the pole, to look at Jesus on the cross, and live.