Tending Joy for Sunday, March 10

Read: Numbers 21

Numbers 21 is the Bible at its strangest. On their way to the Promised Land, the people of Israel have wandered for some time. They have grown impatient with God, so they settle into a good long complaint: why didn’t God just let them remain in Egypt instead? To punish their ungrateful complaining, God sends poisonous serpents, and many of the Israelites are bitten and killed. When the people realize the terrible consequences, they confess to Moses. In response, God tells Moses to make a serpent out of bronze and affix it to a pole. Anyone bitten by the serpents can just look at the pole-serpent and live.

It’s easy to focus on the punishment in this story, to ask why God would send serpents to destroy the people. But remember that they’re asking to return to enslavement. They are willing to become their own enslavers and to collaborate with the same Egyptians who were killing them. God sends them a miniature plague of poisonous serpents, a punishment much like the plagues God sent the Egyptians to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites. The plagues were God’s weapon of liberation, a way to break the iron grip of Egypt’s corrupt economy. God turns the same weapon against the Israelites when they’re willing to walk back into the chains that would kill them. Before the Israelites can move forward to freedom, they must first confront the deadly truth of the past they left behind. No trouble of the present can eclipse the dread they have survived.

Throughout this week we’ll explore the joy that can come even from the things that would have destroyed us, like poisonous snakes transformed into a symbol of healing. It rides in with redemption, transforming us from those who are convicted to those who are forgiven.