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“Good Medicine”


There’s a scene in the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where the lead is thrown into a dark pit beneath the deserts of Egypt.  By the light of his torch, he gazes on the writhing mass of things below him.  “Snakes”, he moans.  “Why does it have to be snakes?”


I asked the same question about our Hebrew Scriptures reading.  This strange tale from the adventures of the wandering tribes of Israel is not for the ophidiophobic.  The majority of us either fear snakes or are at least ambivalent about no-legged creatures.  Congratulations to those who like them as animal companions.  Most of the time, they are the villains, which makes sense from a practical and a theological viewpoint. 


From the poor snake’s perspective, it is only trying to defend itself.  To combat being stepped on or eaten, or to catch prey, some are poisonous.  That gives everyone else a reason to have a healthy respect and steer clear.  In the Middle East, there are vipers and cobras and even a venomous beaked sea snake.  People who were unwary or unfortunate ended up dead.  Their deadly capacity was also used to describe people who were cunning, cold, cruel, and powerful.  You didn’t trust someone who was a snake.  Magicians in ancient cultures who charmed snakes or used them for their demonstrations of power were especially feared.  Moses, when he battled the mages of Egypt by throwing his staff on the floor and turning it into a serpent, proved he was up to the same tricks.  But when snakes meet people in the middle of the desert, there is more trouble afoot (or on its belly).


It starts with muttering soon after the Hebrew tribes get the Ten Commandments.  They set out from the holy mountain, Mount Horeb, to journey towards the Promised Land.  But it’s all taking a lot more than they expected. There’s the lack of reliable food and water, and the fighting, and the heat by day, and the cold by night.  Egypt, where they were in captivity, is starting to look good by comparison.  In spite of renewing the covenant, they show impatience, disobedience, complaining: it quickly escalates into full-scaled revolt.  The people speak against Moses.  They also speak against God.  Their hearts have been poisoned against the Lord’s plan even before the snakes appear.  Just like Satan in the creation story used words to turn the first humans against God, now the lack of trust they voice infects the whole community: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”


The wilderness turns against them.  Poisonous serpents appear among the people, biting them.  And the people do begin to die.  Some come to the leader they had turned their backs on and beg him to intercede for God’s forgiveness.  “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.”  Moses tries to be intermediary on their behalf.  But God knows that healing can only come to an individual who is willing to repent personally.  The Lord tells Moses to craft a bronze image on a pole, the sculpture of a fiery serpent.  “Everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live”.  The command is to turn to the object believing in the Lord’s mercy.  And the fiery bite of the poisonous snakes is cured by the anti-venom of repentance and obedience.  It is a miracle.


This is not meant to be sympathetic medicine- the practice of using things from nature that physically resemble the illness.  It is good medicine: in the sense that the act of trusting God’s healing brings about reconciliation and forgiveness. It is enough to get them back into relationship with God and give them another chance to be covenant people.


But there are always snakes in our lives, mostly two-legged ones.  Words can be truthful-to draw us closer to the Divine- or they can be used in cunning and powerful ways.  When Jesus came proclaiming the good news of salvation, he had to strike back at the ways that the word of God was being twisted away from the covenant.  He met with the teachers and scribes of the Law.  Not to denounce them as snakes (well, not often) but to offer a corrective to their understanding of God’s plan of salvation.  Sin infects the world like poison.  God’s love is the only strong antidote.  We hear those familiar and beloved words from John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Did you hear what came just before that?  It occurs in the context of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees who was tasked with leading and teaching the people.  In a direct allusion to the story from Numbers, Jesus identifies himself with the bronze image of the serpent on the pole.  Many see the parallel with his own body being lifted on a cross.  Jesus is the anti-venom to sin.  He is the good medicine for our bodies, minds, and souls.


In First Nations cultures, medicine is understood to be more than pills or surgery.  The word means anything we take into our bodies, our minds, and our spirits.  Medicine encompasses our diet, our sleeping habits, our relationships, our participation in culture and community, our learning, and our prayer and worship.  What we choose can support healing ways rather than continue hurting our humanity.  But when the fiery bite of sin is in us, we need help.  For each of us comes the moment when we are called to focus on the truth that there is One who loves us, and who wants us to be whole.  If we dare to look up and to gaze upon the love-light of Jesus, we escape condemnation.  God’s mercy is our second chance. 


If we know and accept this, the crucifix takes on a new meaning.  It is not just a poignant image of a dying man, suffering for us.  The cross is the symbol of our emergency help. Everyone who looks on it and calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.  In the recently published First Nations Version of the New Testament, Jesus words to Nicodemus come even more clearly through to you and me. Jesus, as the True Human Being, invites us to remember the story about the snakes in order to see him as the sign of good medicine, lifted on high for the whole world to see:


“How can it be that a wisdomkeeper and spiritual leader of the tribes does not understand these things?  Listen closely, for you fail to hear what we are talking about.  We are speaking about things we know to be true, but if you do not believe me when I talk about things on earth, how will you believe me when I talk about the things from the spirit-world above?  For there is only one who has gone up and come down from the world above- the True Human Being.


Do you not remember when Moses lifted up a pole with a snake in the desert wilderness?  This is what will happen to the True Human Being, so people will put their trust in him and have the life of the world to come that never fades away, full of beauty and harmony.”


  • John 3:10-15, The First Nations Version