Emily C. Heath
The Lord said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. - Numbers 21:4-9
Like many Americans, my ancestors came from more than one place. But the place where most of them came from was Ireland, home of St. Patrick.
The story I heard growing up was that Patrick had driven all the snakes out of Ireland. I grew up in Florida, a land where wildlife specialists come to your elementary school and tell you about all the venomous snakes living around you and how quickly they could kill you. I began to think the serpent-free Emerald Island must not have been such a bad place
I like St Patrick. I do not like snakes. And, as lectionary coincidences tell us today, neither did the Israelites when they were lost in the wilderness. Surrounded by poisonous serpents, they cried out to Moses to do something. And God tells Moses to do something that probably seemed pretty odd: take a snake, put it on a pole, and hold it up for all to see. Anyone who is bitten will look at it, and live.
One thing I'm routinely struck by in Scripture is that God transforms the perils of life that surround us into something better. Who would have ever thought that the cure for a snakebite would be the sight of the snake itself? And yet, God turns the very thing that threatens life into a symbol of new life.
As an adult I've learned there probably were never any snakes in Ireland for Patrick to drive out. But I like the symbolism of the story even still. With God we are able to drive away the things that scare us the most, and transform even the sight of them into hope.
Next time you go to a hospital, look around. Somewhere you will see a symbol you've seen many times before. Take a look at it again, and you will see this story: snakes, wrapped around a staff. All this time we have been surrounded by it without ever noticing. The snakes may get all the attention, but evidence of hope is still there, hiding in plain sight.
Holy God, thank you for so long ago getting those snakes off of that plain. And thank you for surrounding us with reminders of your hope, even in the most dangerous of times. Amen.
Emily C. Heath is the pastor of West Dover Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in West Dover, Vermont. She also serves as the chaplain of a local fire department, and as a speaker and writer on Christian faith and social justice.