Staring at Statues
Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died… And 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 21:6-9 (NRSV)
God’s gift of a snakebite-curing bronze serpent is just a little bit suspect, if I may be so bold. After all, it’s God’s fault that there are all these snakes in the first place! True, the Israelites talked back to God. And, true, whenever someone looks at this bronze serpent they’re cured of snakebites. But it’s kind of like someone smashing a jar of gumballs before declaring, “I’m giving you a gift, a gift of sweeping up the floor. I eagerly anticipate a thank-you note.”
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check under my desk for blasphemy-seeking serpents.
But inside this odd text is a deep truth—deadly problems must be engaged straight on. Unless we really, truly, plainly recognize the extent of a problem we can never solve it. In the recovery community, admitting the problem is quite literally step one.
The Israelites must look straight at a bronze statue of a serpent to make their snakebite problem go away. If only we had a bronze statue of a coal-fired power plant to look at to make the climate crisis go away! If only we had a bronze statue of a slave-catcher patrol to look at to make the crisis of police killings of black people go away!
God doesn’t promise us any more supernatural statues, certainly not for problems of our own creation. But God has given us the truth. And the truth is we can solve any deadly problems facing us, but only if we look at them straight on.
God, help us to be honest as we admit and assess the problems we face.
John Edgerton is Lead Pastor at First United Church of Oak Park, Illinois.