By Jim Perkinson, a sermon on John 3: 14-21 and Numbers 21:4-9 (March 11, 2018, St. Peter’s Episcopal, Detroit, MI)
The sermon begins today with this year’s early advent of the parade for St. Patrick. The sea of green we already witnessing this morning provides interesting backdrop for the lectionary readings. In mainstream Christian invocation, Patrick is remembered for clearing the snakes from Ireland and often depicted as such, with crozier in hand and coiled serpents at his feet. Patrick mastered the slithering ones. But for our purposes here, it is important likewise to lift up Afro-diaspora creativity with the Gaelic saint and his serpents. In colonized Haiti, the displaced slaves amalgamated their traditional Yoruban-Dahomean-Congolese spiritual practices with the Roman Catholic orthodoxy into which they were forced. For them, the depiction of the snake-mastering Patrick “spoke” of Damballah, the Creator-Serpent-Spirit (or Loa, in their terminology) whose surreptitious presence they saw “mounting” Patrick in possession and using his snake proclivity to express something quite different. Far from banning the Serpent Power, for the creolized community of the French colony, Patrick became the host body for this African indigenous spirit-guide. The Snake mastered Patrick. And something like that intuition will help us open the Hebrew text to its indigenous root this morning.
But we begin with the Greek gospel. There Nicodemus is told: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it will be with the Son of Man” (Jh 3:14). And, if we are paying attention, we are shocked. Jesus—styling himself as serpent!? Later in the story, he will indeed be demonized as “Samaritan” and “possessed” (Jh 8:48-49), and in the Synoptics, charged with casting out devils by the Prince of Devils, Beelzebul (whose chief spy is the Assyrian deity, Nergal, underworld ruler associated with the fiery heat of noontime in the desert outback, god of plague and war—and relevant to our discussion later on). But that is by his enemies.
The John text goes on to talk immediately about those who like to “remain in the dark”—which is actually not snakes. Snakes like to sun-bathe. And Jesus himself at one point will admonish: “I send you out like sheep among wolves; be therefore wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16).
On the other hand, in Genesis, we have the familiar story of the snake coiled around the tree (like a serpent around Moses’ pole?), whispering deception to Eve. And in the gospels, John the Baptist will vituperate against those agents sent out by Jerusalem elites to gather intelligence on his movement, as a “brood of vipers!” (Mt 3:7).
So I suppose the question for the day is this: will the real poisonous ones please stand up!
We need to get over our prejudice against snakes. They are like any other creature including ourselves. They can be a sign of evil or an emblem of wisdom; dangerous or magnificent; kill or heal. Snake venom is deadly, yet we “milk” venomous serpents for medicine—to prevent blood from clotting, treat pain, deal with diabetes, target cancer.
And here in today’s reading Jesus is likened to a bronze serpent, lifted up on a pole by Moses to heal a terrified people suffering bites in the desert as they flee enslavement and struggle to find a new way to live. And all they need to do to recover is . . . see! Perhaps like the watchword of the Navi people in James Cameron’s Avatar, who ritually affirm—whenever taking the life of an animal to eat or embracing an outlaw renegade back into the tribe—“I see you.”
The entirety of our spiritual identity and personal integrity can be won or lost in the act of looking. It is no mistake that Jesus, counseling his followers about the apocalypse to come when wars will be continuous and betrayal ubiquitous and terror never ending and mountains quaking and stars erupting (and we might add, glaciers melting, seas acidifying, hurricanes boiling, floods sweeping, blizzards obliterating and life going extinct): Watch! What I say to you I say to all: Watch! (Mk 13:33, 35, 37).
Among many older cultures snakes were associated with wisdom because they don’t blink. They don’t avert their eyes. They look straight at whatever is coming down!
And so in part today, the text hints at what might be called the transformative economy of the gaze. The potency of a glance—spiritually, psychically, socially! Certainly the church has long known of this—elevating the primacy of contemplation as the highest form of spiritual aspiration, engaged in by mystics and angels. But the conceit plays out culturally and socially as well. African American scholar bell hooks talks of growing up in the Deep South, when black folk could get killed merely for looking in the eye of white folk, so terrified were whites of blacks who might decide not to stay in their place as supposedly “inferior.” Jamaican resistance movements historically revere the power of the Rasta Man or woman, dread-locked with a hair-mane like the Lion-King of Ethiopia, staring Dread at Babylon, when there is no other means of resistance available—stone-faced, with eyes full of fire and ice, rock-hard in refusal to be cowed or contained by oppression.
Canadian physician and scholar of ADD, Gabor Maté says, “Everyone has the experience of suddenly feeling intense physiological and psychological shifts internally at trading glances with another person; such shifts can be exquisitely pleasurable or unpleasant. How one person gazes at another can alter the other’s electrical brain patterns, as registered by EEGs, and may also cause physiological changes in the body” (Maté, 1999, 71). And indeed, the merely “represented” gaze can be received with similar effect.
But it cuts other ways as well. In his most famous early publication The Souls of Black Folk, first ever African American Harvard PhD, W. E. B. Du Bois describes how as a grade school kid in Massachusetts, he and his classmates decided to exchange greeting cards one holiday, and the exchange went along quite “merrily,” until one girl, a tall newcomer, refused his proffered card “peremptorily, with a glance” (Du Bois, 17). And suddenly, his entire world was exploded in two by a vast veil, shattered like some strange mythical cataclysm for which he had no language at such a tender age—but for which he would spend the rest of life trying to find adequate articulation and mobilize effective repudiation. The whole history and consequence of white supremacy had appeared like a terrible epiphany in the eye of a little girl with nary a word spoken!
Native teacher Martín Prechtel recounts the constant concern of the Pueblo Indian communities he grew up among to protect their children from the “evil eye” of white people visiting the seasonal dances, for fear the latter would hungrily (even if unwittingly) “eat” the substance of their young ones, through a gaze of fascination and envy alone. The eye is indeed “the lamp of the body” (Mt 6:22), wherein we are either whole or full of disease.
But here we are concerned not merely with human looking.
Eco-philosopher David Abram speaks of his first field placement experience in Nepal, when one day he was sitting out on a boulder on a steep mountainside in the Khumba region, basking in a “ringing blue Himalayan day,” absent-mindedly rolling a silver coin across his knuckles as he was sometimes wont to do, when he suddenly noticed, drifting languidly out over the deep valley, a pair of condors riding the updrafts. As Abram fondled his coin, one of the two suddenly arced his way, to his delight. He stopped the coin roll, and the lammergeier halted its flight briefly then swerved back to its partner. Realizing that the giant raptor had been attracted by the sun glint off of his coin roll, Abram again began the sleight of hand exercise, and the condor banked and headed back toward him. As the creature finally drew near, it loomed larger and larger, until, suddenly, it was there—an immense silhouette hovering just above my head, huge wing feathers rustling ever so slightly as they mastered the breeze. My fingers were frozen, unable to move; the coin dropped out of my hand. And then I felt myself stripped naked by an alien gaze infinitely more lucid and precise than my own. I do not know for how long I was transfixed, only that I felt the air streaming past naked knees and heard the wind whispering in my feathers long after the Visitor had departed (Abram 24).
In the text today, however, we are concerned not with a living eye, but an artifact. Moses did not fashion an icon, but a replica of a reptile. And so we need to walk through this story, slowly, attentively recognizing we are face-to-face with an ancient tale, and with ancestral practice we do not fully grasp.
The event is precipitated by a peculiar expression in the text. The band of ex-slaves, recently escaped from Egypt, has been wandering for some time now, under Moses’ leadership, through an environment foreign and stark. They have just lost both Miriam and Aaron, buried their remains on mountainsides, and mourned at length. They are struggling to find water and eating manna—which the Hebrew humorously underscores as “what-is-it-fare”—seemingly miraculously provided. What it is in all likelihood, however, is aphid defecation—the expurgation of tiny scale insects (typically “herded” symbiotically by ants), who eat Tamarisk leaves and excrete 130 % of their body weight every hour—which puddles at the base of the trees where Bedouin today collect the resinous carbohydrate and call it, in Arabic, “man,” a likely cognate of the Hebrew “manna.” Elsewhere referred to as “honeydew,” it is a staple of the desert, and can be readily baked up into honey cake loaves. All of which is to say, the feral Hebrew horde is indeed experiencing a “miracle”; they are de-skilled, settled folk now learning a new wild skill of living off the land, in order that they might not be driven by necessity to return to their captivity. And the Hebrew text then reads that they complained against Moses bitterly for their circumstance, and says (literally) “the-spirit-of-us, she-detests the-bread”—which is to say, the manna, so graciously provided by the ecology there! Strong language!
And we might thus paraphrase: the problem that occasions this strange event is that the people are still infested with the Spirit of the Imperial Taste-Bud and Food-Production. (They had in fact been enslaved to make bricks to build storage cities for Pharaoh’s “Food as Weapon” policy). Now they are being “schooled” in an entirely different economy of food provision and they hate it! They want fast food—Mackie-Ds and fries—with their liberation! Rather than being re-calibrated in their tastes by the wildlands eco-system and its amazing “gifting”!
So they are attacked by serpents, as the text goes on. But not just any serpents! These are saraph-serpents (ha-nachashim ha-seraphim in the Hebrew), snakes that are seraphim—the same as the fiery red, six-winged, angel-creatures Isaiah will later “see” in the Temple (is 6:1-7) who attend the Lord on his throne, covering feet and face and flying—one of whom will in subsequent theological tradition be identified as “Lucifer” and fallen.
These are snakes who are angels who can also be demons who can also be wild creatures—depending on who is doing the naming. Likely they are nine-inch long, high-leaping, blood-coagulant-attacking, sawscale vipers, native to the rocks of the Aravah Valley, where the escaped crew is camped. But these quite real and dangerous wild animals are also Spirit-Creatures—not beholden to any human naming or understanding for their survival. One theory on the emergence of the word “seraph” is that it is Babylonian in origin, associated with the Assyrian “sharrapu,” that in Canaan designated the Babylonian fire-god Nergal. The name “Seraph/Sharrapu” pointed to the flames in which Nergal—who is also god of the underworld—manifested himself.
And the very area the escaped slaves are moving through—in order, says the text, to go around the “red people” of Edom who have not granted them right of passage (Num 20:14-21)—is precisely the domain of some of the earliest copper mining and bronze production in the ancient Near East. Timna Valley, just north of the Gulf of Aqaba, hosted a copper-mining initiative controlled by Egypt until just about the time Moses and crew would have been blowing through. In the 12th century BCE, however, the imperial operation there is taken over by the pastoral nomad Midianites, some of whom may have been coerced into laboring in the mines, but who, right at this historical hour, destroy the small shrine dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Hathor, and construct on its ruins a tent-tabernacle very much like the nomad tent-shrine Moses had earlier been directed to erect as a mobile temple.
And archaeology has indeed discovered among the ancient ruins a bronze serpent—likely not the one Moses made, which may have ended up named Nehushtan and housed in the Jerusalem Temple for hundreds of years before Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Kg 18:4)—but a bronze cultic amulet in the form of a snake, nonetheless—likely an offering emblem or votive gift of the mining peoples of the area.
And here we plunge into the deep reservoir of old history, ancestral myth, and spirit-wisdom not yet ripped from its root in the wild!
Moses is here among his homies. He has fled Egypt as OG (Original Gangster), with a price on his head (for killing an Egyptian overseer), hooked up with an African clan of pastoral nomad Kenites, into whose tents he was hosted as needy outcast and adopted and thoroughly embraced by marriage. And he has been re-incubated and schooled for 40 years in the desert sands, before he is well-enough “cooked up” in this Sinai outback finally to be also adopted by a local seneh-scrub-tree, that burns and does not burn up!
Fire is core to Moses’ initiation and re-training. The Kenites, as a Midianite tribal group, are quintessentially blacksmiths, renowned for their metallurgy, during the winter months of hunkering down in the Timna Valley production site, liberated from Egyptian control.
And it gets thick, fast. The flame-god Nergal of the Canaanites, whose overlord Beelzebul, Jesus will be accused of harboring as his Spirit-Guide, is god, as already noted, of the underworld. As is Hathor of the Egyptians, whose shrine may well have been offering ritual recompense to the Underworld-Otherworld that the mines were penetrating and “eating.” Bronze snakes may indeed have been offerings to the Earth-Spirit-Powers whose own metal-ore “children” were being extracted and re-purposed for human benefit.
No surprise that nomad Moses immediately after deliverance of the slaves from Egypt, is directed by YHWH to build a mobile shrine for the Divine Shimmering “glory” of the desert realm, populating the shrine with exterior accoutrements almost entirely of bronze—“feeding” the Holy in the Ground, we might say, with an entire range of carefully crafted “beauty-gifts” (equivalent to native tobacco-offerings or the shell bead offerings of other indigenous cultures) that did nothing productive for the humans therein, except as a ritual gesture back to the elements, flashing in desert sun with bright-shining red-brown luminescence.
This was a tabernacle-house that in one sense, returned “thanks,” in its very physical structure and fashioing, for all the gifts of Earth, organic and other, that sustained the humans moving over Her back. A bronze-plated and hide-tanned and water-lavered “home” for the Wild Burning One of the Desert who had delivered them from shackles and returned them to the land!
So, yes—the escaped slaves “detest” the food of the wild, the demands of the herd, the entire shift to a liberation lifestyle dependent on reciprocity with rock and bush, wadi-flow after distant storm-crash and rain-fall, sun-scorch and copper-for-tin trade, stretching from the Hejaz just to the south to Cypress and the Caucasus up the King’s Highway, north.
And they incur the wrath of the environment expressed as the bite of native serpents—also denying them right of passage like the Edomites!—who are at once mere reptiles and at the same time angel/demon spirits bridging underworld and this world with great mystery and wisdom, shedding skins regularly in incarnate ecstasy of rebirth like the possibility offered Nicodemus by Jesus just before scandalizing that renegade scribe (doing reconnaissance on the Nazareth prophet under cover of night and in secret) with the latter’s assertion that indeed he will become the snake-offering on Moses’ pole.
On what are the escaped slave nomads, led by the Midianite-related, Kenite-blacksmith-trained Moses, dependent for survival? Certainly many organic things such as water and food. But also undoubtedly—given the amount of ritual deployment they are commanded—copper, presumably secured in trade from local blacksmiths.
They are a nomad-living, aphid-defecation-eating, copper-trading people, being re-shaped by a new environment that is at once natural, wild, and spiritual—simultaneously angelically-nurturing and demonically-threatening and yet also demanding this-worldly species-respect and recognition in return. But it is not only the snakes that are gift-agents of the place. The metal “Herself”—granting tools and trade and life—asks honor and “feeding” in the form of ritual returns of bronze clasps and pillars and altar-covering and pots and pans and sea-laver, dedicated to Her own holiness (as part of YHWH’s shrine)!
And yes, a “saving” bronze serpent—whose question from the pole of Moses is simply, profoundly: do you see? The question to that ancient crew remains one to us today: do we? What wild Spirit-Creatures of skin and metal are we failing to honor, as we flee, and struggle, and fall?
Abram, David. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books.
Du Bois, W. E. B. 1961. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Fawcett Publications, Inc.
hooks, bell. 1992. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 165-178.
Maté, Gabor. 1999. Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It. New York: Penguin Group.