Editor’s note: It is my extreme pleasure to present my good friend and scholar of ancient myth, Drake Wesley Dunaway, as this week’s contributor to the Oasis. No one I know is more articulate at discussing biblical symbolism and it’s cultural, religious, and anthropological significance. Enjoy…
“The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” (Num.21:6-8)
The Bronze Serpent in Parsha Chukat is perhaps one of the most bewildering episodes in all of Torah.
The sober truth is that neither Christianity nor modern Judaism really appear to understand serpent symbolism like the authors of the Bible did. Most people (scholars included) cannot overcome their odium for the animal itself and thereby disqualify themselves from deciphering its symbolism objectively. But, there is an exception.
In his monumental work, “The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized” (2010, Sheridan Books), James H. Charlesworth isolates the serpent as perhaps the most complex and vivid archetype in human history; predating crosses, menorahs, and swastikas by millennia.
Has the serpent stood for evil? Of course it has, right along with homeopathy, magic, medicine, ambiguity, prophecy, mystery, cunning, divinity, wisdom, benevolence, balance, clairvoyance, light, beauty, purity, vitality, cyclicality, unity, eternity and as the avatar of the gods. This list could go on.
Surprisingly, ancient seraphim were actually serpents, near to the Throne of God, as the Enochic texts play witness. In Moses’s legendary standoff with Pharaoh, serpents symbolize the tyrant as well as the liberator. In the desert (our current text), the serpent symbolizes the kill and the cure. In the book of Revelation, a dragon terrorizes the world. But in the Psalms and the book of Isaiah, a dragon heals the world with its sweet flesh and lovely hide in the chaoskampf (German for “struggle against chaos”); a veritable pinata.
In Isaiah, the burning serpent rises as a defiant symbol of the Messianic line itself:
“For from the serpent’s root a viper will come out, and its fruit will be a flying serpent.” (Is.14:29)
Yet, paradoxically, in John 3, we see a different application:
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” (Jn.3:14)
In this passage in John, Yeshua quizzically likens himself to the Nahushtan, a whipping post of sin, idolatry, cure, divinity, death and homeopathy. This has deeply unsettled many Christian commentators ignorant of the ophidian mystique. And so, the commentariat takes an intellectual nosedive as scholars contort themselves into knots in their attempts to smooth over the passage, often honing in on the idea of “lifting up”; drawing attention away from the fact that Yeshua here is comparing himself to the most damnable wraith of the Christian imagination.
In their spoon-fed gainsay, the act of hoisting the proverbial colors diverts from the flag itself and leaves wide daylight between explaining things and explaining things away.
Weak-tea assumptions built upon “I think snakes are gross” are saccharide at best and don’t deserve space in your cranial wetware. If you have learned under such assumptions, congrats chum: you overpaid.
Truth be told, a grinding tension exists in the Bible that goes well-unnoticed. Pure, uncut monotheism doesn’t really allow for sacred objects, angelic participants with God (why does a sufficient God need angels?), nor charms to work a spell (who needs a staff to part seas when you have faith?). Raw, unfiltered monotheism leaves no room for gradient and murders all nuance straightway. It’s like a sheer wall with no handholds.
In fact, without tzimtzum (A Jewish mystical concept of “self-contraction”), monotheism actually would leave no room for us. Play it to its logical conclusion and the game gets really tight, really fast. While I certainly believe that the LORD is echad, grasping the white-hot essence of true oneness is perhaps impossible, and not casting mold we build for it truly contains it without bursting.
Let me regale you with a story.
I used to sit next to the fireplace in my English Tudor home in Dayton, OH and watch Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans. The film itself was actually a jaunty, crowd-pleasing knock-off of Ovid’s classic tale, but none of that mattered to me. In the movie, a young chiseled Perseus heads off to slay Medusa. And what is Medusa, anyway?
She is a serpent. She is a strange thing that kills.
The serpent contains death, but also solutions. And by dint of her sinister curse, she commands all sight around her. In her domain, any fool laboring to see things in a simple, plain way – dies. So, how does clever Perseus defeat her? He peers into his burnished bronze hoplon as a tactical mirror, fights backwards, and slashes off her head. Now, that which once was a source of death and paralysis becomes a ready solution for the hero.
If you are subtle, you can spot a familiar formula here. We have a serpent. The serpent brings death. The actant replicates the bronze serpent of our text. Salvation arrives (for Perseus) by looking at the bronze-copied serpent and then doing things backwards. A cancellation of the curse follows, chased by a great boon.
Am I suggesting that one story influenced the other? No. What I am suggesting is that Perseus and Parsha Chukat share a similar magical formula which is universal to counterintuition.
“If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: First, that like produces like, or, that an effect resembles a cause; and second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires by merely imitating it: From the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not. Charms based on the Law of Similarity may be called Homeopathic or Imitative Magic.” – James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, (Oxford University Press, 1994)
As tavern lore goes, the only way to knock back your hangover is by quaffing a nip of your previous night’s ruin. Is this sound medical advice? Probably not. But the point is this: A stag party with Medusa means you switch gears into reverse and pull off a Perseus.
The yarn guiding you through the labyrinth of atonement is woven from the hair of the dog that bit you.
Ancients priests and shamans flung magic at some of life’s hardest challenges. Crib death. Infertility. Unrequited justice. Mortality. Uncertainty. One such challenge is that of making amends to your deity.
More bewildering than any of these is the idea of atonement in monotheism, wherein an absolute God sees all and there’s nary a gift you can offer him that he wants, needs, or that isn’t already his. Is atonement just a crafty shell-game wherein we fool God? is the goat-slayer like the streetcorner grifter? Do we present ourselves, as it were, as a group of Solo cups, slip the marble under one, and challenge God to “find the guilt” as we shuffle it around in a light-fingered blur?
We find ourselves back at the sheer wall with no handholds and no way to grasp the scalding unity that splits every mold. Here, amid our frustration, is where God concedes, granting us our nostrums and magicks as a canvas for heuristics of atonement.
The context of the episode of the Bronze Serpent is on the heels of a querulous Israel debarred from entering the Promised Land, having watched their popular arriviste Korah deep-sixed through the earth’s lithic maw, caviling against their bounteous liberators, and receiving swift punishment from HaShem in whiplash speed.
The mode of punishment? Deadly serpents.
I believe the Bronze Serpent is one of many sketches of repentance and atonement – whatever atonement is.
All homeopathy stands on a notional leverage over reality based on imitation and the inkling that like cancels like.
And so, perhaps the Nahushtan hints to us that we should think of atonement homeopathically, and that elements of the problem also float as free radicals in the solution. In my mind, I string together freewheeling equations of penitence. Perhaps the solution to sin comes with full acknowledgment of the problem, and, peradventure, the solution moves along the same continuum as the sin – only in reverse.
Think about it: One cannot simply stamp out the object of sin and pretend as though it never happened. Sin’s memory must remain, a lodestar to anchor you with something to push off from, making sin-as-memory an unlikely savior. Amid the plague of fiery serpents, the kneejerk intuitions of folk medicine inflect a form of moral symmetry upon repentance, and a subliminal lesson begins to emerge from a superstitious backdrop.
The snake is such a pregnant topic. There’s no symbol quite like it. I could (in fact, have) deliver a three hour lecture on anguine symbolism in the Bible, as there is so much which can be said. But in the interest of brevity I will stay focused now upon the Master and his colloquy with Nicodemus in John 3.
First, some backdrop.
Why are serpents considered homeopathic? Well, it turns out that the ancients were well aware of the principle of venom resistance through direct exposure. A gradual exposure to venom could harden against a subsequent and acute poisoning. For instance, Chandragupta of India kept a harem of women designated as vishakanyas. From early childhood, rulers would ween these girls on small doses of poison, ramping up the potency as the years wore along. When the maidens became nubile, with their bodies rife with poison, kings sent them as gifts to political enemies. This practice is formally called Mithradatism.
Similarly, in the hard school of experience (according to Lucan and Cassius Dio), the Roman legions learned that the Berbers of North Africa possessed something of a geographic immunity to deadly snakes. The Romans had such confidence in this notion that they employed Berbers to follow the legions and treat snake bites.
In fact, when Cleopatra committed suicide with a cobra, the Romans were said to have summoned Berbers to try and save her.
Eventually venom, the stock-of-trade of itinerant physicians, became a hot commodity and the Berbers set up shop in Rome hawking snake venom for Romans to dose on in order to build an immunity. How much this actually worked was anyone’s guess.
I personally put little stock in homeopathy as credible medicine, since it resembles witchcraft more than anything clinical. But, imagine the Messiah comparing himself to a venomous cure, and how this would be received by his audience. A paraphrase may sound something like this:
“Did not Isaiah say that the fiery and flying serpent would come? For indeed I shall come in my glory, striking this way and that, and all men shall fall to my venom, which is my word and my judgment. Yet I say unto you, if you dose my venom each day, as do the Berbers in their markets, and you die each day of your lives with it, then on the final day (of Judgment) my venom shall not harm you but raise you to life.”
This is reminiscent of a passage in Talmud:
“Alexander asked, “What must a person do in order to live?” They responded, “He must kill himself”. He further asked, “What must a person do in order to die?” They responded, “He must preserve his life”. (Talmud Tamid 32a)
We often think of the Torah as a code of do’s and don’ts (which it is, also) and yet it remains rife with exceptions to the very rules it lays forth. And so, midrash and narrative populate the empty spaces that the text reveals. God is the daylight, we are the sundail’s gnomon, and the dim wedge we cast is the dream itself. For as long as Man exists, he will see the world as more than what it is.
The home-spun give-and-take of folklore is neither in heaven or over the sea, but plain to us all and right as rain. It isn’t studied – it is lived. Such quiet ways seem arcane to the uninitiated, but their nature is vanishingly simple, proliferated in limericks, fables, and crotchets – free of ponderous theologies to explain the feeling. Like spilt salt over your shoulder. Momma’s cookies. A sneeze means you’re in someone’s thoughts. The serpent knows.
Lore is easy and guessable, pliable to the rhythm of life. It splices keenly with didactics, morals and lofty ideals, weaving our intuitions into the warp and weft of history’s loom.
If you want to learn of the riddle of the Nahushtan, look there.
In the meantime; a thought: May the Son of Man be raised in our life and in our days.
(Above: Drake Wesley Dunaway)
Author’s note: I would like to begin with humble acknowledgments to my friend David LeBlanc for granting me the honor of blogging for Oasis Fellowship this week. His engaging teachings, prying at verboten themes, and dedication to youth is an indispensable asset to our community at Tikvat David. Thank you, David. – The Drake