Inching its way towards Jerusalem, the Christian community now finds itself just over halfway through the Lenten Journey. It is fitting that the Old Testament lesson for this 4th Sunday in Lent is found in the book whose Hebrew name, behidbar, literally means “in the wilderness.” Obviously chosen to complement the gospel lesson, the Old Testament lesson’s theological themes speak for themselves and offer some insightful material regarding what it means to be the community of God journeying—sometimes seemingly aimlessly and with great turmoil—through life’s wildernesses.
As a book, Numbers chronicles the journey from Sinai to the doorstep of the Promised Land on the plains of Moab, and theologically it “centers on the problems and possibilities of shaping a community identity in tune with God’s intentions for the creation.” Numbers shows us the highs and lows often experienced by the community that wrestles with God, at once gathering, ordering, preparing itself to receive the anticipated promises of God and at another time bemoaning God’s gifts and craving life back in Egypt, which they appallingly refer to as a land “flowing with milk and honey” (16:13).
Numbers 10:11-25:18, the section of the book in which this week’s lesson is found, offers many wilderness narratives, including stories regarding the people’s rebellions, distrust, impatience, and disordered desire. It seems that liberation from Egypt was the easy part; shaping the people for life in the land requires the difficult process of getting Egypt out of the Israelites. As Terence Fretheim puts it, the wilderness journey is a “necessary buffer between liberation and land” in which God shapes the community toward life in God’s economy; it is a transformation that requires both unlearning the ways of Egypt and learning (then relearning and relearning again) the ways of God.
In this week’s passage, Numbers 21:4-9, one finds the last “complaint” story in the wilderness narratives. The Israelites set out toward the Red Sea, going around Edom, but become “impatient” on the way. Their complaints in the passage are all too familiar: Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” (21:5). But this time their complaints are directed toward both Moses and God. The Lord responds not with water out of a rock or quails from above but sends “poisonous” (or “fiery”) serpents among the people that kill many of the Israelites. They then come to Moses and confess “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us” (21:7). In response to Moses’ prayer, the Lord tells Moses to “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live” (21:8). Moses makes a bronze serpent (in Hebrew nehash nehoshet), sets it on a pole, and whenever a person is bit by a serpent they would find healing and live if they looked at the serpent of bronze.
Among the various theological themes on which to focus one’s preaching this week, I would offer three for reflection here: the community in the wilderness, the paradox of God’s judgment and provision, and the posture of repentance.
The Community In The Wilderness
As mentioned above, liturgically we are occupying a wilderness kind of space. Lent brings us through forty days of sitting into our mortality, acknowledging our perennial shortcomings, confessing our sin, facing our recurring temptations, and embracing the manifold ways our faith journey is one of danger, peril, and failure, all while we stumble forward after the loving one who is on his way to die. And, further, communities of faith and individuals alike often find themselves wandering through life’s wildernesses, wondering impatiently if we will ever get to the place of promise and peace. Here we are in the wilderness, and again we find ourselves griping.
One might spend some time reflecting on Israel’s shortcomings in the passage, particularly the ways in which they regress into seeing the miraculous as “miserable,” losing their palate for God’s gifts and craving the perceived delicacies of bondage. Thematically, one might explore Israel’s greed versus sufficiency, or possibly Israel’s impatience versus the patience required for the journey of faith that does not always provide a detailed itinerary but calls us to, at times, wander forward, trusting that God’s presence and provision is pulling us toward the promise.
The Paradox of God's Judgment and Provision
For many, myself included, passages like this week’s Old Testament lesson present the difficult task of struggling with the ways in which God’s judgment was experienced and understood by our Hebrew ancestors. Passages that portray a God who sends poisonous snakes to kill God’s own people because they complained are difficult to digest. But here we are. And, we wrestle with this God and the ways that God has been understood by our ancestors. Nonetheless, God does want God’s people to live into a particular way of being in this world, and God’s judgment on the people’s shortcomings is another reminder of the life to which we’ve been called.
This week’s passage, however, beautifully juxtaposes the paradoxical way in which embedded within what appears to be solely judgment is God’s provision for healing. The Israelites, bitten with remorse, turn and ask Moses to pray to God to take away the serpents. But God responds not by taking away the serpents but by providing a means of healing and new life. God’s response provides healing from the bite and simultaneously provides a deeper healing by given them a means that requires their own turning to God in trust. One might find in this paradox a connection to the gospel lesson, particularly as Jesus’ presence is judgment for the ones who walk away and salvation for the ones who turn their lives to God’s healing presence.
The Pattern of Repentance
This passage also reminds us of the posture of repentance that is itself a gift, teaching us how to be completely open to receive the fullness of God’s healing. The bronze snake’s presence in the community did not automatically equate to the bitten Israelites’ healing, but each Israelite had to look at it to find the healing that would give them new life. God could have taken the serpents away; God could have provided a means for healing that did not require participation from the Israelite who had been bitten. But God invited the people into the healing process, giving them a means of healing that required their participation.
Similarly the gospel lesson points to the posture of repentance. One must be reminded, however, that the beauty of this posture as it was heard by the original communities, is that God’s healing is being opened up to include more and more people, as opposed to the tendency to want to exclude because of the required posture of repentance. The doors are being flung wide open for all to find healing by turning towards God’s provision. We’re reminded of the posture of repentance in our lessons today and how this turning again and again toward God’s provision becomes a life-giving pattern for the community of faith.
 Coogan, Michael D., The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 153.
 Fretheim, Terence E., The Pentateuch (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 137.
 Olson, Dennis T. 1996. Numbers (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1996). eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed January 14, 2018), 136. Many commentators connect this passage to King Hezekiah’s destruction of the bronze serpent during the Jerusalem temple reforms found in 2 Kings 18:4, which was destroyed because the people were offering incense to the serpent. While there is some material for theological reflection here, the tone of the role of the bronze serpent in the Numbers passage is not in question, and is solely viewed in a positive light as God’s provision for healing, which is affirmed in the gospel lesson. Working from the 2 Kings passage may offer opportunity to explore ways the community turns God’s provisions for healing into idolatrous objects, but, again, that is not the tone here.