Chukkat: Numbers 19 - 22:1
Haftarah: Judges 11: 1-33
Lots of stuff in this week's Torah reading. We have some complicated instructions about a Red Heifer which I think I will leave to the rabbis to explain; we have Moses striking the rock and getting chewed out by the Lord because he commanded Moses to bring water out of the rock, not to be a jerk about it; we have the king of Edom denying the Israelites passage through his lands and the Israelites detouring around him; We have the Death of Aaron. We have the the defeat of several other kings whom the Israelites do not detour around.
And then there's that snake.
But first of all, a few words of explaination for those new to this series, or to those who might have been wondering what the deal is:
Why the D'var Torah?Back to the snake.
The D'var Torah is a system of Scripture readings designed to cover the entire Torah, the Five Books of Moses, over the course of a year. It has been used for millennia in Jewish worship services and in their private devotions. The Torah has been used not only as a source of inspiration for those who revere its teachings, but also as a springboard for deep questions about ethics, justice, and where the heck Cain got his wife anyway. In places, it even touches on matters that are relevant in our political discourse.
Whether you believe the Torah is divinely-inspired, or the work of men, or even just a buncha bronze-age myths, it is a part of our cultural heritage; not just of Jewish culture, but also of Christian culture as well, and by extention, a part of Western Civilization; and the Torah contains ideas which can resonate in our modern time.
The D'var Torah series here was started by some of the Jewish members of Street Prophets, a satellite site of Daily Kos devoted to matters of Politics and Faith, in order to discuss the weekly Torah readings. When Street Prophets was merged back into Dkos a couple years ago, the series continuned.
The diaries of this series are not intended to be sermons, although some might take a religious tone; nor necessarily scholarly, although some may explore how the learned rabbis of the past have viewed these passages. Each diary is one person's reaction to a passage from Scriptures. Maybe profound, maybe trivial; maybe reverant, maybe skeptical.
We hope that they may provide you with food for thought as well.
Some years ago, as I've mentioned before, I was involved in a puppet workshop as part of my church's Sunday School program. I usually wrote the puppet plays because when I started off I looked at the material they had, I made the mistake of saying "Why I could write something better than that!!!"
One year, one of the Bible lessons I was given to adapt into a puppet play was the story of the Children of Israel In the Wilderness. I boggled a little at that. "You do realize that covers about four-fifths of the Pentatuech, don't you?" I said. The lady running the Sunday School said "Well... pick out whatever you want to do and it should be fine."
So I framed the play as Moses on top of Mount Nebo. Before he looks out onto the Promised Land, first he looks back on the way they came an remembers some of the things that happened during their Forty Years in the Wilderness.
There's a recurring theme in the narrative of Wanderings in the Wilderness of the people complaining and rebelling against Moses and the Lord doing something to remind them who's really in charge. So I selected a few of these incidents to do with the puppets. I had a kind of Greek Chorus of three puppets to represent the people; and in every incident they would make the same complaint:
1st ISRAELITE: Moses! Why did you lead us into the desert to die?
2nd ISRAELITE: We were better off in Egypt!
3rd ISRAELITE: Are we there yet?
Two of the incidents I chose happen to be stories in this week's Torah reading: The story of Moses Smiting the Rock and the story of the Bronze Serpent.
One of the reasons I chose the latter was because we had a snake puppet amongst the repertory of puppets I inherited when I volunteered. The department bought it the very first year of the Puppet Workshop to do a play about Adam and Eve, but there aren't a whole lot of other Bible stories involving snakes so the poor thing got left in the bottom of the box along with the rubber "Veggie Tales" puppets some well-meaning person had donated and the disturbing anthropomorphic Bible which I had no idea how to use. Which was a pity, because the snake was quite personable. Much more so than the Talking Bible.
But the story of the Bronze Serpent gave me a chance to finally use the snake. The Israelites are making their wide detour around Edom and once again they begin to complain. "Moses! Why did you lead us into the desert to die?" "We were better off in Egypt!" "Are we there yet?" Yep. The same refrain. Only this time they add a kicker: "And this manna stuff tastes like crap!"
Okay, I did not use that exact wording in the puppet play. The parents might not have been amused. "And our soul loatheth this light bread," is how the King James version puts it. Either way, they were talking about the manna, the mysterious, miraculous foodstuff that the Lord provided for them on their journey.
The Lord sends venomous snakes among the people, and many die of their bites. And here is the point where the reader might wonder if it was really fair of the Lord to punish his people that way just for being whiny brats. One point of view says "God is by definition Good, and so therefore everything He does is Just. Q.E.D." Another view says "God's a vindicive jerk, so of course he's being a jerk here too. No big surprise." Personally, I lean more towards the first view, but the argument should not divert us from the important point, which is this:
I finally got to use the snake puppet.
True, it wasn't much of a part, and he didn't have any speaking lines other than hissing, but it was nice and dramatic. And I liked that puppet.
The people ask Moses to pray to the Lord for mercy; and what the Lord does next is peculiar. He tells Moses to make a snake out of bronze and put it up on a high pole. Anyone bitten by a snake who looked at the Bronze Serpent would live.
Why the Bronze Serpent? Wasn't there a Commandment back there about not making Graven Images? Didn't we learn anything from the whole Golden Calf business? Now granted, "looking to" the serpent isn't exactly the same thing as worshipping it, but aren't we on a slippery slope here? And actually, later, in the book of Kings, we learn that King Hezekiah eventually did destroy the Bronze Serpent of Moses precicsely because it had become an idol. (2 Kings 18:4)
Perhaps the serpent is a relic from a previous time, before the Tribes of Israel became untited under a monolithic Yahwistic religion, and was incorporated into the text by a Syncretistic Redactor. And no, I'm not sure if I used any of those terms correctly, but they sure sound impressive. ("Yep, there's yer problem, Earl; ya got carbonization in yer syncretistic redactor")
It's tempting to connect the Bronze Serpent with the Rod of Asclepius from Greek mythology, a symbol of healing and medicine, although I don't think the Ancient Israelites had much contact with the Ancient Greeks, at least until the time of Alexander. I suppose it's possible that both might have come from a common source, some prehistoric snake-cult prevelant in the Mediteranean region before Conan defeated Thulsa Doom. Or something. Or the similarity might just be a coincidence; snakes were associated with healing in a lot of ancient cultures.
Of course, coming as I do out of the Christian tradition, I tend to associate the Bronze Serpent with the words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus: "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who belives in him may have eternal life." (John 3:14-15). Christianity has traditionally seen the story as prefiguring the Crucifixion. That's why depictions of the Bronze Serpent in Christian art tend to show it draped around a cross-shaped pole. Christian art doesn't do subtle.
But setting aside both the hypothetical snake-cult origin theory and the Christian foreshadowing theory, let's look at the story itself. Why would the Lord have Moses do this elaborate business with the serpentine visual aid rather than just driving out the snakes and healing the people afflicted?
My guess is that giving the people something to do, even something as simple as looking at a snake, gave them a way to participate in the miracle that they wouldn't have had if the Lord had just said "Poofers. Everyone's better." It made it more meaningful for them.
A lot of miracles described in Scriptures are like that; the miraculous is linked to something mundane. Moses holds out his staff and the waters part; Naaman must bathe in the River Jordan before his leprosy will be healed; the Widow of Zarephath makes a tiny morsel of food for Elijah out of her meager supply of flour and oil and finds what she uses replenished; Jesus spits in the dust and makes a pat of mud which places on the face of a blind man restoring his sight. In my church's tradition, part of our definition of a Sacrament is that it must involve physical means, something we can see and touch, through which the divine blessing is performed.
These physical acts and objects are not prerequisites for the miracle, or arbitrary hoops that the Lord insists people jump through before he deigns to act. They serve to anchor the miracle in the physical reality of our experience.
At least that's how it seems to me.
The story of the Bronze Serpent is notable for one other reason. It is the only place I can think of in the whole of Scriptures in which a snake is referenced in a positive light. I don't know what the significance of that is.
Just that the puppet and I are thankful.