Worshiping the Dragons of the Past

canstockphoto7274728There is a bizarre story in the Old Testament—which is saying something, because there are a lot of bizarre stories in the Old Testament. Bizarre to us anyway. They probably made perfect sense to the people of the day.

In Numbers 21 the people of Israel are in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, and they complain against Moses and God because there is no water.

And no real food.

There’s only magical food that shows up each morning and tastes like honey and wafers. You wake up each day and there’s Graham Crackers all around.

But I imagine that after a while that would get tiring. “Manna again!”

Still, it’s magical food that God gives every day, and undoubtedly feeling taken for granted, God reacts by sending “poisonous snakes” which start biting and killing people by the scores.

Well, we assume they are poisonous snakes. Older translations like the King James and the Revised Standard say “fiery snakes,” but what does that mean? But they are snakes and people die when bitten, so “poisonous” (NRSV) or “venomous” (NIV) are logical conclusions.

Unless they weren’t snakes at all. The Hebrew word is seraphim, which in Isaiah 6 refer to angelic beings, or at least beings that attend to God. They have six wings and fly, and they are on fire. Or something like that. The word seraph has its roots in the concept of burning. So it’s more than a snake. In Isaiah 30:6 it’s a flying fiery snake.

Like a dragon.

A fire-breathing dragon.

See, I told you it was bizarre.

So God sent some seraphim as judgment, and the people repented, and God provided a way out. He told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, and whenever someone was bitten all they had to do was look at the bronze serpent and they would live. And that’s what happened.

Fast forward a few hundred years. Israel has made it into the Promised Land, they’ve been through the period of the judges, they’ve had some kings, the northern tribes have rebelled against the king and set up their own nation with their own kings.

Hezekiah comes along as king of Judah. Hezekiah is one of the few kings, north or south, who gets a passing grade, and that’s because he destroys the high places out in the countryside where a lot of idolatry and apostasy is happening.

And he destroys the bronze serpent on the pole. The people had kept it as a memorial, then it became to them a totem, and after a while they started worshiping it and sacrificing to it.

The people took something that was good and made it bad. They took an object that God used to deliver them, and made it into something that they worshiped instead of worshiping God.

At one time it delivered them, and now it was something they needed deliverance from. A good religious practice gone bad. Good religion gone bad.

Religion that once brought life now brought death.

There’s a lot going on here, but let me focus on one thing: they were practicing a religion that looked backwards rather than forward.

When you’re in the wilderness, you can look backwards to the good old days, or you can look forward and envision a new future, a future which is not only better than the wilderness, but better than the good old days.

For the Israelites living in the wilderness, the good old days were back in Egypt.

They remembered that in Egypt they always had food and they always had water and they always had shelter. They longed for the good old days in Egypt.

When they were slaves.

Better to live in slavery than to die in the wilderness, they said. That’s reasonable, I guess.

But better than living in slavery is to keep moving forward toward the Promised Land. There’s better days ahead.

It’s OK to glance back as long as you keep moving forward. When a baseball is hit a fielder has to know where the ball has been in order to track the trajectory and run to where the ball is going to be.

If he runs to where the ball was, or even where it is right now, he’ll miss it.

For the Israelites in the desert, looking back led to idolatry, and going back would have led to slavery.

But worst of all, they would miss being where God was going.

And when you aren’t where God is, all that’s left are dragons.

Image by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / dvarg

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