The Bronze Serpent and the Cross of Christ

“so must the Son of man be lifted up”

Key Verses:

“And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” (Numbers 21:9; KJV)

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him, may not perish; but may have life everlasting. (John 3:14-15; DR; Jesus, answering Nicodemus)

My Reflections:

The story of the Bronze* Serpent in the book of Numbers (21:4-9) is a powerful example of repentance and God’s mercy on his people. Near the end of their arduous 40 years in the desert, the Israelites were traveling from Mount Hor around the land of Edom, following the Red Sea. It is said that they “spoke against God and against Moses,” asking why they had been brought out of Egypt to die in the wilderness with no food and no water, surviving on “worthless food.” 

This occurred not long after the contentious incident of the waters of Meribah (Numbers 20:1-13) when, in response to similar complaints from his people, God had instructed Moses to take his rod and, in sight of all the people, speak to the rock to gush forth water. Instead Moses struck the rock twice with his rod, seeming to demonstrate his own power, rather than his faith in God as a lesson to bolster their faith. (See article “The Waters of Strife” by Yanki Tauber, for comparison of traditional interpretations of this passage by Jewish commentators.) This lapse had a great cost: “And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron: Because you have not believed me, to sanctify me before the children of Israel, you shall not bring these people into the land, which I will give them.” (Num 20:12; DR).

This is the backdrop for the next outbreak of complaints from the people, as described in Numbers 21. The consequences are swift. The Lord sent fiery serpents among them; they are bitten and many “sons of Israel” die. The people repent, admitting they have sinned in speaking against the Lord and against Moses, and they beg Moses to beseech God to relent in this terrible punishment of deadly snakes. Moses does pray for them, in spite of all his trials. We are not told what words of intercession Moses chooses but God responds with mercy. He tells Moses to make an image of a fiery serpent and raise it up on a pole as a sign. Moses made the bronze serpent and set it up, so that the sight of it would save his people from death.

It is therefore highly significant that Jesus refers to this instance of God’s mercy in his extended conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-15). Nicodemus is a Pharisee, perhaps holding an important position in the Sanhedrin. He comes to speak with Jesus in the evening, and they engage in a fruitful spiritual dialogue. Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus as “a teacher from God; for no man can do these signs which thou dost, unless God be with him.” (3:2). Jesus does not comment directly but turns the conversation to the necessity of being “born again” to see the kingdom of God. When Nicodemus questions the literal sense of being born again from one’s mother’s womb, Jesus presents to him the nature of spiritual rebirth, being born of water and the Spirit (3:5) to enter God’s kingdom, and explains: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3:6). This spiritual rebirth is surely not easy to grasp, and Nicodemus continues to question Jesus about it, but Jesus longs to reveal even more of himself to Nicodemus, who is both a teacher himself and a genuine seeker. Jesus says:

And no man hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him, may not perish; but may have life everlasting.” (John 3:13-15)

Jesus foretells what must and will happen to him (his crucifixion, being lifted up on the cross), and the eternal life offered to all who look upon him with the eyes of faith. Jesus refers to the Son of man being “lifted up” in two other places in the Gospel of John (8:28, 12:32), but this passage in chapter 3 is the only one that makes the explicit connection to the life-saving event described in the book of Numbers. Just as looking upon the bronze serpent freed the Israelites from the poison of the serpents’ bite in the desert, preserving their natural earthly life, looking upon the crucified Son of man would free the believer from the deadly poison of sin, which began with the figurative bite of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. The lifting up of the Son of man would be the means for offering God’s people not simply life, but eternal life in heaven.

Raniero Cantalamessa makes the analogy quite vivid and relevant to our day-to-day temptations toward sin, while living in a culture that exalts pleasure-seeking and bombards us with sensual images:

When we feel ourselves wounded by images of “carnal” beauty, let us do what the Israelites did in the desert. When they were bitten by poisonous snakes, if they quickly ran to look at the serpent lifted up by Moses they were healed (see Numbers 21:4-9). We too need to run, without losing time wanting to know why or how at our age … (which only gives time for the poison to spread); we need to run to a crucifix and look at it with faith (see John 3:14-15). The image of Christ and, even more so, the host that contains him in the sacrament also exercise their sanctifying power simply through sight, if our looking is accompanied by faith.  Let the healing enter where the wound entered–through the eyes! [from Contemplating the Trinity, p. 88]

Most commentaries note that Jesus’ being “lifted up”–while it primarily foretells his literally being lifted upon the Cross–also suggests the Resurrection and Ascension into heaven. As the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible puts it, to “be lifted up” is a “shorthand reference to the Paschal Mystery, when Jesus is lifted up on the Cross, from the grave, and into heaven” (from note to John 3:14, p. 166).  The Greek word hypsoō means to lift up physically and to exalt; when Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son of man must be lifted up, his ultimate exaltation is implied as much as his humiliation–the physical lifting upon a cross (see commentary by Francis Martin and William Wright, The Gospel of John, p. 73). Martin and Wright show how these opposite extremes are both present in the opening of the Fourth Servant Song in Isaiah, interpreted as a prefigurement of Christ (Isaiah 52:13-14). The disfigured body of Christ on the Cross is not inherently beautiful but rather its beauty derives from Jesus’ willingness to be lifted up for our sake–that we might truly see him, believe in him, and live.  It is directly after the dialogue with Nicodemus that this Gospel famously declares  and offers the means of salvation: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16).

***

*Note: The Douay-Rheims version uses the word “brazen,” and the King James Version says “brass.” However, the Revised Standard Version and the RSVCE use “bronze,” and since this is more typical of modern commentaries, I will refer to a bronze serpent in my discussion.

Resources:

Moses and the Torah (Come and See Catholic Bible Study series) by Fr. Joseph L. Ponessa, S.S.D. and Laurie Watson Manhardt, Ph.D. Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2007.

“The Waters of Strife: The Price of Leadership” by Yanki Tauber. Chabad.org. Article comparing various commentaries on Moses’ sin at the waters of Meribah and his fate as a leader.

The New Testament: The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition), with introduction, commentary, and notes by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010.

The Navarre Bible: Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel). Four Courts Press/Scepter Publishers, 2005.

The Gospel of John (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) by Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV. Baker Academic, 2015.

Contemplating the Trinity: The Path to the Abundant Christian Life by Raniero Cantalamessa (trans. by M Daigle-Williamson). The Word Among Us Press, 2007. (Original work in Italian, 2002)

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