Christ and the Bronze Serpent

Treasure Room, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. In center: the True Cross. Near the walls: holy relics. Licensed by adriatikus under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Numbers 21:4b-9; John 3:13-17

Jesus said to Nicodemus: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

John 3:13-15

Why does the Gospel of John compare Jesus to the bronze serpent lifted up by Moses in the desert? Let us revisit the original account in the Book of Numbers:

From Mount Hor they set out by way of the Red Sea, to bypass the land of Edom, but the people’s patience was worn out by the journey; so the  people complained against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!” 

Numbers 21:4-5

Patience is not an easy virtue. Is it surprising that forty years of wandering in the desert spawned complaints against the expedition’s leaders? The glorious memory of the Red Sea miracle quickly faded into grumbling. Nostalgia for the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic of Egypt tempted the weary pilgrims as they ate manna day after day (Numbers 11:5). 

So the Lord sent among the people seraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of the Israelites died.

Numbers 21:6

In the childhood of humanity, chastisement in the form of biting serpents awakened the people of Israel. The immediacy of death in the camp shook off the sloth of ingratitude.

Then the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you. Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.”

Numbers 21:7

The physical chastisement accomplished its end: the children of Israel turned back to the Lord with supplication. 

So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses, “Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.” Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.    

Numbers 21:7-9

The likeness of an exterior poisonous saraph became the antidote for the interior poison of sin and ingratitude. But how, ontologically, could looking at the serpent cure an interior poison? The cure for ingratitude is gratitude. The cure for disobedience is obedience. Only a change of heart or metanoia can effectively strike at the root of inner poison. (In the narrative, the bronze serpent only restored physical life.)

The consistent message of both the Old and New Testaments is the need for a new heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26, 2 Corinthians 3:3). The grace of the Holy Spirit welling up from the depths of the heart must transform carnal/psychological/soulish (psychikos/psuchikos) individuals into spiritual (pneumatikos) persons (I Corinthians 2:14-15). 

St. Paul provides a clue to the logic of the serpent cure:

For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit.”

Romans 8:3-4

The Son of Man, like the bronze serpent, was an exterior manifestation of humanity’s interior poison. As the bronze serpent on a pole was without poison, but manifested Israel’s inner poison, so Christ on the Cross was without sin, but manifested Adam’s sin. 

From the bronze serpent to the Incarnate Christ, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit progressively penetrated into the depths of the human heart where the root poison lay: interior and exterior division, which is sin.

Looking on Christ with faith is the first step leading to hope and love. Christ does not remain “out there” on the Cross, but comes to dwell within, giving his brethren access to the Father in the Holy Spirit. By the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit, persons are deified and brought to union and communion in the Trinity. 

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.

John 3:16

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