The Pole & the Cross

by Hugh Farquhar

This Sunday’s Old Testament Reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent is Numbers 21:4-9.

I always wonder what people hear when this passage is read from the Book of Numbers without comment. As a story, it is what a friend of mine would call “passing strange.”

Strange that Moses, who opposed idols of any sort, made “a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole,” and that he was understanding it to be at God’s bidding. There was a perception in the tradition, however, that the bronze snake was not an idol, but a symbol to remind the Israelites of God’s covenant with them.

This tradition is noted in the apocryphal book of Wisdom, Chapter 16, where the story is recalled in this way: “The people received a symbol of deliverance to remind them of your law’s command. For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Saviour of all.” The author is making it clear that the bronze snake was not an idol, but a symbol pointing the people to God.

The bronze snake on the pole was eventually located in the Temple in Jerusalem. The people gazed at it and offered incense before it. Some scholars have suggested that the story in Numbers provides an etiology for the presence of the object in the Temple.

In the seventh century, King Hezekiah initiated a series of religious reforms, and among them was to destroy this image. “(King Hezekiah) broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until these days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nahushtan.” (2 Kings 18:3) (Did it start out as a symbol maybe, and over time turn into an idol?)

I imagine that the people who believed that the bronze snake on the pole was an icon not an idol were upset when King Hezekiah destroyed it. It’s called change!!

There was in the religious culture of Egypt a notion that one could curb the power of dangerous creatures by making an image of them and staring at it. I think the Israelites brought that notion with them into the wilderness, and it got perpetuated in this story.

I would not accept the premise that this is in any way a foreshadowing of the Cross. Jesus simply used the story from Numbers as an analogy for the future salvific and healing power of the Cross. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (in the wilderness of a sin-saturated world) that whoever believes in him (looks to him) may have eternal life.”

What strikes me as a neat bridge between the pole and the Cross is that in each case the death-dealing thing becomes the symbol of salvation. In Numbers, the snakes “bit the people” — and yet the image of a snake on a pole became the agent of their healing. What John tells us through Jesus’ words is that the Cross represented the worst humanity could do, all the sin, hate, violence, and injustice, but it became the agent of healing “the sin-sick soul.”

In “Things Hidden” Richard Rohr writes, “Those who gaze upon the crucified long enough – with contemplative eyes – are always healed at deep levels of pain, unforgiveness, aggressivity and victimhood. It demands no theological education at all, just an ‘inner exchange’ by receiving the image within and offering one’s soul back in safe return.”

We “survey the wondrous cross,” a first-century instrument of torture and death, and we are spiritually healed. Not by the thing that is beheld, but by the One who “so loved the world,” the Saviour of all.

Hugh Farquhar is Minister Emeritus at St. Paul’s United Church, Riverview, NB and teaches Biblical Studies at Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, NS.




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