Throughout the story of the Exodus, the Israelites were famous for complaining. “Why have you brought us out into the wilderness?” “We have no water.” “This food is terrible” and much worse. On one such occasion, as they set out from Mt. Hor skirting the land of Edom, and
Numbers 21:4 the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.
That got their attention!
Numbers 21:7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
What I wonder about is what became of the bronze serpent after the snakes left? Apparently someone kept it for hundreds of years. Perhaps it was proudly displayed as we might do with something put in a museum. It might be that children took field trips to see this relic from the past. However, over time, something happened. The bronze serpent began to take on a legacy of its own. Hundreds of years later, it might be someone claimed they looked on the snake and were healed. From there it would be an easy step to ascribe healing power to the image. I can picture the light from an oil lamp dancing over the bronze image and frightening children. The snake was given the name “Nehustan” (which in Hebrew sounds like both the word “bronze” and “snake”). Before long, what had been a link to Moses and the Lord became an evil idol of itself for we read how good king Hezekiah:
2 Kings 18:4 [Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).
I wonder if we have any traditions that have outlived their usefulness? Is it possible that we do some things simply because we have always done it that way? I remember my grandfather telling me about the great “communion shroud” controversy. It seems in a little country church, it was their custom to put a white cloth over the bread and wine on the communion table to keep the flies away. Over time the ladies took great pride in starching and ironing that pure white cloth. It was an honor to be asked to prepare it. People began to think about the cloth as a funeral shroud and it added a new symbol to the communion celebration. Then, one day, someone brought in a new shiny communion set that held the cups and the bread protected by a tray with a fly proof lid. The cloth was no longer needed so someone served the communion without the “shroud.” A holy war broke out in the congregation. “We’ve always done it that way!” someone shouted. “The cloth is the shroud of Christ!” someone else explained quoting John’s Gospel (20:6, 7). My grandfather shook his head sadly and observed, “Johnny, that silly tradition nearly split the church.”
On occasion we need to think about the things we do and ask ourselves why we do them. It could be that sacred cows do make the best hamburger.