Looking in the right direction – Tuesday, 5th Week in Lent – Numbers 21:4-9/ John 8:21-30

If anything, today’s first reading seems like we have a vengeful God. The evidence seems to be in your face. The people of Israel have been wandering the wilderness for forty years. They were on the threshold of entering the promised land (the land of Canaanites) from the south but were denied permission by their ‘cousins,’ the Edomites, (sons of Esau, brother of Jacob -Genesis 36:6-8) to cut through their land, thus forcing them to take a longer route.

The promised land which was in eyesight has once again become a distant reality.  For the last forty years, they have had to eat “unsatisfying food” that tasted like cakes baked in oil (Numbers 11:9). So, what choice do you have? What do you do if not grumble? And should your ‘punishment’ be snakes that bite you and cause death? This sounds like a petty vengeful God.

Life is all about what coloured glasses you wear. Change your glasses and you see things differently. Yes, these were people who wandered for forty years but in reality, they were not ready for what God desired for them; a land for themselves. They were not ready because THEY repeatedly turned against God and broke his covenant. How do you entrust such a people with a nation when they can’t be trusted to return your love? Yet, all through THEIR ‘wandering’, God provided for their needs. He did give them water and food, yet they lied and said that there was no food and water.

The desert does not provide for garlic and cucumber which they remind God that they got in Egypt. But they got these meagre treats along with slavery and the whip (which in their grumbling they conveniently forget). The people received what could be provided, but for them, it had become ‘detestable food’ that was ‘miserable.’ We too think we deserve much more than what is placed on our table. The grace that we say each day is not a formality but an act of gratitude for what has been provided.

So, did God punish them? Very strictly speaking, the RSV translation does not say, ‘Therefore the Lord sent poisonous snakes.’ It says, “Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes.” The obvious conclusion that we infer is that God is wrathful in the face of sin. If that was the case, then why was God not wrathful when they grumbled several times previously about food and water and when they made a golden calf?

Even if this was a wrathful God, I would put it down to frayed nerves; they had pressed his buttons so often with their ingratitude that even God would snap. This was a self-goal, a self-inflicted suffering brought by the people of Israel; they bit the hand that fed them now the snakes did the biting.

It is interesting to note whom they approached for relief; they go to Moses. They were too ashamed to go to God whom they should have accused of “attempted murder.” (21:5) Moses knew what to do and whom to approach. He goes to God in prayer. One can only imagine the prayer that Moses made. It was a prayer that he said several times in forty years for a people who never knew gratitude.

Read the text carefully. This time, God does not take away the cause of pain and death, namely the serpent. He simply provided a solution for death but only IF THEY CHOSE TO LOOK IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION. This is no longer a God providing a quick fix aid for sin. Sin is a serious business. Sin is the serpent we brought into the world by the choices we made.

God is a holy God; he did not provide serpents rather he provided the garden of goodness. We chose the wrong tree and invited the serpent to bite us. God is not vengeful. If He was so then he would have never provided the instrument of salvation that saves us from death; Jesus on the cross.

The cross without Jesus is merely an instrument of shame; criminals were nailed to it. The cross with Jesus hanging on it is an instrument of Salvation; Our Lord hung on it. Our sin was nailed to the cross so that looking at the cross we may be saved. Yet the sting of death may be preferred by many rather than gazing at the instrument of salvation. No one can force us to accept this truth, but should we do then we have to choose to look in the right direction when we sin. Look to Jesus on the cross.

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