“A Conversation about Covenant: Challenges to the Covenant”

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Dr. Jim Somerville

3/10/2024

Numbers 21:4-9

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Challenges to the Covenant

First Baptist Richmond, March 10, 2024

Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 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 detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 shook the city of San Francisco, California, to its very foundations. More than 3,000 people died and over 80 percent of the city was destroyed. Six weeks later a Seventh-Day Adventist named Ellen White sent a message to her fellow believers in America and Australia, saying, “The judgments of God will certainly fall upon all transgressors. The terrible earthquake that has visited San Francisco will be followed by other manifestations of the power of God. His law has been transgressed. Cities have become polluted with sin.”i

And that’s the way it goes.

There is an event (that is, something actually happens), and then there is an interpretation (that is, someone tries to explain why it happened). In 1906 there was an earthquake in San Francisco and six weeks later Ellen White gave her interpretation. The scientific community would come to agree that the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was caused by shifting tectonic plates along the San Andreas Fault. Ellen White believed that it was God’s judgment on that wicked city. It’s a pattern that has existed from the very beginning.

In today’s Old Testament lesson there is an event and then there is an interpretation. Poisonous snakes bite some of the people of Israel and they die, and the author of Numbers tells us it was God’s judgment on their sin. Is that true? Or is that Ellen White explaining the San Francisco earthquake? Let’s talk about what may have actually happened, and then let’s talk about the interpretation.

Let’s imagine that God’s people were making their way toward the Red Sea along some wilderness road, just as it says in today’s text. Let’s imagine that they stopped for the night to camp, and while they were gathering firewood someone uncovered a nest of vipers. Let’s imagine that some people were bitten, maybe several people, and that some of them died from their bites. And then let’s imagine what happened next.

It’s possible that they tried to figure out why this thing had happened, and it’s possible that they blamed themselves by saying, “We shouldn’t have complained.” Maybe they did actually go to Moses and say, “We have sinned against you and against God by complaining about our circumstances. We’re sorry. Please ask the Lord to take away these snakes.” It’s possible that Moses did exactly that, but if you read the text carefully you will see that God did not answer that prayer. The snakes remained in the camp. More people were bitten. More people died. And so Moses made something out of bronze that looked like a snake and put it up on a pole and told the people that when they were bitten, if they would only look at that serpent, they would not die.

Again, if you were looking at this objectively, like a member of the scientific community and not like Ellen White, you might imagine that Moses had learned this trick from some of those Egyptian magicians who show up in the Exodus story,

that they had taught him that when there’s something that scares you, you have to face your fears. In this case you have to look at the thing that can kill you, and when you do—when you stare it down—you take away its power.ii

Now, there’s some truth in that, and it may well be that Moses fashioned that serpent out of bronze and put it up on a pole and the next time someone was bitten and looked at that snake they didn’t die, and that’s the story that has come down through the centuries, that’s the story that was told around the campfires of ancient Israel, that’s the story that ended up in the Book of Numbers. There is an event, and there is an interpretation, and the interpretation is often left up to whoever is telling the story.

The traditional understanding is that Moses wrote the Book of Numbers, and if so, then he was the one who got to interpret that event. So, tell us Moses: what really happened?

“Well, Jim, it’s just like you said. The people were gathering firewood and somebody uncovered a nest of vipers and a lot of people were bitten and died. So they came to me and told me God was punishing them because they had been complaining about the food and I wasn’t about to correct them. I thought, “You know, maybe this will teach them a lesson!” But then they asked me to pray to God to take the snakes away and I did, but the snakes didn’t go away. If anything there were more. I don’t know why except that God may have been trying to teach the people that sin has consequences. You can do things that can’t be undone. Maybe God was trying to teach his people that if they couldn’t be grateful for all he had given them he could give them something else. He could give them snakes, and he did, and he didn’t take them away, but he did tell me to make a serpent out of bronze and put it up on a pole so that anyone who looked

at it would live.”

Wait a minute, Moses: God told you to do that? The same God who said, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” That God told you to make a serpent out of bronze?”

“I thought it was strange myself, but I wasn’t about to argue with God. I mean, it wasn’t an idol. I didn’t tell anybody to worship it. I just told them that if they were bitten they should look at the serpent, and it worked! Or at least, it seemed to. There were people who told me later that they had been bitten by a snake, but when they looked at that bronze serpent they could feel the poison losing its power, they could see the swelling going down. They looked at that serpent and lived.” And again, that’s the story that has come down to us through the centuries. There’s an event, and then there is an interpretation.

So, let me take a crack at it. That’s part of my job as your pastor: to stand up here on Sunday morning and interpret Scripture in a way that speaks to our times. When it comes to this particular Scripture I’m not sure the answer of the scientific community is helpful to us, except to make us more careful when we are picking up firewood in the wilderness. And I’m not sure how helpful the Old Testament answer is: it sounds as if Moses is saying that if you complain about your food you will get bitten by a snake. But this is a series about covenant and on the deepest level this is a story about covenant.

Last week I talked about the covenant at Sinai as the “wedding in the wilderness” and how God said to those former slaves, “If you will be my people, I will be your God.” They said that they would and then they recited the Ten Commandments like wedding vows. But here they are just a few months later,

complaining about every aspect of their life as God’s people. It is not a happy marriage. So this event, however it came about, helps them realize that they are not living within the covenant. They have strayed away from that loving relationship with God. They have come to the point where all they do is complain, complain, complain. And when these snakes show up in the camp and people start dying it’s the people themselves who say, “It’s us. We’re the problem. We have complained against the Lord.” There’s an event, and then there’s an interpretation. What they do is confess their sin to Moses. They repent. They promise never to do it again if he will only pray to the Lord and ask him to take away the snakes. So Moses prays, the snakes are not taken away, but apparently their deadly poison loses its power. And in the typical progression of sin, confession, repentance, and forgiveness, it’s not exactly forgiveness God offers them, but it is a way out.

I think that’s what Jesus offers in this morning’s Gospel lesson. He doesn’t even talk about sin. He doesn’t talk about who’s to blame for the sorry situation in which the world finds itself. But he does offer a way out: he say, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” It’s not as if sin is removed from the world, but its deadly poison loses its power. Whenever sin bites us all we have to do is look on the one who has been lifted up, and we will be saved.

This sermon is called “Challenges to the Covenant,” and we probably need to admit that the biggest challenge to the covenant is us. We are the ones who tend to stray away from the path God has set before us, the path that leads to life. I was reminded of that when I was running with my daughter’s dog last week.

Brook is a French Pointer, and the vet has told us we will never be able to outwalk, outrun, or outjump this dog. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried.

Shortly after Catherine got her I tried taking her for a run, but Brook went at a full gallop and I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t try again for months. But sometime in December, just as an experiment, I took her out again and this time I discovered that she could trot as well as gallop, and that when she was trotting her pace was evenly matched with mine.

I started by taking her out for a mile or two, but since the beginning of the year she’s been running with me for what I call “the full five”: five miles on the streets of Richmond and often in the dark and in the cold. In those early days, if we passed another runner she would lunge hard and I would have to pull back on the leash. And if we were running down around the VCU campus and someone had dropped a slice of pizza on the sidewalk she would skid to a stop. And if we happened to pass anywhere close to another dog she would leap like a fish on the line, barking and foaming at the mouth.

That’s when I had to pull back hard on the leash, and do my best to keep her under control. That’s when I was glad for the leash, because I thought of what could happen to her without it. She could run into the street and be hit by a passing car. She could take on a bigger dog and be torn to pieces. That leash is like the covenant God made with his people: when they begin to stray it pulls them back onto the path. When they leap and lunge it pulls back hard. Its purpose is to keep them from getting hurt or even killed, to prevent the event that will have to be interpreted. They ignore that covenant at their own peril, and if they break the covenant there is nothing to keep them under control.

Here we are living in a world where it seems that everyone is off the leash.

People are going their own way, doing their own thing, and many of them have ended up bruised, broken, and bleeding. And yet Jesus didn’t come to condemn those people. It says so right there in John 3:17: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” He didn’t come to punish people for breaking the covenant; he came to save them from the consequences. I notice that when Jesus refers to this story he doesn’t even talk about sin. He doesn’t say, “For as the people complained against God in the wilderness and were punished for their wickedness.” No, he says, “For as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” He doesn’t focus on sin; he focuses on salvation. He seems to understand that that’s what the covenant was for in the first place: to keep God’s people on the path that leads to life.

This is why it’s so important to look at the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus. If you don’t, you might let that other interpretation stand. You might assume that God really did send snakes among the people to punish them for complaining about the food. You might assume that he really did tell Moses to make a serpent out of bronze that would work like a magic charm. And then you might start looking around for some idol of your own to protect you from evil, and when you did you would be breaking the covenant.

You would be snapping the leash.

Brook and I are doing better these days. We’ve been running together long enough that she trots right past those other runners without giving them a second glance. And if I see a slice of pizza on the sidewalk I can usually talk her through the distraction (“Come on, Brook. Run with me”). And if there’s another dog headed our way we cross over to the other side of the street so she won’t feel the

need to protect me. As I said, we’re doing better. And most of the time, these days, if she begins to stray to one side or the other all I have to do is give the leash a gentle tug and she’s right back on the path.

Don’t you think that’s what God would hope for with the covenant? That it would be there like a leash to keep us connected to him, and to keep us on the path? It isn’t meant to restrict our freedom, but to save our lives. And I’ve got to tell you: when Brook and I are coming up Arthur Ashe Boulevard in the morning, just as the sun is rising over the city, when she’s trotting along beside me in a steady rhythm, her pace perfectly matched with mine, well…it’s a beautiful thing to see. And when we get back home, and the door is closed behind us, I take her off the leash. And instead of racing away from me, barking, and waking up the entire household, she just sits there, looking up at me hopefully with those big, brown eyes. And, yes I do: I give her a treat. And I say,

“Who’s a good dog?”

—Jim Somerville © 2024