Lesson: Numbers 21:4-9
4 From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 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.” 6 Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Numbers is the fourth book of the Torah (Hebrew meaning “teaching” or “Law”), also known by Christians as the Pentateuch (Greek meaning “Five Books”). The Book of Numbers (like the last half of Exodus, and all of Leviticus and Deuteronomy) is set in the time the Israelites were in the Wilderness before entering the Promised Land. If the time in the Wilderness is historical (no archeological evidence has ever been found to support it), this would have been around 1250 BCE.
“Numbers” gets its name from the hypothetical census recorded in its opening chapters – a census taken ostensibly to determine if the Israelites had sufficient military strength to invade the Promised Land. A count was made of men over 20 years of age “able to bear arms (1:3). The census produced a total of 603,550 such persons (not including the Tribe of Levi which was exempt from military service) – which scholars agree is vastly inflated. If the total number of men over 20 was over 600,000, adding women and children to the assemblage would mean there would have been over 2 million Israelites in the Sinai.
Most of the Book of Numbers was written by the “Priestly Source” during the Babylonian Exile (587-539 BCE) and in the 100 years after the Exile. Today’s reading is one of four stories in the Torah in which the Israelites complained about their food (manna) or water or both. (The other accounts are in Exodus 16, and Numbers 11 and 20.) In this version, YHWH got angry and attacked the Israelites with poisonous snakes. According to the story, many died until Moses intervened (v.7) and put a bronze serpent on a pole so that people who were bitten might live if they looked upon the bronze serpent (v.9).
According to 2 Kings 18:4, the bronze serpent on the pole was later installed in the First Temple but became an idol that the people worshiped. The good King Hezekiah (727-698 BCE), as part of his reforms that were praised by the Deuteronomists, had the serpent removed from the Temple. A serpent attached to a staff is now the caduceus symbol of modern medicine.
According to today’s Gospel reading (below), Jesus compared his being lifted up on the cross to the lifting up of the serpent on the pole in the Wilderness (John 3:14-15). Just as looking at the bronze serpent allowed an Israelite to live, believing in Jesus of Nazareth brings eternal life.
Epistle: Ephesians 2:1-10
1 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved – 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Ephesus was a large and prosperous city in what is now western Turkey. According to the Acts of the Apostles and 1 Corinthians, Paul visited there. In Ephesus, there were Jesus Followers who were Jews and Jesus Followers who were Gentiles, and they didn’t always agree on what it meant to be a Jesus Follower.
This letter was written in the late First Century by one of Paul’s disciples and was intended to unify the Ephesus Jesus Follower community.
Today’s reading is addressed to Gentile Jesus Followers (“you” in verse 1) and both Gentile and Jewish Jesus Followers (“all of us” in verse 3). The emphasis on salvation by grace through faith (v.8) rather than by works (v.9) is a theme that follows the theology of salvation found in Paul’s Letter to the Romans written in the early 60’s (CE).
In Paul’s authentic letters, “faith” is best understood as “faithfulness” and “works” are understood as “observances” or rituals. Grace (by definition) is freely bestowed on us by God and urges us towards faithfulness and away from the “course” and values of the world (v.2). The “ruler of the power of the air” (v.2) is a cosmic force of disobedience likely based on texts in the Book of Enoch. (The Book of Enoch is a collection of apocalyptic writings from 300 to 100 BCE. It is non-canonical except for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Its “author” is Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, but not to be confused with Enoch, the son of Cain.)
When the author of the letter spoke of the “passions and desires” of the “flesh” and “senses,” he (like Paul) was not limiting his concerns to those the passions of our bodies. Like Paul, he used “flesh” as a shorthand term for the values of the world – wealth, power, and self-aggrandizement.
Gospel: John 3:14-21
14 Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
The Fourth Gospel is different in many ways from the Synoptic Gospels. The “signs” (miracles) and many of the stories in the Fourth Gospel are unique to it, such as the Wedding at Cana, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the Raising of Lazarus.
Today’s reading consists of verses that are also not found in any of the Synoptic Gospels. In verse 14, the author can be understood as saying, in effect, that Jesus draws the venom out of human life and restores wholeness.
Because ancient Greek did not contain punctuation, it is difficult to know whether the words in verses 16 to 21 were attributed to Jesus by the author as a continuation of the quoted words in verses 14 and 15, or if they represent commentary by the author of this Gospel.