Sunday, March 4, 2018

Numbers 21.4-9: Snakes But Not Cows?

It's a story of illness and provision for healing. The people miss the mark and find themselves with an infestation of poisonous snakes. But for snakebite there is a cure provided by God. The story, the reading for Lent 4B from Hebrew scripture, is found in Numbers 21:4-9. The gospel reading for Lent 4B directly references the story, so the connection is easily made between Jesus on the cross and the serpent in the wilderness. Both join together death and life.
(Left) Plaque with Moses, Aaron and the Brazen Serpent. c. 1200. Made in Cologne, Germany. Champleve enamel, Copper alloy, Gilt. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Right) Plaque with Moses and the Brazen Serpent. c. 1160. Made in the Meuse Valley, Belgium. Copper alloy, enamel, gold. London: Victoria & Albert Museum.  
These two roughly contemporary Romanesque brass panels illustrate the story. Moses and Aaron stand together on one side of a column (rather than a cross) on which a creature is indeed lifted up.  The Met piece (left) has a footed creature, which seems less serpent-like. Moses is horned, as he often is, and Aaron wears a pointed hat (similar to the figures at the right in the V&A piece). Moses directs attention toward the "serpent" by pointing his finger.

The V&A piece has an additional group of figures to the right of the column. They look toward the serpent, with the front figure making a clapping (?) gesture and the figure at the far right seeming to brush off his upper sleeve. Moses and Aaron are identified by name on the left half of the plaque, while the group of figures at right are identified as "Vulnerati" (the Vulnerables). Moses and Aaron are invulnerable. But all can be saved if they will look at the serpent (which is a carefully balanced loop in the V&A piece).

But it seems strange that Moses would be directed by God to create a sculptural form in metal. In both plaques Moses is holding the two tablets on which are written the Ten Commandments. The second commandment says not to create an image of anything that is in the heavens above or the earth beneath or the water under the earth. While those tablets (or the originals, anyway) were being created, the Israelites found themselves in big trouble because they had directed Aaron to create a calf with the gold earrings and jewelry they collected. How would you quantify the difference? Is it that here the serpent is not a god of the people's own making? Is it that somehow looking to the serpent in order to be saved is not exactly the same as worshiping the image? Is it that snakes are allowable but not cows?

The brazen serpent does ultimately meet an end according to tradition. It isn't here in Numbers but rather in II Kings (18:4). King Hezekiah destroys a copper serpent (along with the sacred pole on which it was lifted up) called the Nehushtan, which is identified as the serpent created by Moses. It has become a problem because the people are making offerings to it. In other words, turning it into an idol. Which probably says more about humanity than it does about sculpture.

For an image that puts Numbers and John's gospel together, click on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

For additional thoughts on both the Numbers passage and John 3, click here.

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