Harrowing Of Hell
March 12, 2018


Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet, M. Div.

Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen. We’re diving into the Old Testament. In particular, we are going straight to a story that seems to suggest that God became so frustrated with the people’s whining that he sent poisonous snakes to bite and kill them. Then, after they repented and pleaded that God take the snakes away, God did not remove the snakes, but gave the people a snake on a stick to look at when they were bitten so that they could live. Does this sound problematic to you?

I bet it does. However, we are Episcopalians so we don’t have to read this text literally – we can approach it with curiosity and exploration. When I encounter a text like this one, I try to ask, “In what way can this text be helpful, if not comfortable?” Some texts in scripture are immediately inspiring and comforting, but others help us in a different way. They support us in our journey precisely by provoking and surfacing questions and struggles that are part of the spiritual life. They invite us into dark places so that as we sit in them, we may rediscover light and its value to us. Some Biblical stories aren’t about the thing on the surface, but the nuances that lie beneath.

The Book of Numbers documents a period of deep confusion and struggle as a newly developing nation made its journey from slavery into a new home and a new way of understanding God.

The stories collected here reflect an orientation of uncertainty and fear about the depth of God’s love and the promises they have received. The people of Israel seem to be asking, over and over again, can it be true? As we stand here in the wilderness, eating strange food, and facing the dangers of travel through a desolate space, do we risk believing in a promised land? Do we risk hoping that God really desires to lift us up and embrace us with a mighty, fearless love?

And so, the stories in the book of Numbers reveal the people’s fears about God. But not just their fears. What we also witness is the people’s inability to see the way in which their response to uncertainty, their fear that God may not be capable of loving them in the way they deeply long for, shapes what they see and what they are able to imagine about God. I’m going to highlight that again: what we witness here is the people’s inability to see the way in which their response to uncertainty, their fear that God may not be capable of loving them in the way they deeply long for, shapes what they see and what they are able to imagine about God. Thus, what is documented most prominently in this book is judgment.

Judgment is easier to imagine. And the judgment they see in God may even be a projection onto God of the anger they feel in the midst of their uncertainty. God’s anger and judgment would be an easier explanation for the situation they are in, because anger and judgment are more familiar – definitely more familiar than passionate love. They have emerged from the tyranny of Pharaoh and have been asked to trust in a love that aims to restore life and a kind of wholeness they have never experienced.

How do we imagine that which we haven’t known before? How do we trust that we have not been a fool in trusting God with our throbbing, longing hearts? How do we trust, in the midst of gut-wrenching pain and uncertain times, that we are held in perfect love – that we do indeed have a future of greater freedom and wholeness than the stories in our past set us up to believe possible?

This is what I find so moving about the book of Numbers, or if we are to use a translation of the Hebrew name for this book, the book called “In the Wilderness.” I find things here that I can relate to from painful transition periods in my own life. I also find patterns that seem so similar to what we see in human development when a child’s brain becomes flooded with new experiences, new feelings, new information – and tries to make sense of it all. I think of toddlers, and teenagers, whose inner worlds are expanding exponentially faster than they can integrate, much less understand.

What they often do, in response, is to thrash with confusion.
When I read these “In the Wilderness” stories I see a nation in a stage of development in which they are metaphorically thrashing around in their confusion and fear. Trying to make sense of things, but thrashing all the while, they impede their own capacity to see creatively or imaginatively, and to pursue the kind of dialogue with God that might produce new ways of understanding God and their situation. They are, as Jewish scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg puts it, “bewildered” within a wilderness that matches their own inner landscape. They are deeply bewildered by what is happening to them.

It makes me think of trying to save a drowning person whose terror causes them to thrash in the water. How do you take hold of such a person, calm them, and bring them to safety? This is the predicament God faces with humanity. In the water, a rescuer is advised not to approach the victim directly, but to extend a flotation device, something they can hold onto that will help them float, that will free them from the downward pull of the water.
God, in response to the people’s repentance and request that God take the snakes away, did not do that but instead gave instructions to create something that sounds a lot like an idol. “Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look on it and live.” The snakes remain, but a kind of flotation device is provided. That may not sound satisfying to you. And that’s okay. Personally, I don’t really think God sent the poisonous serpents. I think that is Israel’s understanding of a scary circumstance, an understanding born out of that place of collective, cognitive thrashing in their own physical and spiritual wilderness.

God provided a solution that invited them to look up: to take their eyes away from the fire of the snake bite, from those who had already died, and to look up at something that would help them to live. It may not be the deeply compassionate response that we want to see in this kind of story, but it was as much as the people could imagine about God’s compassion as they related this story later in time, and it was not insignificant. People were dying. Suddenly, it was possible to live. The circumstances of the poisonous serpents remained, but that didn’t mean death. All they had to do, God urged, was look up.

This is what God says again, years later, in the person of Jesus. As we heard in the gospel today, Jesus says that he is like that bronze serpent lifted on a pole, and we are invited to look up and direct our gaze at the one who did not come to condemn but to bring life. Jesus inverts a human narrative that anticipates judgment, and brings life-transforming love to the place where we are.

Returning to our story in Numbers, access to life was provided, but the snakes were not whisked away, possibly because they weren’t actually sent by God. And I think our lives are like that. Conflicts in our marriage don’t resolve overnight, even after multiple prayers for that to happen. Some forms of physical pain or illness may remain chronic throughout a person’s life. Violence may continue to rage around us, seemingly unchecked. What God offers is a richly textured and purposeful life amid the challenging circumstances that we face.

What God offers is a gradual maturing that moves us from habits of thrashing into habits that support personal and collective thriving, wherever we find ourselves. And this is a great miracle.

God offers relationship and God comes to us in the flesh, providing in the person of Jesus someone we can look upon to expand our capacity to understand and imagine and rediscover love. Even when we are feeling completely gutted by pain and confusion, we are met by a love that is more powerful, passionate, and unconditional than most of our past stories would set us up to believe. If we can just look up and give the reality of this love a chance, we find that the hollowness within, the dark and frightening cavity of uncertainty, begins to fill as the soul expands and rises up within that place.

This is the great mystery that scripture invites me to contemplate. Even the darker stories in the Bible do not fail me when they evoke questions that help me recognize my own struggles – and then remember who God is and what God is doing in my life.

In painful places may you lean into habits that help to reduce the thrashing. May you find a way to look up when things feel chaotic and uncertain.

When you find yourself bewildered, within an emotional and spiritual wilderness, may you find a way to trust in a love that feels too good to be true.

It is true. It will find you and it will bring you life and wholeness where and when you least expect it. Even if you thrash, it will find you and meet you where you are.