When was the last time you walked into the ocean? Or sat on the sand with the surf washing up over you? Do you remember the force of the tide, the effort needed to maintain your footing or seat, to counter the push and pull of the current against your body so that you could remain planted in the sand, firm, upright? Do you remember saying to yourself, “Okay, now, I’ve got it,” just before a wave hit you and knocked you over?
Jesus’s listeners in today’s Gospel are trying to find their footing, to find a place to stand upright. “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (Jn 8:24). His listeners are desperate, pressing Jesus for details – so desperate that, even though they don’t understand what he is saying to them, nevertheless, “many believed in him” (Jn 8:30). But the current of Jesus’s truth will be too strong for them; by the end of this chapter, these same people who believed will try to stone Jesus (Jn 8:59). Their belief is without a firm foundation, unable to brace them against the next wave.
Seasoned practitioners of many spiritual traditions have come to understand a basic premise. In moments of profound crisis, the ordeal afflicting our spirit often contains, hidden inside it, a truth we need. We need to encounter, to acknowledge, and finally to reckon with this truth, in order to be healed.
Somehow, the poison contains the medicine.
The corresponding question then becomes:
How do we extract the medicine and live to tell the tale?
In this short story from the book Numbers, Moses uses what anthropologists would call sympathetic or imitative magic. Traditional societies often use an object representing a common threat or affliction – in this case, the mysterious, powerful viper – to heal the affliction caused by the thing itself. Encounters with desert-dwelling snakes would have been frequent in the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites. Moses’ response in the text suggests an imitative logic: fight fire with fire. Subdue the literal burning of snake venom in the flesh with an image of a snake cast from burning, molten metal. This is underscored by the word-magic of the Hebrew: the word for snake, nehash, sounds evocatively like the word for bronze, nehoshet.