Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?

I’ve had reason recently to spend some time studying historic and contemporary Presbyterian seals and emblems. Amid the burning bushes aplenty, one outlier motif that was used in one form or another by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. from the late 18th C. until 1958 is that of the bronze serpent on the pole (per at least some traditions a pole in the shape of a tau cross, but in this case, a Latin cross) from Numbers 21. For those who don’t recall the story, it can be found here.

The first chapters of Genesis, of course, set up the association on the serpent with Satan, or at least with evil. In Genesis 3, we get
“The LORD God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
When a proposed new seal in which the bronze snake was the main element at the 1891 General Assembly of the PCUSA, this understanding was front and center; one commissioner argued that an inscription would have to be added that said “This isn’t the devil.” Eventually the bronze serpent remained, but as a smaller element of the whole seal rather than the central element.*

The story in Numbers is an odd one, and it certainly has echoes of sympathetic healing (or sympathetic magic) and of the Rod of Asclepius, as well as other ancient Near Eastern stories. In 2 Kings 18:4, Hezekiah has the bronze serpent destroyed because of idolatry.

But the thing that keeps it from being just another odd OT story is that Jesus invokes it and applies it to himself when talking to Nicodemus in John 3 (which is why it was used in old PCUSA seals):
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“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.

“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.”
So, what we have here is Jesus comparing himself to a (bronze) serpent—cursed among all animals—that offers healing when looked upon. It seems to me that beyond the obvious image of Jesus being lifted up on a cross, there are layers of things going on here (par for the course for John), particularly regarding the significance of snakes and the healing offered in Numbers. But I can’t quite put my finger on what they all are. I’m interested in the thoughts of others.


* BTW, if anyone is interested, the proposed PCUSA seal from 1891 and the one actually adopted in 1892 and in use until 1958 can be seen here. The proposed seal was based on one used by the Trustees of the General Assembly since the 1790s.

Comments

  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    The contrast between the bite of the poisonous snakes afflicting the Israelites and the life given by staring up at the bronze one on the pole is an aspect of the account in Numbers. Much the same with Asclepius I suspect. Note also that in verse 7 the Israelites confess their error and seek relief.
  • 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." 2 Corinthians 5:21

    You're right that there are layers upon layers here. The first is this concept, that God basically manages to spike the guns of evil by becoming --- shall we call it "pseudo-evil"? --- himself, in such a way that he gives life rather than taking it.

    There's also an echo of "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3:13) where the same sort of thing is going on. The same impersonation of evil is going on, in this case with regards to a "curse" rather than "sin"--but the "run the whole mechanism backwards into a blessing" idea is exactly the same in this verse too. Plus, we get the involvement of a tree/cross/wooden pointy thingy (hey, it's poetic license!) and the whole thing wraps up beautifully if you're the kind of person who, like me, thinks in terms of visual symbols.

    There is one other avenue from which you might approach this, and that is, oddly enough, perhaps most accessible through Macbeth. You'll recall the opening scene where the thane of Cawdor-that-was turns traitor, gets killed in battle against King Duncan, and his title reverts to the crown? This is what allows Duncan to re-bestow it upon Macbeth in the next scene. The basic concept "treason results in the loss of all titles to the king who bestowed them" is more than just monarchial legal theory; it pops up in places throughout the Bible, too, where titles and symbols (snake/serpent= wisdom, morning star/lucifer/lightbearer) which God originally granted to the individual now known as Satan--well, now that he has committed treason against the Lord, those titles have reverted to the Crown, and Jesus bears them. Thus he takes the snake imagery upon himself, as well as referring to himself as "the bright and morning star" in Rev. 22:16--which is pretty startling the first time you run across it if you've never read aught but the Old Testament before!

    I've probably yakked enough about this, but this whole symbol complex forms the theological background for a complex piece of ecclesiastical embroidery I've been contemplating for lo these twenty years now. (ask me when I'll have time...)
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    That's good, thanks
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    What @Lamb Chopped has said. Thank you. 👍
  • DooneDoone Shipmate
    Thank you, @Lamb Chopped, really useful.
  • You're welcome!
  • @Lamb Chopped, my thanks as well!! You’ve given me lots to meditate on (and maybe a few more questions).
    The first is this concept, that God basically manages to spike the guns of evil by becoming --- shall we call it "pseudo-evil"? --- himself, in such a way that he gives life rather than taking it.
    Can you unpack this a little more, particularly what you’re getting at with “pseudo-evil”?
    . . . if you're the kind of person who, like me, thinks in terms of visual symbols.
    I’m very much that sort of person, which is one reason these passages intrigue me.
    I've probably yakked enough about this, . . .
    Nope! Not by my standards. :wink:
    . . . but this whole symbol complex forms the theological background for a complex piece of ecclesiastical embroidery I've been contemplating for lo these twenty years now. (ask me when I'll have time...)
    You have no idea how much I’d love to hear all about it now. But I’ll refrain from asking.
  • LeafLeaf Shipmate
    The link about the Rod of Asclepius notes the theory connecting it with the ancient treatment for Guinea worm: gradually winding the worm around a small stick until it is entirely removed. Thus the sign for a medical practitioner was a worm/serpent (Hebrew does not distinguish between these AIUI) wrapped around a stick. It advertised "healing". The story from Numbers uses what was an already-known sign for advertising the presence of healing.

    I see this as part of the "complex piece of embroidery" of John's atonement theory in the Gospel: Christ winding around himself and drawing out the sin of the world.
  • LeafLeaf Shipmate
    Tangent: what I think of as the Presbyterian fondness for the mandorla shape in its seals (such as found in the United Church of Canada logo ) is a real rabbit hole with a fascinating history. Short version: early iconography with Christ in middle of mandorla -> saint in mandorla -> bishop in mandorla used as a seal -> Protestant replacement of Bible for bishop as authority -> mandorlas everywhere in the Reformed tradition.
  • Leaf wrote: »
    I see this as part of the "complex piece of embroidery" of John's atonement theory in the Gospel: Christ winding around himself and drawing out the sin of the world.
    Hmmmm. Really interesting to think about! Thanks!



    Leaf wrote: »
    Tangent: what I think of as the Presbyterian fondness for the mandorla shape in its seals (such as found in the United Church of Canada logo ) is a real rabbit hole with a fascinating history. Short version: early iconography with Christ in middle of mandorla -> saint in mandorla -> bishop in mandorla used as a seal -> Protestant replacement of Bible for bishop as authority -> mandorlas everywhere in the Reformed tradition.
    Tangent continued: Actually, not so much in my experience. The only Presbyterian mandorla seals (or similar emblems/logos) I can think of are the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church in Australia. Then there’s the United Church of Canada, but that’s a united church. Are there others I’m not thinking of?

    Circles, or occasionally ovals, are, in my experience, much more common among Presbyterians and other Reformed. I tend to associate mandorlas much more with Anglicans/Episcopalians.
  • Nick Tamen wrote: »
    The only Presbyterian mandorla seals (or similar emblems/logos) I can think of are the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church in Australia.
    Missed the edit window before I thought to add that they have the burning bush, not a Bible as the central element.

  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    In my day, the school I went to was Presbyterian and had the burning bush. School went to the Uniting Church in the great arbitration, but the burning bushes were still in the chapel in Dlet's time ('99 to'12).
  • Nick Twenty years ago going for a meal at Westminster College Cambridge would have answered your question. All the seals of Reformed/Presbyterian Churches were in colour on the ceiling. Since then someone has whitewashed over them and while technically you can still see them as they are still there, yet I would not want to try and identify them without the colour.
  • Ah, yes, I actually examined pictures of that ceiling as part of my project. (Though everything there would be seals as of the time the ceiling was constructed. Things have changed since then in a number of places.)

    As you say, color would have helped!
  • Nick Tamen wrote: »
    @Lamb Chopped, my thanks as well!! You’ve given me lots to meditate on (and maybe a few more questions).

    Ask away. I am (not quite) avoiding a certain piece of work....
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    The first is this concept, that God basically manages to spike the guns of evil by becoming --- shall we call it "pseudo-evil"? --- himself, in such a way that he gives life rather than taking it.
    Can you unpack this a little more, particularly what you’re getting at with “pseudo-evil”?

    What I was trying to say (roughly) is that of course Christ-in-himself is no kind of evil, or sin, or curse--but then, on the other hand, "God made him to be sin" or "Christ became a curse for us" is not merely a really, REALLY vivid way of saying "Jesus took our place." Something mysterious really happened there, and while we'll never understand it in this world (and probably not in the next), it smells to me rather like the kind of thing God does in the Lord's Supper--there is a rock solid reality brought into play, and we dare not reduce it to our human formulas. Or if you prefer, it's like trying to understand the Trinity--lots of similarities, but nothing exactly like it, and ultimately we're left saying "we don't entirely know, and maybe it's time for us to stop being over-confident in our human attempts to explain."

    The two ways I usually hear this dismissed are either a) "it's just an allegory, how dare you say that pure-unspotted Jesus became a curse/sin/whatever or had any closer contact with evil than mere symbolism." or b) Jesus literally became evil. The first I've already explained why it doesn't work. The second is overly simplistic, leaves us with a million screw-ups in other areas of biblical doctrine (like, does that mean the Trinity was rent asunder, then?), and forces us to posit that at some un-described point he then "went to the light side" again, before the Resurrection. Which is all very Star Wars and ridiculous.

    So I suppose I'm trying to pull off a Schroedinger's Jesus (!) of how he could be both "sin/curse" and "holy Son of God" at one and the same time. ("Pseudo-evil" was my clumsy way of trying to describe it, on the model of the bronze snake--it's a snake, sure, but it ain't biting anybody.) If we take the Bible text seriously (and I do), this paradoxical, contradictory doubling is the evidence, and we're basically stuck with it. But we are given no explanation of it, any more than we are given an explanation for how the real presence works in the Lord's Supper, or for baptism--or for any number of analogous weirdnesses in the realm of physics and so forth.
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    . . . if you're the kind of person who, like me, thinks in terms of visual symbols.
    I’m very much that sort of person, which is one reason these passages intrigue me.
    I've probably yakked enough about this, . . .
    Nope! Not by my standards. :wink:
    . . . but this whole symbol complex forms the theological background for a complex piece of ecclesiastical embroidery I've been contemplating for lo these twenty years now. (ask me when I'll have time...)
    You have no idea how much I’d love to hear all about it now. But I’ll refrain from asking.

    I do believe that the Scripture was written for the whole of humanity, and that includes those who think visually, in terms of symbols and so forth, and not just the logical-brained folk who want their doctrine in a chain of syllogisms. So I'm really happy to swim in the symbolic waters--particularly because I think that human symbolism around the world and throughout time is NOT an accident, but rather something that God, er, "helped along the way" as it developed, since he had every intention of using it for his own purposes. (Which is yet another reason why biblical parallels in mythology, etc. don't bother me at all, but I digress.)

    [taking a brief break here to do the Thing™ that I am supposed to be doing, thereby easing my conscience...

    There. The Thing is done. Hallelujah.]

    Okay, the embroidery project...

    I really love traditional pictorial type embroidery--by which I mean (because I can't find better terms) the sort of thing that is the very reverse of "contemporary" and simplified. In terms of stoles, paraments, etc. most of my church body is using ultra-simplified imagery--so you get a stylized four-pointed star above a half circle covering a rectangle with a couple of exes under it, and from that you're supposed to read the Christmas star over baby Jesus in a manger. I always think of this style as vaguely 1960s and 1970s. It's very easy to do in terms of beginners' embroidery, as it's basically nothing but color-in-the-spaces.

    You know, this is getting WAY too long. I'm starting a new post. My apologies to those I'm boring...
  • Okay, part two.

    Anyway, I like a challenge, and I like something that goes beyond paint-by-numbers needlework. So I design my own. And one piece of Vietnamese-influenced crossover Christian paramentry (is that a word?) I've had in mind for years is to take the traditional symbols for the crucifixion and resurrection and, er, redo them with a Vietnamese symbolic cast. Meaning this.

    The snake-on-a-cross is the symbol complex this whole thread is about, and we've been unpacking its meaning in detail upthread. But the snake is also well-known as a form of the dragon (or should we say it the other way around?) and both are traditional Western symbols for Satan. In the Bible passages upstream we see that Christ has reappropriated the snake symbol, but the dragon one appears to have been left untouched--probably because it's mostly in Revelation, and it's not like there was a ton of canonical Scripture coming down the pike after that to take up the subject.

    So I asked myself whether Christ would re-appropriate the dragon symbol as well--(duh, of course he would, he's that kind of guy) and noticed how nicely that fit in with the Vietnamese/Asian-in-general view of dragons as symbols of life, immortality, wisdom and power--all very Christ-like things, to be sure... Anyway, one side of the design is getting a dragon-(celestial, to be sure! which is I believe five claws) on-a-cross in place of the usual serpent. It's circled or coiled, like this: dragon in a circle

    So that's a heckuva lot of symbolism for the one side--but the other side is the resurrection symbol, which is of course the phoenix--and there's a whole boatload of symbolism around the phoenix in Asian symbology as well, which includes I think beauty and immortality. I'm not nearly well-enough read on the subject to say much here except that it is one of the four animals that turn up constantly in Vietnamese art (the others being the dragon, the turtle, and the??? drat, I've forgotten the last. ah yes, the lion!) and this one turns up WITH the dragon in New Year's references to the foundational myth of Vietnam, where it seems to stand in for a supernatural creature some people call a "fairy" but my husband translates as 'angel'. The story says that an angel and a dragon became parents of 100 eggs, which hatched into people. The dragon took his 50 children and established China. The angel took her 50 and established Vietnam. So you've got a creation motif going, as well as the death-and-resurrection stuff.

    So basically I've gotten myself in WAY over my head symbolically, as usual. But it will be fun. And gorgeous, visually speaking, if I can ever get it done. (Think of the colors! and the metallics!)
  • That sounds absolutely awesome, LC! Thanks so much for the detailed description; I really love all the ideas at work.

    And I love the word “paramentry.” I may have to appropriate that for the next churchy project on my agenda—a guide for what paraments are to be used when at our place (so they can function when I’m not around). I share your thoughts on some the look of the 60s and 70s. Fortunately, we have an abundance of artists at our place, including a master felter, so everything we have (which includes multiple sets in some colors) is custom-made.

    And more importantly for this thread, thanks for your additional thoughts on the bronze serpent/Nehushtan.
  • Ooh, isn't that an awesome word! Thank you for reminding me of it. So sinister with that combo of consonants and vowels--i may have to commit fiction just so I can use it as the name of a villain.
  • So sinister with that combo of consonants and vowels--i may have to commit fiction just so I can use it as the name of a villain.
    :lol:

  • Not as bad as 'paramentry' - which don't even exist!
  • It does now.
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