I am writing as I am about to go with my husband to a large soccer stadium in Oxford, UK, now a COVID-19 vaccination center, for his vaccine appointment.
The vaccination program has been progressing at an astonishing pace in the UK and the US, and it is great to see vaccines starting to be sent out out to lower income countries through the COVAX scheme.
I recently spoke with a nurse who is working long shifts delivering the program. She sees it as a calling and something of a spiritual experience. People are so grateful to receive it from her and can be quite emotional.
I could not help but think of Moses with his bronze snake in the desert in this week’s lectionary texts, which halted a plague of serpents that had ravaged the community (Numbers 21:4-9).
In our pandemic-ravaged world, this passage is a timely one for reflection.
The Israelites are tired. They have travelled a long way and had experienced hardship and grief.
In the previous chapter, the deaths of Aaron and Miriam are described. Moses himself must have been grieving his siblings, and one suspects that there are many more deaths than just these two.
When will the journey end? The monotony of living in a barren landscape, short of water and on a limited diet had become too much.
The people became impatient. The Hebrew phrase here literally means their “souls were short” – the opposite of generosity of spirit. Tempers were frayed and arguments were sparking around the camp at the slightest provocation.
At this stage in the pandemic, I have cooked every recipe that I have ever borrowed or invented, and we have walked every road and footpath near our home. Like the Israelites, we are tired, and the pandemic feels monotonous.
We have lost loved ones to COVID-19 and seen others struggle to recover. For many, the whole experience has left us with “shortened souls.”
How did God respond to Israelites’ complaints? The Lord sent “poisonous serpents” among them.
The response was immediate: shortened souls give way to repentant hearts, and they pleaded with Moses to take away the snakes.
The phase for the serpents is enigmatic – the Hebrew word could allude to the “seraphim.” These were the creatures who worshipped the Lord around the throne in Isaiah 6, so how could they also be so dangerous?
Did the people’s change of heart come just from the death toll or was the sight of the seraphim a heavenly reminder that also turned them to repentance?
When Isaiah saw the Lord surrounded by the seraphim, he cried out, “Woe is me!” (Isaiah 6:5). In response to these seraphim, the people recognized their fault.
Moses turned to the Lord for help and made a bronze serpent that he elevated on a pole. From that moment on, anyone who was bitten could look at the snake and live.
The narrative then moves forward, and we do not hear of any further difficulties from the fiery seraphim.
The Israelites brought the plague on themselves, with continuous disobedience and grumbling. The bronze snake provided healing, but the people still needed to turn away from their wrongdoings and turn back to God.
My father was a medical doctor, and I first encountered the symbol of the bronze snake on a pole as the logo on his medical journal. I knew it as a powerful symbol of healing.
Dad was very frail in his later years, and I was glad that he was not alive to suffer this year of pandemic. But he would have loved the vaccination program and would have wanted to know the origins of the pandemic.
Whatever the exact causes of the pandemic, when we examine each of the options, we find that ultimately it has come from our interference with nature.
We’ve pushed wildlife to the very margins and, whether the virus jumped to humans through the wild animal trade or through another route, it is a problem with human causes – a crisis of our own making.
When we come before God, we realize we have not been responsible stewards of God’s beautiful creation.
Like the grumbling of the Israelites in the desert, our actions towards nature show how far we are away from God – our souls have been short in our care of God’s handiwork.
The course of the pandemic has also exposed the level of inequality in human society. Those fortunate enough to work from the safety of our homes have had time to reflect on the brokenness and inequality of our world.
How do we bring healing? We find hope in this week’s Gospel passage (John 3:14-21).
Jesus takes the image of the bronze snake in the wilderness to explain the cross – he must also be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
The cross is a powerful symbol of healing, and through the cross we are offered the astonishing gift of forgiveness and eternal life.
As we look at the cross, our shortened souls turn to repentant hearts. Having received eternal life through his grace, we can move forward knowing that “we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10, NRSV).
Interestingly, in 2 Kings 18:4 we find that King Hezekiah broke up Moses’ bronze snake because it had become an object of worship.
As the vaccine program in our own countries and worldwide begins to push virus levels back and we start to come out to the pandemic, we have an opportunity to make a fresh start.
But the vaccination program is a means to an end only. To be able to move forward, we need to see clearly what has led to the problems we face, and where we have taken the wrong paths.
We need to care deeply about all that God has made.
Only then can we, as disciples of Christ, work with others to heal the world God loves and to rebuild it as a place where all can flourish and find healing.
Author’s note: For further reflection on COVID-19 and the environment see: COVID-19: Environment, Justice and the Future (Grove Books, 2020).
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for the Lenten season. An article reflecting on the lectionary texts for each Sunday during Lent will appear weekly. The previous articles in the series are:
Sneaking Off to Mass and Returning with a Face Tattoo | Jessica McDougald
Do God’s Promises Extend to Savlanut, Sarah and Tseba? | Meredith Stone
Why You Should Enter the Shadow of Lent | Fran Pratt
Lent Calls us to Embrace Foolishness | Richard Wilson
Director of Theology and Education at The John Ray Initiative, an educational charity seeking to connect science, environment and the Christian faith for sustainability and action. She is a church minister and author of several books.