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Bible Study: Lent 4 (B) – March 10, 2024
March 10, 2024
The Book of Numbers recounts the 40-year-long journey of the ancient Israelites through the wilderness, toward the Promised Land. The way is fraught, and many challenges beset the people as they wander through the desert. Just before the events of today’s text, the Israelites mourned the loss of Moses’ brother, Aaron, and then participated in a successful (but presumably brutal) battle against the Canaanites at Hormah. The community we encounter in this story knows well the ravages of suffering, violence, and death. Therefore, the impatience of the Israelites should be understood sympathetically. When they cry out to God, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” the Israelites are not being melodramatic or fickle. These people are exhausted, traumatized, bereft, and afflicted. It is a very hard thing to follow God in the wilderness.
Challengingly, God responds to the complaints of the people with even more affliction, sending deadly snakes into their midst. The people repent and beg for help. Per God’s instruction, Moses fashions a bronze representation of one of the snakes and sets it on a pole. Whenever someone is bitten by a snake, they look at the bronze icon—and live. Paradoxically, God saves the people from their affliction by inviting them to gaze on the very image of their affliction. The suggestion seems to be that a problem cannot be solved unless it is contemplated and accepted for what it is. Perhaps God is offering a hard but life-giving lesson to God’s beloved people as they suffer in the wilderness: There is no way around. The only way out is through.
- How might modern hearers of this story relate to the beleaguered plight of the Israelites? In what kind of wilderness are we wandering? On what bronze serpent do we need to gaze?
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
“[The LORD’s] mercy endures for ever!” the Psalmist cries out. It is worth spending some time reflecting on what is meant by the noun “mercy.” The Hebrew word is chesed, which indeed does mean “mercy,” but the word can also rightly be translated as “goodness,” “love,” or “loving-kindness.” This is a fulsome concept. Chesed is more than pity, more than leniency. God’s “mercy” runs far deeper than an indulgent tolerance for the sinful. Rather, the endless chesed of God is an orientation of love that grounds God’s action to and for God’s people.
“Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; they were afflicted because of their sins,” verse 17 reads. These same rebels cry out to God in their distress, and out of God’s endless chesed, God responds to their pleas with healing, “sav[ing] them from the grave.” Those who were afflicted are given new life; those who had rebelled are reaffirmed as “children” of the Lord. The last word must be a joyful one, for it is chesed, and not affliction, that endures forever.
The lectionary invites us to consider Scriptural texts in relationship to each other. It is worth considering how the theology of this psalm might inform our reading of today’s intense story from Numbers. Perhaps the complaining Israelites are an example of “fools” who take to “rebellious ways”—to such fools, the ever-loving, ever-merciful God responds with healing grace. In this light, the bronze serpent could be understood as an instantiation of God’s chesed.
- What is the relationship between God’s affliction and God’s mercy? Do the two contradict each other? If God’s mercy “endures for ever,” what are we to make of those moments when God seems to choose punishment over mercy? Does this psalm resolve this tension?
Themes of God’s healing love/mercy continue in today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The passage describes our transition from being trapped in sin to being resurrected through Christ Jesus. Implicit in this salvific transition is a shift in parentage. The letter reports that, when we were still trapped in the “passions of our flesh,” under the power of the Enemy, we were “children of wrath.” But by the grace of God, we have come to be seated “in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”; our salvation thus consists of entering into the life of the One who is God’s Son and experiencing solidarity with his death and resurrection. In short, through Jesus, we go from being “children of wrath” to being children of God.
Paul (or the Pauline disciples who wrote Ephesians) is eager to remind his readers that this adoption into the Christ reality is not something we achieve ourselves: “This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” God is the sole agent of salvation. God is the subject of almost all the active verbs in this passage. We, being saved, are relegated to a relatively passive role. We do good works only insofar as we are enabled to by God—“for we are what he has made us”; even the faith through which we are saved has its origin in God’s prevenient gift. The simultaneous challenge and allure of this passage is that it seems to leave little room for human power or agency.
- What particular “trespasses” and “passions of our flesh” afflict us in the world today? How do you see God saving us from them?
- How can we reconcile this passage’s emphasis on Divine agency with our own commitments to accountability and responsibility?
John 3:16 is of course one of the most well-loved verses in the New Testament, and though it is often quoted on its own, it takes on deeper meaning when examined in its original context. This passage is part of Jesus’ discourse with the Pharisee Nicodemus, who visits Jesus by night in order to learn from him. The aforementioned famous verse comes directly after Jesus references today’s story from Numbers, comparing his body to the bronze serpent raised on a pole. The “lift[ing] up” of Christ refers not to his resurrection, but to the cross; in the theological schema of John’s Gospel, the cross is the locus of Christ’s glorification and triumph. Jesus seems to be making the following theological connection: when the ancient Israelites were afflicted and killed in the wilderness, they found healing by gazing upon a serpent on a pole. In the same way, Jesus is saying, those who are afflicted and facing death must gaze upon Christ’s cross if they wish to find healing and life. The phrase “whoever believes in him” should be understood in the light of this gazing. If you want to believe in Christ, and thus experience his life, then (paradoxically) you should attend to the cross.
This discourse also seems to poke fun at the character Nicodemus. “Those who do what is true come to the light,” Jesus says—but Nicodemus has come to Jesus in the darkness. Does he act falsely, then? Perhaps. And yet there is hope for Nicodemus, because even though he has acted in the darkness, he has encountered the light—for as John 1:4 and 1:9 proclaim, in Jesus is the light that enlightens all people.
- What does it mean to “believe” in Jesus? How does this passage illuminate the nature of Christian “belief?”
- How might readers relate to Nicodemus? Do we seek Christ in the “darkness” or in the “light?”
Aidan Luke Stoddart is a seminarian at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.
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