The Serpent-Christ

by Frances Young.

The Serpent-Christ [1]

Deep, deep in the veins is the poison lodged.

The mind is crippled: no antidote

For wisdom’s sting, while the serpent sleeps

In the noon-day sun, warm on the tarmac,

beautiful.

 

Weak, weak is the heart by venom infected –

Yet seemingly strong: for the serpent-coils,

Tensed like a spring, speak power to leap

To the heavens, up the heated stones of Babel,

masterful.

 

Beaten, beaten down like wheat in a storm

Are dreams of good: no peace but a sword

While the wound festers. The serpent sleeps

In the noon-day sun, warm on the tarmac,

beautiful.

 

High, lifted on high, is the antidote:

For life is hid with the serpent-Christ

Who bears the serpent’s curse, and refines

Knowledge of good and evil – now

inseparable.

That poem emerged years ago from  pondering a striking modern crucifix I’d seen in an old tumble-down church in a French village – an outline figure remarkable in its curvacious, almost coil-like shape – the serpent-Christ. On the bike a few days later I’d almost ridden over a snake basking in the sun on the heated tarmac.  Insight into a whole series of biblical associations was triggered, which came to me afresh this year in response to the lectionary for the first two Sundays in Lent.

The train of thought began with John 3.14-15: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up..’; and turning to Numbers 21.4-9, that strange story  took on new meaning.

The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

This ‘miserable food’ was nothing other than God’s gift of manna. Then we’re told, ‘the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.’ The people came to their senses, confessed their sin and asked Moses to plead with the Lord to rid them of the snakes. Moses interceded and was told to make a serpent and set it up on a pole so that anyone who’d been bitten could look on it and be healed. The bronze serpent is the antidote to the snakebites.

In the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, snakes appear as hostile beings to be repulsed with spells, but also with magical powers for renewal of life.[2] Generally in antiquity, the serpent was a symbol of wisdom.[3] Jesus is reported to have said, ‘Be wise as serpents.’ The name, Naasenes (Naas = snake in Hebrew) or Ophites (ophis = snake in Greek), was given to certain gnostic heretics; clearly they were snake-worshippers, the snake symbolising the knowledge or wisdom which brought salvation. In Genesis the snake tempts Adam and Eve with the promise of knowledge, and some rediscovered gnostic texts depict the serpent as the ‘goody’ in the story, offering the knowledge needed to escape from the clutches of the ‘baddy’ Creator-God.  From the usual point of view they read Genesis upside-down; but what was there to stop them? The serpent was a symbol of wisdom.

The snake-bite in the desert was an attack of ordinary human wisdom. When you’re dying of hunger and thirst, and not getting anywhere, what’s the commonsense thing to do? The antidote was the bronze serpent raised on a pole – the true wisdom that comes from God. So arises the Gospel insight that the wisdom of God was embodied in Jesus, the Son of Man, lifted up on the cross as the antidote to the serpent’s curse.

The challenge: where is divine wisdom in the current wilderness of climate change and coronavirus?

 

[1] Select verses from a poem published in Frances Young, God’s Presence. A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), pp. 255-6. Biblical References: Genesis 3.1-7; 11.1-9; Numbers 21.4-9; John 3.14-5.

[2] The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, British Museum Exhibition, November-March 2011. See John H. Taylor, Spells for Eternity. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (London: British Museum press, 2010), p. 65.

[3] Statuettes of the Cretan goddess of wisdom show her with snakes in her hands. The healing wisdom of the Greek god Asclepius was symbolised by the snake.

One thought on “The Serpent-Christ”

  1. Thank you, Frances. Not long ago, my wife and I were in Jordan and visited the top of Mt. Nebo. In front of the chapel is what one guidebooks calls “an enigmatic serpentine cross” by Italian sculptor Giovanni Fantoni, which “imaginatively merges the life-saving bronze serpent set up by Moses in the desert and the cross upon which Jesus was crucified”.

    Like

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