Across the Potomac River just a half-hour’s drive from where I live in the Western Piedmont of Maryland, lies West Virginia, where it’s still legal to handle poisonous snakes—one of the few places left in the country where you can do that. Earlier this year, Pastor Mack Wolford followed his father’s faith—and death—by handling a rattlesnake; he died following that Sunday service last May just as his father had died. Appalachia is home to the Holiness Pentecostal movement in which some congregations practice snake handling as their faith response to Mark 16:18:
And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
While the text seems pretty straightforward, there are layers of parable-like meaning (just like the entire rest of Scripture, no?) that give us a better understanding of what exactly is being conveyed. Someone with only an intellectual understanding (which really means it’s what someone taught them; they don’t REALLY understand it as their own experience) only “gets it” to their level of ability to understand. Some, like the flamboyant Pastor Wolford, experienced this meaning as a testing of his faith. Perhaps obedience has yet other dimensions.
One “problem” that I have with this particular verse, and it’s not really a problem as such, is that the Greek verb arousin (root word of our English “arouse,” and containing the Greek root “airo”) translated as “take up” here in Mark is the same one used on other occasions in the New Testament and translated “lift up.” More like raising up than simply picking up and grasping. But even as I type that, I know that it’s that way for a reason—so that the undiscerning, those who don’t examine their faith, will trip. “Take up” offers the sense of pick up and handle, whereas “lift up” obviously pertains more to a demonstration—sort of similar to raising up a flag to carry in battle maybe or perhaps as in the foreshadowing example in the Old Testament book of Numbers. (And, yes, I know that Numbers is a bit dry, but stay with me here.)
Essentially, in Numbers 21, Moses had brought the children of Israel out of Egypt and sooner rather than later they’re complaining about the sameness of their food and how they were just going to die wandering around the wilderness. Early in the chapter, some of them are taken prisoner after a half-hearted attempt to foil Canaanite King Arad, which incites the Israelites to make a vow with the Lord to conquer Canaan and they are, in fact, successful. But then Moses leads them off instead of letting them set up camp right then. And so now they’re groaning and whining about their poor circumstances or perhaps, more to the point, poor leadership. “Fiery serpents” descend on them now, killing many, so they again cry to Moses, this time to ask God to fix it (whereas they hadn’t asked God for better food or more water…hmm.) The image “fiery” lends a feeling that the snakes spread through the community much like a wildfire in a strong gale and that their bite was particularly consuming, stingy and burn-y. The people realize they have sinned and clamored against God’s chosen leader, so they now want Moses to ask God to take the serpents away. “Okay, we get it, we get it. We screwed up. Just get God to take away the snakes that are biting and killing us.” Sounds rather like a 4-year old who has learned socially she must say (an oft-mumbled) “Sorry” when she’s hit the kid who took her doll—and seems just about as sincere.
The mostly-patient Moses indeed goes to God who tells him this to do:
“Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” (Numbers 21:9)
No capturing of snakes, no building of snake pens, no appointing of notorious snake killers—indeed the snakes are not said to have been vanquished by any means at all. (Maybe they just later dwindle away in another cosmic instance of the teacher arriving when the student is ready and then vanishing when no longer needed.) Instead of watching snakes slither away, propelled by arm of the Mighty God in obedience to cries of the Israelites, there is now this object of their own obedience to be reckoned with. The snake-bitten must decide to look at this pole where this bronze snake reminds them of Who saves them. This surrendering act of humble obedience, this gaze on what God has provided—the loving symbol of God as Supreme and Salvation—and they recover.
After Moses tells them what to do, I imagine there were those who then again complained, like, “Hey, we asked you to get God to send the snakes away. You really expect us to just look at your metalcraft artwork up on that pole? We NEED the snakes removed and you hand us this?” And those faithless ones would be the very ones who would die in the very presence of salvation, rather than humbly submit to the power of obedience to save them.
Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3 about being lifted up to save His people similarly in their sin. Much in the same way that bronze snake was made and raised up on a pole so as to be readily available to all who would look, Jesus himself was raised up on display as the loving symbol of the Supreme God of Salvation. His love is there for the taking, and obediently looking—considering that grace—will save you. When you have fiery snakes all around, when you’re charred and seared by unemployment, unhealthy relationships, or whatever your snakes look like, you might not think such a simple thing will help at all. Our minds don’t think of obedience as much at all; it’s more a feeling of the heart.
Just look upon Him, and you will live.