Baker Academic

Friday, June 12, 2015

Of Seraphim and John 3

Maybe you memorized it when you were eight. Maybe it was painted on a decorative plate at grandma's house. Maybe you heard it a Keith Urban concert. Maybe you swoon when you hear it because of Tim Tebow's come-hither smile. But if you have any exposure to Christianity, you're probably familiar with John 3:16.

In the standard evangelical canon-within-canon, John 3:16 represents nothing short of the Gospel (emphasis on the definite article). In modern, minimalist, individualist incarnations of Christian theology, John 3:16 is the gateway drug to heavenly bliss.

It is curious then that many Christians have no idea what to do with the immediate context of this verse:
John 3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “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....
So what is this business about the serpent in the wilderness? And how does said serpent relate to the Son of Man? Well, just as a refresher:
Numbers 21:6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
As you can see this passage creates space for more questions (to put it mildly). So sometimes the Lord sends poisonous serpents? Or should this be translated "fiery seraphim" [הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים] of angelic import? Sometimes zoomorphic images cast in bronze are salvation from sin and not the cause of sin? And has anyone ever had a worse middle-management job description than Moses?

Back to John's Gospel, what is to be gained by comparing Moses' bronze image to Jesus?

John 3:14 is a fascinating window into a much overlooked biblical topic: serpentine imagery. Once you start exploring the forms and functions of serpents in the Bible, it becomes clear that the image isn't nearly as negative as you might expect.

For a wonderfully comprehensive treatment of this topic, see Charlesworth's The Good and Evil Serpent. It is not for the timid. I once used it for an advanced exegesis class and it really functions well at that level (i.e. it's not going to challenge J. K. Rowling for sales). One of the payoffs is the realization that Christian, theological emphasis on Genesis 3 has negatively colored our understanding of serpents in the Bible. Indeed even a cursory reading of John 3 should suggest that our traditional readings of serpents in the Bible have been insufficient.



  1. Or the Bible presents two quite, quite different, even opposite views of serpents. And oddly, holy men. Who are associated with serpents. Even Moses and Jesus.

  2. I've recently become very interested in the story of the bronze serpent. I've been wondering if there is some connection to Azazel in Leviticus 16.

  3. Or to Egyptian pharaohs, who often had a viper in their crowns. If Moses was explicitly linked to these, it might have presented a theological problem.

    Another link: oath and symbol of Hippocrates.

  4. In the immediate context of the story, it would seem to be no coincidence that the serpent is a symbol relating to judgment, since serpents were the means of judgment. When Paul writes later that Christ was "made to be sin for us" and "cursed is he that hangs on a tree," there are obviously other Biblical images also inspiring these statements, but perhaps the image of a curse being raised up on a stick wasn't lost on Paul, since his letters seem to assume his people's familiarity with previous sermons. And certainly, the serpent is strongly associated with sin and curse in Genesis.

    In the context of Moses, his staff was changed into a serpent while in Egypt, although this, unlike his hand miracle, seemed to be a sign chiefly for the Egyptians. This may have been a warning of judgment as well.

    Another thing that I think is important to keep in mind is that the good and evil were not as clearly delineated in early Judaism. Even if there were evil beings used for divine judgment, they were thought to be instruments of God's sovereign will, as Saul's "evil spirit from the Lord" or the "lying spirit" in the mouths of the false prophets. This is different from the perspective of Jesus loosing the woman "whom Satan has bound" and "destroying the works of the Devil." This ambiguity of God's good and evil in the Torah is no more lost on the Johannine writer than it would be on Paul (if Paul knew of the connection made in John 3), who sees both divine wrath and grace in the cross. Some of this still troubles many people concerning the meaning of redemption, especially looked at from a substitutionary point of view.

  5. It may be that the OT and NT God both owe something to the ancient gods and folkloric "tricksters." Who were not entirely good by modern standards. Jesus himself told his followers to be "wise as serpents. " Which in a second reading, might be read "sly as snakes." Paul even proclaimed himself above all law; as a seeming amoralist.

  6. My position is that in the end, there is a Cynic, intellectual voice in the New Testament. One that is critical of religion, lords, and even of itself, somewhat; referring to snakes in religion, and so forth. Finally that poststructuralist voice ALMOST seems the best voice.