First Reading: Numbers 21:4b-9
Meaning of the Snake
4b (As the Israelites traveled in the desert,) the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. 5 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 bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light bread.”
6 YHWH sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many people of Israel died. 7 The people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against YHWH, and against you. Pray to YHWH, that he take away the serpents from us.” Moses prayed for the people.
8 YHWH said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard: and it shall happen, that everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it on the standard: and it happened, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked to the serpent of brass, he lived.
World English Bible
What does the snake mean in this passage? To truly understand its meaning and power, we must digress into the philosophy of signs and symbols.
Signs, symbols, and sacraments all have popular technical and meanings. In popular sense, a "stop" sign tells us when to apply the brakes. In a technical sense, a "stop" sign is red, eight sided board with the letters STOP in white that tells us when to apply the brakes. While not trying to be flippant, the technical sense tells us that a stop sign can only have one meaning and one meaning only.
In a popular sense, symbols represent something else, but have no substance in themselves. For example, a rose is a symbol for love; it is not love itself. But the technical sense changes the meaning of symbol. A symbol is something that has more than one meaning. The rose can be a symbol for love. A rose given can be an instrument of love; one can think of love flowing through the rose. In this sense, the rose has substance of love.
The serpent in these passages is a symbol in a technical sense; it has more that one meaning and has substance. Because snakes can regenerate parts of their bodies, ancient people saw the snake as a symbol of fertility, as well as poisonous death. So the serpent is a symbol of life and death. The author of this story uses the serpent image in both senses.
God sends poisonous snakes against the people as a deadly punishment for their complaints . After the people repent, God instructs Moses to set a standard in the form of a snake to give them life [8-9]. God uses the snake as an instrument of death and life. The power of the snake punishes and saves.
One more point needs to be made about the difference between signs and symbols. Signs are human made, where as symbols are natural. As people who live in a technological age with a multitude of human made conveniences, we are not sensitive to the power of symbols. Yet, if we look, we will be amazed at the volumes of symbols nature offers us.
Reflect on the natural symbols found in Christianity. Bread and wine, water and blood, the Word and sacred oils. What different meanings do these have in our modern culture? How does the presence of Christ change their meaning?