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As I was pondering on what I would speak about for my next Caleb’s Journal instalment, the game ‘snakes and ladders’ came to mind. Now that is very odd as it has been years, decades since I have played this classic board game… I remember it only from my early childhood.
I am sure you are all familiar with this classic board game, but what I didn’t realise until now is that it hides a wonderful truth in plain sight.
The aim of the game is to be the first to make it to the finish. To aid you in this there are ladders… as you land on a square with the ladder, you get to climb up the ladder, hastening your journey… However, if you land on a square containing the head of a snake you must slide down the snake and so doing move yourself further away from the finish.
This year at Caleb’s Journal, I have been looking extensively at ladders and highways which aid our journey towards and into the Kingdom of God… however, there are also snakes in our midst whose influence can lead us further away from our goal, our union with the Lord.
So in the next two episodes of Caleb’s Journal I want to investigate two passages in scripture where we see snakes featured. The first passage is from the Old Testament, where the Israelites were bitten by fiery serpents in the wilderness, and the second is recorded in the New Testament where Paul was bitten on the hand by a viper on the island Melita.
I have always believed in a literal interpretation of these accounts and I by no means want to discount this. However, as I delved a little deeper into these narratives I found that these snakes could also have been used as a metaphor. This surprising discovery led me to wonder if these snakes are still present in our modern society… and if so, how are we to guard ourselves against them or how can we be healed from their deadly bite?
WHAT CAUSED THE SNAKE PROBLEM?
In Numbers 21 we read of the Israelites who were wandering in the wilderness. They had arrived at the boundary of the land of Edom, but the Edomites refused to give them permission to traverse their territory. As a result, the Israelites were forced to take a longer, more circuitous route and this was of course very discouraging and they started to complain by speaking out against God and Moses.
Their discontent stemmed from the fact that they had no bread and water but more so that their souls loathed the manna.
It was because of this loathing that we read in verse 6;
WERE THEY LITERAL SNAKES OR SOMETHING ELSE?
Now, I am not discounting the fact that there could very well have been literal snakes in the wilderness that bit the Israelites… however, in taking a look at the Hebrew words used in this verse we may gain a different and new perspective on this account.
The word ‘bit’ in this verse is the Hebrew נָשַׁך nashak, a primitive root meaning to strike with a sting, as a serpent. Figuratively it means to oppress with interest on a loan or to lend upon usury.
In Hebrew, a snake bite is synonymous to usury.
THE CONNECTIONS BETWEEN SNAKES AND USURY
Usury in Hebrew is, נֶשֶׁך, do you see the similarity in the two words? Indeed they are identical!
In looking at the Hebrew word picture we see that a snake bite, or usury is…
‘The action (נ) of biting (ש) the hand (ך)’.
Usury leads you into bondage. It always bites the one who turns to it, hampering your ability to freely use your hands for the service and glory of God as now you must serve another master… this is the snake bite of usury.
But, you may ask, is it plausible to believe that these ancient Israelites were ‘bitten’ by usury?
There are 2 clues hidden in the text that could support such an interpretation.
THE GEOGRAPHY CONNECTS SNAKES WITH USURY
Firstly, the Israelites were at the borders of Edom.
It is a truth that the Edomites throughout their generations have been intimately associated with money lending, even in our modern day. One could therefore surmise that the Israelites that were ‘bitten’ may well have covenanted in this way with the Edomites who were close at hand… and this covenant would lead to their death just as modern day usury enslaves and leads people to their ultimate demise.
Loathing manna leads to preferring usury
That these Israelites covenanted with the Edomites may further be implied from the fact that the Israelites loathed the manna, which they described as ‘light’ or ‘worthless’ bread.
Manna in the Scriptures is described as the food of angels, the bread of life, the Word of God.
The manna tasted like honey which is symbolic of the Word of God;
And in the New Testament we read that Jesus identifies Himself with this manna.
So when the Israelites described the manna as ‘light’ what were they actually saying?
The Hebrew word used here is קְלֹקֵל qeloqel which has the nuance of something that is light or insubstantial, hence worthless. In ancient times value was determined by weight. To treat something lightly meant that it had no value.
Not only did the Israelites view this manna, the Word of God, as being worthless… their soul loathed it.
This loathing is the Hebrew קוּץ quts which not only describes an abhorrence or a sickening dread, but more so it carries the nuance of severing oneself.
So what we now see is that, by loathing the manna, the Israelites desired to sever themselves from God and His Word as they saw absolutely no value in it… by rejecting the Word of God, Israel also rejected His protection and this proved to be fatal for many. The nation of Israel was now fair game to the Edomites, who flooded into their midst. It seems that many Israelites placed more value on the deceitful words of the Edomites promising them their pathway to life… not realising that covenanting with them would lead to their death.
Is this just a fanciful connection, or is there more evidence in the scripture pointing to the fact that this may very well be what happened here?
Further support from the garden of eden
In going back to the Garden, we see that Eve was ‘deceived’ by the words of the serpent who told her that in taking of the fruit she would ‘not surely die’. Eve believed in these words and she ate of the fruit being offered. In Genesis 3:13 we read;
The word translated ‘beguiled’ in this verse is the Hebrew נָשָׁא nasha meaning to lead astray mentally or to seduce morally. However, this word also means to lend on interest, or to be a creditor.
Isn’t that interesting? The deception that occurred in the garden carries the same themes of a leading astray from the Word of God as well as the concept of usury.
Usury – not purely a monetary deception
This deception was not purely monetary… I mean the serpent did not give Eve $10 on interest… he presented to Eve a whole new way of thinking a whole new system of operation which rejected the Word of God and was based instead on ones own strength and wisdom. The ‘life’ promised did not come free of charge… the deception made you beholden to the serpent, bound to an extra return of interest.
We see the same pattern repeating itself on many levels in our modern day. We are still daily being bitten by snakes that are crossing our path… and in ways we may not even be consciously aware of.
Modern day illustration – the connection between snake bites and COvid-19
One illustration of how this is happening today is seen in the COVID-19 pandemic.
I like to share with you an interesting article that crossed my desk a few weeks ago which connected snakes with COVID-19. The article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on the 4th of September 2021 and states:
‘Researchers discovered an enzyme that is genetically related to a key enzyme in snake venom and was found in COVID-19 fatalities in doses 20 times the safe amount.’
From my understanding, it seems that we all have very small amounts of this enzyme present in our bodies. When we are exposed to COVID-19, this snake-like enzyme tries to kill the virus, but in some cases the body produces so much of it that it causes damage to one’s cell membranes, which in turn contributes to multiple organ failure and ultimately death.
The findings of this research allows us to make an interesting connection between snake venom and COVID-19.
Perhaps the account of the Israelites being tormented by the snakes in Numbers 21 can provide us with a blueprint for tackling the issue of COVID-19 today.
How the problem was solved in the wilderness
In Numbers 21 we note that when this calamity had come down upon the nation of Israel and resulted in the deaths of many people, the Israelites came to the realisation that what they had done was a ‘sin against the Lord’. They had rejected Him and covenanted with ‘another’, repeating the sin that Eve had done in the garden.
The Lord provided only one antidote to this poisonous venom. We read in verse 8;
So who or what did this brass serpent represent?
To find the answer to this we need to look in the New Testament where we read in John 3:14-15 that our Lord and Saviour identifies Himself with this ‘serpent on a pole’;
By looking at, regarding or having faith and trust in our Lord and Saviour we are returning into covenant with Him and this is the only pathway to life.
I am sure that in the days of the ancient Israelites there would have been those who advocated the killing of these serpents, or putting poultices on the wound to draw out the deadly venom… and although these actions may have eased some of the suffering, it did not change the prospective outcome, it only delayed the inevitable.
How do we solve the problem today?
As the Israelites loathed the manna, thereby rejecting the Word of God, they opened the door which allowed the snakes to enter into their midst.
We find ourselves in a surprisingly similar position today. As a nation, we too have rejected the Word of God and the snakes have entered in. Our primary focus now should not be on how to eradicate the snakes from our midst – whether that is the COVID-19 pandemic, the curse of usury or any other manifestation of the snake in our society.
Rather we, as the body of Christ, are to look to Him, the risen Christ, for healing. As He is the only source of life. And as we return into covenant with Him, declaring Him as Lord and Master over our lives we will reflect His light into the world, drawing all people to healing and life.
Stay tuned for our next episode of Caleb’s Journal where we will take a closer look at the New Testament account of Paul who was bitten by a snake on the island of Melita.