“It’s a little lonely in the desert.”
“It is also lonely with people” said the snake.
The little prince looked at the snake. “You’re a funny creature,” he said at last, “no thicker than a finger”
“But I’m more powerful than a king’s finger” the snake said.
The little prince smiled. “You’re not very powerful…You don’t even have feet. You couldn’t travel very far.”
“I can take you further than a ship” the snake said. “Anyone I touch, I send back to the land from which they came. But you are innocent, and you come from a star.” The little prince made no reply. “I feel sorry for you, being so weak on this granite earth” said the snake. “I can help you someday, if you grow too homesick”
“Why do you always speak in riddles?” asked the Little Prince.
“I solve them all.” said the snake. And they were both silent.
The story of the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is such a remarkable children’s story. Not just the imagery and illustration, the little prince, with his rose and his yellow scarf on asteroid B612; but it is actually rich in good biblical interpretation too.
The dominant modern cultural association of the snake, the one in our heads, that we hear through many stories or fables is a sly, sneaking, evil thing, there to trick us into doing something we don’t want to do; the creature of the garden of Eden, who if ignored, surely would have left Adam and Eve in paradise. But the image of the snake, throughout human history and throughout scripture is something far more complex.
I love this image that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry uses in the little prince. The snake becomes the symbol for death, almost grim reaper like character, which I find far more compelling. For the snake does not trick the little prince, he is only there to serve as a gatekeeper, his sting is the gateway to the little prince’s return home. And as we read in the story: death loses its sting.
We don’t have many snakes in Canada, but whether you grew up here, or if you are like me and moved here, at some point in time, going hiking in the forest means we have to be aware of the animals, that we (hopefully) don’t disturb whilst out enjoying ourselves. Bears, Cougars, Skunks, Coyotes. I’m sure many people have stories of encounters, and whilst I’ve been lucky so far, you have to learn what to do should you meet someone you don’t wish to.
This is the realization that I had when I moved here. You see, If you go hiking in the UK, the worst thing that you can come across is a fox, or maybe a badger. I realized that I have never had to worry about wild animals, because the UK had hunted every wild and dangerous creature out hundreds of years ago. In this way, there is very little sense of wilderness in the UK compared to that which we are blessed to experience here.
Humans have chased away and destroyed the habitat of countless species over the years and that trend is unfortunately increasing. And yet we have a strange cultural fascination with the creatures that cause us danger. Two notes... Baa Dum… and suddenly the world is afraid of sharks, despite the fact that in 2018, 6 people died from shark attackscompared to the estimated 100 million sharks killed through human impact.
But if there is one creature that deserves the cultural obsession and association with danger, it is the snake. Aside from mosquitos, snakes account for the most deaths to people, approximately 50,000 per year in the world today caused mostly by their sting.
Biblical imagery is littered with images of the serpent. From the trickster in the garden of Eden, to the Seraphim the winged serpent beasts that adorned the ark of the covenant and cleansed the lips of Isaiah with coals, and our story this morning from Numbers. If we go back to Genesis, before the Exodus story. The people of Ancient Egypt both revered and feared the snake. The venomous stealthy assassin was a danger to people, especially children. But snakes also preyed on rats and mice, these were a threat to grain stores, meaning their very presence was a wild balance of danger and blessing. Death and Life in one, so it is in its nature, by its presence, almost as if the snake or death, has lost some of its danger. Some of its sting.
In Egyptian mythology, the snake goddess Wadjet was a prominent regional god in the Northern part of Egypt, most likely where the Hebrews were enslaved. She was the protector of Kings and women in childbirth. This dietic symbolism evolved in the form of a circular disk on the head of a cobra called a Urenas which Pharaohs wore on their heads as a statement of their power.
There is no doubt that during the Israelite’s time in Egypt, they were most likely exposed to this belief system. We read how they brought this with them into the desert in the passage that we have in Numbers. The experience of balance between the danger of thirst and hunger as well as the blessing of freedom comes among the people. The passage says that the Lord ‘sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit people and, so many Israelites died”.
Now when we read about God’s behavior in the Hebrew Bible like this, where there is an act of aggression against the people, it is often a reflection, not of God’s vengeful nature, but of the people’s wavering of faith.In the desert, as the people’s trust in Moses’ direction and God’s protection was failing, the snakes, perhaps become the symbol of the lure of a return to Egypt; where we know from archaeological evidence, that the slaves who participated in the great building projects of the Egyptian Dynasty, had a substantial diet of meat, grain and even beer! Maybe not beer as we know it. But still that’s got to be tempting eh?
So as people are losing their faith in the promise of a land filled with milk and honey, God reminds the people where their hearts aught to lie.Moses makes a serpent of bronze. He puts in upon a pole and the passage says: “whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live”. So in our metaphor, whenever someone doubts in the dream of the promised land, they find faith, they live through the promise of the one true God of Moses.
This is the first time that we see this metaphor for life through faith and death in non-belief. A theme that the Gospel writer John uses extensively in the image of darkness and light. The theology of John is seen through the interpretation of the image of the snake this morning. He says: “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”. That is to say, just as the image of life through faith was shown to the Hebrews, the image of life through faith is shown through the death of God’s own self, in Jesus on the cross.
So we hold these two images: of Moses in the desert holding the bronze snake and raising it up to those who are losing their faith, longing for anything other than this wilderness, questioning the very God who put them there. In stark comparison with Jesus being lifted up on the cross.Jesus, God in human form dying on the cross and coming back to life. The ultimate symbol of life triumphing over death and then we remember Paul’s famous words of interpretation, Paul says to the Corinthians: “Death has lost its sting”. (1 Corinthians 15:55-57) A sting that serpent would have, a sting that so they say, snakes only have enough venom for one deadly bite.
We hear this too in the little prince where it says:But something reassured him. “It’s true they don’t have enough poison for a second bite…” The snake, our image of the boundary of life and death, the gatekeeper of mortality is surpassed by the sacrifice of Jesus’ life, God’s own death on the cross that brings life.
Death has lost its sting. Because of Jesus.
Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we know we need not fear that God proved to us that death is not the end. This image of the Israelites gaining their faith by looking at the bronze serpent, gaining their faith by looking at death. So too do we look to cross, a symbol of death and torture, and know that death is not the end, faith can be found. We need not fear the presence of death in our lives. The snake, the trickster, the wilderness, the yearning, the suffering; death is not end. There is no need to fear. Death has lost its sting.
This is where we in the world today find meaning. As Christians we find life through our faith and our doubt. We experience God through our practices, our community, our reading of scripture, our comfort of prayers, they are all experienced through the promiseof life.
The Little Prince says: “…it’ll look as if I’m suffering. It’ll look a little as if I’m, dying. It’ll look that way. Don’t come to see that; it’s not worth the trouble.”You’ll feel like laughing when you think of me. You’ll be glad you’ve known me. You’ll always be my friend."
“I won’t leave you”.
Death has lost its sting