Abstract: A Snake on a Pole The Infinte Atonement of a Finite God

Kim McCall

prepared for delivery at
Sunstone Symposium
Salt Lake City, Utah
July, 1998


The camp of Israel, infested with posonous snakes, begged Moses to ask God to "take away" the snakes.  Instead, the Lord had Moses raise a bronze snake on a pole, and all who fixed their gaze on it were healed. (Num. 21: 4-9)  Nephi, Alma, and Jesus himself, all see this snake as a "type" of Christ, but surely the image of a poisonous snake is a most paradoxical symbol for God's supreme eternal act of healing.  This essay tries to take this surprising symbol seriously.  Perhaps the scriptures are trying to teach us (fixated as we are on purity and perfection) that it is our weakensses, rather than our strengths, that lead us to redemption.  Can such an image help us to more deeply experience Alma's Christ, who chose to genuinely undergo all of our sufferings and trials (Alma 7), and inspire us with the love that will make our weak things become the source of humility-suffused strength? (Ether 12)

First five paragraphs:

The book of Numbers records an occasion during their long wilderness pilgrimage when the children of Israel got impatient and started kvetching that Moses had led them out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness. According to the record, the Lord then sent poisonous snakes among the camp. Many Israelites were killed by the snakes, which were seen as God’s punishment for their murmuring against him and against Moses. They repented, promised to be good, and pled with Moses to ask the Lord to "take away" the snakes. Moses did so, but the Lord, instead of removing the snakes, told Moses to make a bronze image of a snake and set it on top of a pole. Whoever was bitten by a snake, if they would fix their gaze on this bronzed snake, would be healed. (Numbers 21:4-9)

Please agree with me that even before all the atonement symbolism that Christians later attached to it, this is already a rather symbolically mind-bending story. Some future paper could try to learn something from the fact that the Lord explicitly commands something awfully close to "make unto thee a graven image" and setting it up for something that could easily lead toward adoration. The most striking aspect of the story for me is that the source to which the afflicted are to look for deliverance and healing is the image of the very source of their affliction. Snakes are killing you, and you’re supposed to look to a bronzed snake for your deliverance. Add to this the fact that up to this point in the Torah snakes have not exactly gotten a lot of positive press, and you’ve got a mighty paradoxical path to physical salvation.

Christians, including John’s Christ himself, later found in this story a foreshadowing of the crucifixion of Jesus and the eternal salvation of all who would fix their spiritual gaze on him. John records Christ preaching that "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life." (John 3:14-15) At least two Book of Mormon figures see the same analogy. (Alma 33:19-21; Hel 8:14-15) The symbolism is powerful, but once again highly paradoxical. The symbol we have most closely associated with Satan is now being used to represent our Lord, his diametrical opposite. And once again, how can the symbol of our affliction and torment be identified with the source of our healing and redemption? How can a deadly snake represent God’s ultimate act of healing? "It is a puzzlement."

I hope in this paper to take seriously this powerful and paradoxical symbol of the atonement. It is my experience that of such paradoxes can be born fresh insights; rich symbols will abundantly repay our sincere efforts to unpack and learn from them.

All my life I have found the atonement the most difficult of doctrines, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. I understand the critical roll the suffering and sacrifice of Christ are supposed to play in our salvation, but I have never felt that I understood satisfactorily why such suffering was necessary or exactly how it was supposed to help anything. Almost every explanation I have heard seems transparently inconsistent either internally or with my sense of justice or with my sense of the love and mercy of God. But through listening anew to some of my most respected teachers, through what I hope is at least a modest amount of growth in my own life, and through pondering such conundrums as the one currently before us, I am inching my way toward a new (for me) conception of the atonement that I hope will be fruitful in my life and perhaps even a source of some inspiration or comfort to others.