Lesson 37 –
Numbers 21:4b-9 NRSV
but the people became impatient on 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 food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 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.
Numbers is a book full of stories about people trying to build a community after leaving Egyptian slavery. The book opens with a census, integral to their “coming out of Egypt.” Numbers 27 is about a family of girls trying to seek an inheritance after their father dies, but without a brother, they have no right to it. Numbers is a story of people trying to build the world they dreamed about. In your own devotional period, read Numbers 1. What do you think these people are trying to rectify from their past life? What could be fixed? What could go wrong?
Today’s lesson will focus on lament and community care.
Read the scripture out loud together. What’s happening during this passage?
The lectionary organizers intentionally wanted to start with the second half of this fourth verse, section “b.” The people “became impatient” on the way. They are angry with both God and their earthly leader, Moses. They want to know why they have been brought to the wilderness to die, and the food is terrible! In response, God sends serpents to the people, and they are sadly fatally bitten.
Later, the people come to Moses and say, “we have sinned by speaking against you and the Lord. Pray that God takes the serpents away. And Moses prays for the people. God tells Moses to make a poisonous serpent, put it on a pole. Anyone who is bitten by it will live if they look at it. Moses follows the instructions and makes a bronze serpent. Whenever someone was bitten by a serpent, they’d look at the statue and live.
Why were they complaining?
The people complained because they were in a new environment, and they didn’t have the resources they thought they’d have. Back in Egypt, they knew what kind of horrors to expect. But much like the formerly enslaved Africans here in the United States after Emancipation, the people began to lament that their conditions had not immediately improved. Some of them even felt angrier than they were before. In the wilderness, in this new land that is foreign to them all, with new customs and traditions being created, the people are mentally and psychologically worn. And the wilderness has terrible food and nearly no water. Even worse, people are being bitten by serpents sent by God directly! What is going on out here? Can we get some relief?!
Not only are the people complaining against Moses, but they’re mad at God too! After all, God is the one who sent snakes. It almost seems like an act of bullying. The people are hungry, tired, scared, and drained… and God sends snakes?!
What does God offer the people?
God works through Moses by telling him to build a bronze serpent. Through some miracle, when people look at the bronze serpent, they are healed of the bites.
It appears God sends the serpents in direct response to their lament about the wilderness. But God also sends the antidote. We do not know how many people died, or what became of them when they got ill. But moving forward, there is a cure for the serpents.
Why do you think God added snakes to the list of ills? What was the purpose of doing that?
What questions do you still have of this scripture? How will you commit to journeying with this text this week?
Connection to Today’s World
Right after the Emancipation Proclamation went into (partial) effect, formerly enslaved Black people scrambled to find ways to support themselves. There are many accounts of formerly enslaved people lamenting that Freedom wasn’t as grand as it was rumored to be.
Some transitioned to sharecropping, but that dynamic was exploitative. Some sought out employment in their hometowns, but there was resentment among former Masters. Some attempted to move to the North, but such travel proved taxing and there wasn’t always guaranteed welcome. How would these formerly enslaved people sustain themselves?
Callie House was one of many formerly enslaved people who had this question. She and many others decided to come together and petition the U.S. government for reparations in the form of pensions. They organized a group called National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. Though they were not successful in their main goal of reparations for slavery, they did establish a community fund that supported people who had no other relief. They paid for funerals, helped members with major bills and used funds to pay for medical expenses. The Association was the safe landing place for hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved people. All these efforts were organized through the mail and a few major conventions!
Journal: Are there any parts of this story that seem unfair to you? Which parts?
Closing: Listen to “God Provides,” sung by Tamela Mann
God provides, so why do I worry about my life
When you come to my rescue a thousand times
Every other voice it is a lie
In ways I can’t explain and can’t deny
The little that I have He multiplies
Just when I feel He won’t show up on time
He’ll come through
When the clouds of doubt rain down on you
And test everything you thought you knew
Now you finally see what God can do, for you
Close your eyes
There’s no more need to fight
Watch God provide
It’s hard to say when there’s no food to eat
Or what you see feels all that life will be
And will this be another year of misery, for me
But my faith, can’t survive on just things I see
And my feelings can’t control my destiny
See God I only want what you believe, for me
There are so many things to lament. And even more, there are serpents all around us.
We thank you for the protection of our community. Thank you for the rituals and traditions that heal and restore us.
Help us to see the wisdom in community care. Grant us the creativity to build new methods of taking care of each other.
In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
My Face Is Black Is True, Mary Frances Berry