Snake on a stick


By Hank Slikker

Special to The PREVIEW

I have a hard time with snakes. Not sure why, except when I see one, I move the other way. But I think I’m like most humans. We have protective DNA. Scientists call it ophidiophobia, or rather, fear of snakes.

I remember the first time I saw a “two-step” snake. It’s a lethal bamboo viper we sometimes ran into on patrol in Vietnam as we moved through bamboo groves and elephant grass. Our unscientific name for it meant that two steps is all the time you get before you go down, before the venom strikes the nervous system. Thanks to our attentive point man, this one had no head.

Our fear of snakes may also be related to a spiritual DNA. After all, the Bible says the whole world is snake-bit. You may recall the primal story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. The great Prince of Deceit, or the enemy of souls, disguised himself as a serpent and lured our first parents into eating death.

Or you may have read about the thieving serpent in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient Babylonian account of the flood. In the story, King Gilgamesh searches for and gains the gift of eternal life from Utnapishtim, the Babylonian Noah. But on his return home to the city of Uruk, the serpent steals the gift while the king sleeps.

We might say then, that in bringing death to the world, the snake holds the loftiest position in the spiritual underworld.

This seems kind of odd. And I say this because, if you’ve ever seen an ambulance, you might have noticed a serpent twirled around a stick inside the blue EMS symbol of the “star of life,” whose six squared beams reference six themes involved in life-saving rescue.

But there’s more oddness. The same snake adorns the stately logos of the World Health Organization and the World Medical Association. Also, an eminent statue of the father of medicine, Hippocrates who studied snakes using an snake bag, shows him with his famous Oath in his left hand, and a staff with a snake curled around it in the other.

In light of this, we might ask how an image related to death became such a lofty image of life.

Wikipedia tells us the snake image may come from ancient Greek mythology. It is known as the Rod of Asclepius, a Greek deity associated with healing and medicine. The entwined serpent on his walking stick reveals a belief that the snake possesses healing properties and references medicinal potions made of snake venom.

But there’s another take on the origin of the image that precedes the Greek image by about 1,000 years.

It might be the world has adopted the snake image from an Old Testament story about Moses, Israel and an angry God (Numbers 21). The story is about poisonous snakes God sends into Israel’s camp to punish them for despising His provisions.

He had rescued the nation from 400 years of slavery and sent them on their way to a land all their own. But the road resembled traversing through Death Valley — no water, no food or 7-Elevens, no restrooms, or any other road-trip convenience.

So, God provided miracle food from heaven and miracle water from giant rocks. He could have turned the terrain into an oasis with cool springs, palm trees and dates, and wildlife for steaks and barbecues. But God does things His way. He no doubt believes a little hardship on the road of life never hurts. As old soldiers like to say, pain is weakness leaving the body.

But the people ultimately tired of His provisions and told Him they were sick of His leading and loathed His miracle food, day in and day out. He took it hard. Up until then, He put up with lots of displeasure, but murmuring lit an already short fuse. So, in response, He sent “fiery serpents” (perhaps referring to the sting of the bite) into their midst to punish them. Many who were bitten died, and many others got sick on their way to death.

So, they cried out to God and to Moses, who had less tolerance for bellyaching than God did. But Moses had nowhere else to go, so he interceded and begged God to do something. Finally, God tired of his special pleading and relented.

He instructed Moses to make a bronze snake replicating a fiery serpent, attach it to a pole and set it up in the middle of the camp. Then He told Moses to inform the people if they wanted to be healed of the snake bite to go look at the bronze snake on the stick. That’s it. Life was just a look away (Numbers 21:8-9).

At any rate, when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, commented on His mission to earth to save humankind, He took the story of the bronze serpent as the best way to describe what he came to do. He said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him have eternal life” — John 3:14-15 (NASB). That’s it. Eternal life is just one simple look away.