Summer and snakes go together in Australia, as I well know.
When I was a boy my parents used to take my brothers and me camping during the Christmas holidays to a place called Meelup, south of Dunsborough. The toilets were rather primitive, being made of weatherboard and tin, and having open, chain-flushed cisterns. I recall one lady rushing out of a toilet in disarray because she had discovered a dugite, a highly venomous snake, drinking from the cistern above her. A man sauntered in with a stick and killed it.
On another occasion at Meelup I heard a blast from a shotgun and ran to investigate. One of the campers had shot the head off a dugite. He gave me the long slack body, but my mother refused to let me keep it.
When I was a pastor of a country church I often went for a walk with my wife in a small forest of white gums near our house. One summer day we were strolling along a familiar track, hardly noticing where we were stepping, when my wife suddenly jumped to one side, almost knocking me over. Coiled beside the path, like a piece of rope in a Western, was a large snake. It was sunning itself in a patch of flattened grass, and was quite unperturbed by our passing. We stood at a safe distance to observe it. It was light brown and shiny, as if it had recently sloughed its skin. Uncoiled it would have been perhaps one and a half metres long. It looked harmless enough, but it was in fact another deadly dugite. It raised its head to stare at us for a minute, then slithered away into the long grass.
When I worked as an education officer at Barton’s Mill Prison Farm I had a close encounter with another extremely venomous snake. One day in midsummer I went for a walk during my lunchbreak. I knew snakes were out in force (someone had killed one only the day before and had dumped it in the rubbish bin outside my classroom door), so I did not walk into the bush, as I often did in the cooler months, but kept to a gravel road. Then I came within sight of a dam and I quite forgot about the safety of bare ground. Standing in the full sun, I watched a dabchick paddle about on the water. When it dived, I decided to make a dash towards a patch of shade closer to the dam to get a better look at it when it resurfaced. And as I sprinted through the grass I almost trod on a tiger snake. It reared up in front of me, bringing me to a sudden halt. It actually flattened its head like a little cobra! Tiger snakes are fierce and easily provoked, and I was too surprised and off-balance to escape had it decided to strike. But miraculously it dropped, turned and slithered away.
I could go on, but I want to shift from my snake stories to God’s.
The Bible mentions snakes from time to time. Understandably, it often uses them to picture evil. Hence, having urged his readers to avoid strong drink, Solomon warns, “At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder” (Proverbs 23:32). Incensed at the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day, Jesus addressed them as “You serpents, you brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33).
However, the biblical references to snakes are not always negative. Writing in the book of Proverbs, for example, Agur declared that one of the things that was too wonderful for him to understand was “the way of a serpent on a rock” (30:19). It seems that Agur was impressed by the effortless mastery of a snake’s movement over difficult terrain. The Lord Jesus infers something positive about snakes when he instructs his disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
In the gospel of John, Jesus actually likens himself to a snake! This striking and unlikely picture draws its significance from an incident in Israel’s history.
After their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel spent many years wandering in the wilderness. On one occasion, they became impatient and spoke spitefully against God and against Moses, whom God had appointed as their leader. To punish them for their ingratitude, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:4-9). Repenting of their sin, the people pleaded with Moses to ask God to take away the serpents. In answer to Moses’ prayer, God instructed him to make a snake from bronze and to set it on a pole in a prominent place. Moses did this; “and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
Jesus compared himself to the bronze snake that Moses made. He said, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
Jesus made it clear that he was going to be lifted up on a cross, just as the bronze serpent had been lifted up on a pole. And so he was. He died on the cross for our sins so that, by looking to him, we can be saved from spiritual death, just as the people in Moses’ time could be saved from physical death by looking at the bronze snake.
Every person in the world has been bitten by the snake called Sin. Sin’s venom is in our lives and is in the process of killing us. But Jesus is our antivenin, our antitoxin, our antidote. He can neutralise the poison and restore us to spiritual health. Hence, he invites and commands: “Look to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!” (Isaiah 45:22).