Thursday, April 29, 2010

What's the Difference Between Science and Religion? --Numbers 21: 8-9

"And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived." (Num. 21: 8-9)

When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were thrown into a fiery furnace, fully prepared to die rather than accept idolatry, an angel from God was sent to question them. The angel said: "Doesn't Moses say to choose life? So why are you ready to choose death?"

The three young Hebrews, all well versed in the Torah, responded that they would die to keep the Ten Commandments, one of which said, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them." (Ex. 20: 4-5)

But the angel, having anticipated this argument, produced a fireproof copy of the Torah and showed them the passage above, in which Moses is commanded by God to make a graven image--in direct contradiction to God's own commandment!

"I respect your courage," said the angel, "but how do you, who are willing to die for the words of this book, explain a passage like this?"

The three were quick to respond.

Shadrach said: "It's not actually the form of idolatry God objects to, but the content. Moloch and Baal were evil ideas, not just evil for being images. The idol we now refuse to worship is simply a stand-in for worshiping the king. That's why the commandment is reflexive: 'thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.' Moses' serpent wasn't made unto himself, but unto God. Because God was its content, its form as a graven image didn't make a difference."

Meshach always agreed with Shadrach as to course of action, but almost never agreed with the whole of his reasoning. And so he also answered: "God does object to idolatry as a form, and sanctified our people with a commandment against it. But he knew that our fathers in Moses' day had idolatrous hearts, and so he worked with them in the manner of their own understanding. Moses made the brazen serpent for them, but he received the commandments on Horeb for us. The fundamental point here is not of form or content, but context. God works differently for the children than for their rebellious parents."

Abed-nego, however, said to the angel: "When you return to heaven and tell this story, preserve my friends' explanations, but tell the listener that neither of them is necessary. It is enough to say that the story of the brass serpent is told to show that God is able to embrace contradictions."


  1. I borrow from others when I have nothing wise of my own to add, and I thought you might enjoy this:

    "The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions [. . .] are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yields up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God."

    Mary Doria Russell, _The Sparrow_

  2. That's a great book. I actually met Mary Doria Russell when she came to Otterbein College campus in November of 2001 and had the chance to talk with her at some length. She's a very kind, engaging, and interesting person.

  3. I've been thinking about this over the past month, in connection with the Sunday School lesson on Israel receiving manna in the wilderness.

    Part of the manna experience seemed to be accepting things which were beyond the predictable normative way of the world that science aims to help us discover, and relying on the Lord's love instead of working out the rules.

    The "bread from heaven" is so out of the ordinary that its name is just a question: manna is our rendering of "man hu?" ("what is it?") The Israelites learn, by experience as well as my commandment, that it will spoil if kept overnight. But right after that, they're instructed that it won't spoil if they take an extra portion the night before the Sabbath.

    I wonder if those who didn't collect that second portion were the extra-conscientious, rather than the lazy. They'd seen the manna squirming with worms, and there was no way they'd save any overnight. They knew, from scientific experiment, how that turned out. But the Lord had the power to overcome the way things were, to make them the way the Israelites needed them to be.



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