Key Texts: Numbers 19, Jeremiah 13, 18, 19
Symbolic acts can be very helpful, but also deadly. Differences in personalities and cultures can lead to significant distortions. In this lesson we will consider one of Moses’ symbolic acts and three involving Jeremiah. In each case, we will ask what the proper application is likely to be, but also what improper applications might come to mind.
1. Question: The Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21:4-9). How does one go about determining the proper meaning and application of an ambiguous symbol like the serpent?
Note: The role of the serpent in Scripture and in culture is ambiguous. Here are two paragraphs from the chapter, “Whatever Happened to Satan in the Old Testament?” in Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Chapter #3; They speak specifically to the ambiguity of the serpent image:
In Genesis 3, an unbiased reader will strongly suspect the animosity which exists between the serpent and God, pointing in the direction of a full-fledged Adversary relationship. But the serpent figure is, in fact, an ambiguous one in the Old Testament. The serpent attack recorded in Numbers 21 is successfully warded off by Moses’ raising a brass serpent, the later symbol of the opponent of God! There is even evidence to suggest that the people began to worship this serpent; thus it had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4).
The first clear identification of the serpent as Satan in Judeo-Christian writings does not come until Revelation 12:9. In that passage there is no doubt: the Dragon, the Serpent, the Devil, and Satan are all one and the same. Considering the strong role that the serpent plays in Christian interpretation, it is perhaps surprising that his identity is never really clarified in the Old Testament. An explanation might lie in the fact that in Egypt, the serpent is both a symbol of a good deity and of an evil one. The biblical writers thus could not really develop the serpent motif without raising the specter of dualism or something worse. – Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Energion 2011), 45-46.
The next two symbols, “The Potter’s clay” and “Smashing the Jar” stand in a certain tension with each other, pointing, on the one hand, to the possibility of change, but, on the other, to the impossibility of change.
2. Question: The Potters Clay (Jer. 18:1-12). How does one know when a situation is hopeless and when God can take a bad situation and make something good out of it?
Note: Jeremiah’s listeners seem to have taken issue with Jeremiah’s symbol that suggested the possibility of change. “It’s no use,” they said, and continued in their evil ways (Jer. 18:12). Remarkably, the Apostle Paul seems to have taken this very passage and turned it on its head, arguing for something very close to predestination (cf. Romans 9:19-21)! That is what is to intriguing, challenging, and potentially dangerous about the use of symbols. They can be very helpful, but they can also lead astray.
Two modern quotations have a bearing on this idea of God making something good out of something bad, one from George MacDonald, and one from Paul Tournier:
It is so true, as the Book says, that all things work together for our good, even our sins and vices. He takes our sins on himself, and while he drives them out of us with a whip of scorpions, he will yet make them work his good ends. He defeats our sins, makes them prisoners, forces them into the service of good, and chains them like galley slaves to the rowing benches of the gospel ship. He makes them work toward salvation for us. – George MacDonald, “The Bloodhound,” The Curate’s Awakening (Bethany, 1985), 200
The most wonderful thing in this world is not the good that we accomplish, but the fact that good can come out of the evil we do. I have been struck, for example, by the numbers of people who have been brought back to God under the influence of a person to whom they had some imperfect attachment…. Our vocation is, I believe, to build good out of evil. For if we try to build good out of good, we are in danger of running out of raw materials. – Paul Tournier, Person Reborn, 80-81, via Philip Yancey, Reaching for an Invisible God, 264
3. Question: Smashing the Jar (Jer. 19:1-15). From a Christian perspective, is there ever a time when things are hopeless for a person or a community? What are the circumstances that reveal that a fate is fixed? Would the book of Jonah provide some “hope” for apparently hopeless situations?
Note: Within the passage describing the smashing of the jar is an intriguing reference to human sacrifice. Jeremiah was taking the jar to the valley of Hinnom because that was where Israel had practiced child sacrifice. Jer. 19:5 states that God had never commanded child sacrifice. But Ezek 20:25-26 states that bad laws including the command to sacrifice their children came from God – in order that he might horrify them. That’s a classic theocentric approach which contrasts with the more anthropocentric approach of Jeremiah. One can find both perspectives in Scripture.
4. Question: The Linen Belt (Jer. 13:1-11). Is contact with surrounding culture always deadly as this symbolic act suggests?
Note: One can think of examples where the God’s people were a blessing to another culture, rather than the other culture being only a curse to God’s people. That was true of Daniel in Babylon. And Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles (Jer. 29:4-23) asks the exiles to pray for the city in which they found themselves. That was no less a city than Babylon.