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  • Vanessa Ryerse

The Snake on a Pole

There’s a weird little Bible story near the beginning of the Bible that I keep thinking about these days. As a kid, I learned the classic stories, but I also learned a lot of the strange ones, the ones I couldn’t possibly make any sense of, the ones that come to mind now as an adult and I am completely intrigued. I’ve been pondering this one for weeks now.


There is a group of people who have just gotten free from a really oppressive situation. They have just escaped a ruler who was stubborn, self-absorbed, and thought he was a god. That ruler made their lives miserable, adding extra misery to their already heavy load, opening them up to horrific acts of nature in the form of plagues, and escalating their problems into a complete political upheaval. They don’t know who they are anymore. Don’t know where they are headed. Don’t know what it’s like to be free. All they can think about is the old way and at least they knew what to expect there. They knew what was for dinner. Now, they get fed for free and all they have to do is go pick it up each day. But they are grumpy and displaced and they complain about their leader instead. Morale is low. Tempers are hot.


And just then it gets even worse. It appears they have angered God and now their encampment is full of snakes, biting them with hot, fiery venom that is making some of them really sick and a lot of them are dying.


Their new leader actually has compassion on them, even though they have been a hostile mob. He prays for a solution and he gets an answer, albeit a weird one.


When my oldest child was quite small, Matt permanently welded two words together in one of their first acts as an artist: logo and slogan, for an observant little pre-reader, became a "Slogo." Matt was already clear that Golden Arches meant "fries" and Big Brown Truck meant "man comes to the door with boxes." Truly, an image can hold so much meaning all at once, we sometimes forget the wealth of information coded into what we can see. There’s the image and there’s what the image means to you.


The solution for the snake-bit people was an image. The leader of this miserable crowd was tasked with making a logo. A snake on a pole.




There are two different medical symbols we are familiar with today, The Caducueus (two snakes wrapped around a pole with wings) and the Staff of Aesculapius (a single snake on a straight pole) are NOT actually from this Biblical story. They come from Greek stories. This article is a wonderful explanation of the differences and why they matter. I’ll skip to the chase and tell you the writer of The Battle of the Snakes favors the use of the single snake on a pole image because it refers back to a healer named Asklepios.


“As the legend of the demi-god grew, Asklepian temples were built throughout the ancient world. Asklepios’ sons and followers were called Asclepiads. The temples became major health centers. As serpents were Asklepios’ symbol, non-poisonous snakes had free run (or perhaps slither) about the temples. All statues of Asklepios depict him as a kindly looking bearded man leaning on a rough-hewn staff entwined by a single serpent. In addition to his two sons Asklepios’ other children included Hygieia (hygiene) who cared for the snakes, Panacea whose name means ”cure-all”, and Iaso whose name means “to heal”. “


No question, it was some “slogo-ing” on my part to blend the salvation message of the weird Bible story with our modern medical logo. But the part I am most intrigued by is that in the Biblical story, in order to be healed, the people had to do something. They had to look to the snake on the pole. They literally had to look AT it and would be healed. But they wouldn’t be healed if they didn’t. I find myself thinking about the cure and why people might resist it to their own detriment.


"Moses made that brass snake way too fast for it to be legitimate."


“Our family is healthy. We’re just going to do some yoga and eat healthy and we can fight off a snakebite ourselves.”


“I’m not falling for this government control stuff again. I’m free to make my own choices! My body! My choice!”


Meanwhile, every day, I see friends begging people to get their vaccination for Covid 19, sharing stories about local hospitals and the overwhelm they are experiencing. I see them trying to wrap their minds around why someone wouldn't get vaccinated in the face of all that is at stake, from our area of the country getting back to normal, to the safety of our children going back to school, to other people's medical needs being compromised because of the lack of hospital beds and resources. Truly, it seems like a no-brainer to just get the damn vaccine so we can get on with our lives. And yet, here we are with a less than 50% vaccination rate and younger people ending up in the hospital, hooked up to ventilators than we had earlier in the pandemic, including a growing number of children.


Rural people account for many of those who haven't gotten the vaccine and rural voters show up on the red side of the political map more often than not. They are also the kind of people I know best. Having grown up both rural and red, I wish I could say I can't understand why these particular people refuse to accept a life-saving vaccine. Calling them stubborn isn't all that negative in their minds, because being stubborn in the face of the challenges of rural living is how they thrive so well without the conveniences of reliable cell-phone coverage, access to luxuries like Uber-eats and garbage removal services. But like anything, our greatest strengths can so easily become our greatest weaknesses. They love being self-sufficient, take pride in it. But self sufficiency couldn’t save the people in the Biblical story. They might have hated taking the free food and the simple solution to this plague and I can just imagine how distrustful they were of government, based on their last experience in Egypt.


But the ones who looked to the snake on the pole were saved and didn’t die.


The largest group of people resisting the vaccine are also a group I know well. Born and raised fundamentalist -that’s the crew a little more conservative than the larger umbrella-term evangelical- I am keenly aware of the value of being “a peculiar people” and fighting anything that “everyone else is doing” on principle alone. It has grieved me to watch the people that first told me about Jesus become the group of people who seem to be rooting for the snakes to win. They gather in large, unmasked groups, preach that Jesus is the only vaccine you need, and pass the virus around without conscience to other people who may die from it. They say they know their Bibles. I would invite them to look back on this obscure Old Testament story and be reminded that God routinely responded to his people as a group, not as individuals. There is a group responsibility to God and to neighbor that results in group blessing and group curses. Collectively, Evangelicals have made themselves a stench in the nostrils of the rest of our country. They seem to have forgotten their role in the world… they are to be blessed so that they can be a blessing -not a curse- to others. I would also like them to remember that grace comes to them in simple acts of faith: looking at the snake on the pole saved the Israelites from the venom of the snakes as they believe looking to Jesus on the cross saves them from the venom of their sins.


Curiously, the actual bronze snake on the pole was kept by the people of Israel for hundreds of years. King Hezekiah had to destroy it because the people lost track of the narrative and were making offerings to it and worshiping it. Even people with a wonderful history can lose the plot. It seems to me that currently, maybe Evangelical people have started making a lot of offerings to the death part of the cross of Jesus. It might be time for a review of the old Bible stories. Let’s get back to life. Let’s get back to healing. Let’s get back to salvation.


Right now, medicine can save us. I hope to God that more people look to the snake on the pole now.




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