Animal bites are bad. Some can be life-threatening and require immediate attention. These treatments have gone through a long evolution.
For instance, an old cure for rabies was to apply some hair of the rabid dog to the wound. This is the origin of the phrase “the hair of the dog that bit you.” While ineffective for rabies, something similar seems to work for the Israelites.
Celebrating the Exaltation of the Cross this Saturday we first hear the story of the Israelites’ miraculous healing in the desert (Num 21:4-9). Having “complained against God and Moses,” even rejecting their miraculous bread (“we are disgusted with this wretched food!”), they were punished by God who sent “seraph serpents which bit the people.” But God provides the remedy as well. He commands Moses to mount the image of a seraph on a pole, and “whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”
Now talk about the hair of the dog! A serpent was their punishment. Now a serpent is their cure. Their enemy, that which threatened them with death, is now their hope for life. Of course, this strange remedy foreshadows the Cross.
In the Garden, we fell because of a tree. We fell because of disobedience, stealing a forbidden fruit. The remedy? Another tree: the Cross planted on a craggy mount. The Cross is a bare tree except for one fruit. While in Eden, one fruit was plucked from the branches, on Calvary, one fruit is nailed back upon them. In Eden, the fruit was stolen. On Calvary, the fruit is freely restored (Jn 10:18). Like the bronze serpent, the source of destruction becomes the means of salvation: “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-15).
In the bronze serpent, God transformed a symbol of punishment and shame into a true means of saving grace. The same is true with the Cross. The Cross is a symbol of the death and defeat inherent in sin. But God has transformed it, making it a true means of life and salvation. Something similar might be said of our personal sins.
In this life, our sins are a source of shame and sorrow. We lose something of ourselves in sin. Sin always brings a dying. But God can use our sins to bring us to himself (Rom 5:20). Like the Cross, he can transform our transgressions into testimonies of his mercy. In heaven, we may even boast of our sins: “look at how much he has forgiven me. Look at how much he loves me.”