Written by Vladimir Moss
Perhaps the most counter-intuitive prefiguring of Christ’s saving passion in the Old Testament is Moses’ serpent. When the Israelites were in the desert of Edom they started murmuring “against God and against Moses” (Numbers 21.5). And deadly serpents began to bite them, and many died. In answer to the people’s plea for help, God told Moses to fashion a fiery serpent and put it on a “pole”, which Church tradition says was in the shape of a cross. “And it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21.9).
The prophetic meaning of this story is clear. Because of our disobedience to God and His Holy Church, we are infected with the poison of the devil, which is the cause of our death, both physical and spiritual. The only cure for this death-dealing disease is to look with sincere faith and hope on the image of Christ crucified; this faith alone can deliver us from the disease of sin that, if unhealed, leads to eternal death (John 3.14-15).
This much is clear. But why is Christ seemingly portrayed as a serpent? Is not the serpent rather the image of the devil than the Conqueror of the devil?
However, this is a misunderstanding. The serpent raised on the cross in the desert is indeed an image of the devil – but of the devil destroyed by Christ’s crucifixion. As St. Gregory the Theologian says: “[The brass serpent] saved those who looked upon it, not because it lived, but because it was killed, and killed with it the powers that were subject to it, being destroyed as it destroyed. And what is the fitting epitaph for it from us? ‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ You are overthrown by the cross, you are slain by Him Who is the Giver of life, you are without breath, without motion, even though you keep the form of serpent lifted high up on a pole.”
In general, Christ saved us from the sin of Adam by imitating the situation of Adam – but with this difference: that He did not sin. Thus Adam was born as a man of virgin soil and the inbreathing of the Spirit, and Christ was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Adam was tempted by the devil: so was Christ. Adam died from the assault of the devil: so did Christ. But since Christ, unlike Adam, never once succumbed to the will of the devil, His death became life-giving; and it gives life to all those who look on Him with faith. It was by the second Adam reversing Adam’s fall, and doing in obedience to God everything that Adam did in disobedience, that the sting of death was destroyed.
October 4/17, 2018.