I awoke to the sound of screaming. I sat up with a jerk, my throat knotted as the piercing cry filled the tent again.
"A snake!" It was my wife, Adah.
Grabbing my spear, I sat up. "Where is it?"
"I don't know. Close!"
I heard a rasping sound.
My wife jumped, yelling and shaking her leg. "It bit me! Get it off!"
I saw it hanging from her foot like a sallow, white rope.
Lashing out with the dull end of the spear, I knocked it against the wall of the tent. It fell and vibrated its body so the rasping noise was heard again’a warning it was ready to strike. I leveled the tip of the spear and lunged. The creature hissed, slipped under the wall of the tent, and was gone.
The sun had risen like a white stone, mist-shrouded and languid over the eastern mountains. I stood in the shadowed gateway to the tabernacle's outer courtyard, still holding my spear. "Adah is dying," I said once more.
Moses made no response, his emotions inscrutable behind his veil, so I grasped his sleeve. "Do you hear? My wife is dying!"
"The serpents, yes. Yahweh is judging us’"
"Ask for mercy. You call me Y'hoshua to remind me Yahweh is salvation. Please’"
"The people must ask for forgiveness. They grumble against God like their forefathers, always wanting to go back to slavery."
"Ask Yahweh to heal Adah! The grandchildren weep."
Behind me the tribal leaders gathered, followed by thousands. Many of the stricken were carried on stretchers. Yet even as they came, the horned vipers rose up from where they'd lain hidden in the sand and struck down more.
The people screamed as they rushed to Moses, crying out in a great chorus: "We have sinned! We have spoken against Yahweh and against you! Pray that Yahweh will take the serpents away from us!"
"Do you still want to return to Egypt?" Moses asked.
"No! This scourge reminds us of the slavery our forefathers endured."
The elders pulled a bull into the courtyard, laid it upon the altar of burnt offering, and the elders slaughtered it as God commanded’that blood be shed for the community's sin. Eleazar, the high priest, stepped from the tabernacle with two assistants, attended the sacrifice, and filled a golden cup with the blood.
Moses' moist eyes blinked above his veil. "I'll plead once more that God will have mercy." Grasping me by the shoulder, he guided me toward the doorway of the tabernacle, from where I would watch and pray as was our custom.
"Eleazar!" Moses called. "Bring the blood of the sacrifice. We are ready."
The audacity of what happened next took my breath away’just as it had every time I'd witnessed it. Moses pulled the drapes aside, slipped off his sandals, and’slowly, cautiously’approached the altar of incense that sat before the Holy of Holies, the seat of Yahweh. Moses had taught us that wherever God's presence resided was holy ground. This had never made sense to me: if the ground itself were holy, why would a man dare tread upon it with his bare feet, which were so easily soiled? How could you approach the unapproachable…and do so barefoot? Was it to show a man's humbleness? Or was it because Yahweh wanted men to touch the holiness, perhaps to feel even the pebbles of his Otherness? No wonder Moses trembled as he fell upon his face before the golden altar, which burned bright with incense. I caught the sweet scent, and my legs shook as I fell outside the doorway, praying for Adah and our people.
Eleazar walked past, his feet stirring up dust that stung my eyes. A chanted prayer filled the tabernacle as he approached the curtain and sprinkled blood before the curtain seven times and spread blood upon the four horns of the altar. As Moses continued to pray, he sang, moving from the altar to the burnt offering where the elders waited, pouring out the remaining blood over the sacrifice.
Soon my hands and knees felt a pulsing ripple through the ground, followed by peals of thunder, rumblings, and flashes of light, which smote the interior of the tabernacle. My breath came shallow and sharp as sweat began to soak through my robes onto my prayer shawl. It was gone as quickly as it had come.
Moses faced me. The light in his eyes was terrible to behold, but there was a look that told me he'd received an answer. He extended his hand to me. "The Lord has said: 'Make a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole. Everyone who is bitten, when he looks up to it, shall live.'"
"A serpent will heal Adah?" I asked, confused. "Does Yahweh reject us and want us to return to the gods of Egypt?"
"You misunderstand. Even though it will be cast in bronze, it must not be worshipped."
"This is the word of the Lord, and though we wonder, we must not question it. Y'hoshua, I want you to kill one of the vipers. We will use its body to make the mold for bronze casting."
My head began to pound, and I'm ashamed to say that fear crept into my voice. "We can use beeswax for the model. Ben Seruch has enough. His tent is near’"
I turned to walk away but Moses spun me back. "No, you must slay a serpent to fulfill all righteousness."
I tested the sharpness of my spear. Since God had commanded, I guess I could do it. Killing a snake would take only a few stabs.
But Moses pulled my spear firmly from my hands. "You may not mutilate its body, Y'hoshua."
"Then how will I kill it?" I asked, my voice shrill in my own ears.
Moses' steady gaze met my eyes. "Pray for wisdom. Yahweh will save you."
My feet were like stones and my empty hands hung limp. I was going to die. Without my spear, the viper would sink its teeth into my flesh and the fire would burn through my body. Like Adah, I would swell, sweat, and vomit. I had seen hundreds of the dead carried from their tents with blackened, purulent sores. Every fear screamed at me to ignore Moses. Yet if I did, Adah would die. Yahweh would save me, I told myself. But would he? Could I trust him? I had led Israel and defeated the Amalekites. I could fight. Yet here I was, expected to slay a deadly snake without a weapon!
Suddenly, I realized I had retraced the way back to my own tent, whose sad walls still sagged like a shroud under the weight of the nighttime dew. The entire family had gathered outside’my grown children, my grandchildren’wailing. Inside it was silent… too silent. Throwing back the flap, I stepped cautiously inside to find Adah's sister, Yatarah, holding my wife's hand and crying. Behind her stood a tribal physician who'd been trained in the Egyptian way, his head shaved and a sun medallion around his neck. The man scowled at my intrusion.
Adah lay unmoving upon the bed, a cloth covered her eyes, and her skin was deathly white. The swelling of her leg and ankle could be seen like a lump under the bloodstained blanket. Yatarah's tears made my fears come alive. It was too late. I had lost her already. My hands took up my shawl to rip it, but I'd never be able to convey the shredding that had severed my soul from my heart, my life from hers.
"No, you fool." Yatarah waved a finger at me. "Adah is only sleeping."
I fell at Adah's side and kissed her hand. It was cold, but there was life! Her fingers caressed my beard, and then she choked out my name, "Hoshua?"
"Yes, I am here."
"Will Yahweh have mercy? The leg…it hurts."
I pulled back the blanket and was shocked to find her foot plunged inside a dead, bloody jackal’an attempted Egyptian cure. The stench was horrible, and I was furious at the physician. "Get out!" I yelled. "And take away your mongrel treatment! My Adah will pray to Yahweh’not to Anubis!"
"The sister," he said coldly, "has promised me four silver coins when the treatment is finished."
"You'll get nothing!" Taking hold of the jackal's golden fur, I slid it off her foot and heaved the carcass out the doorway.
The physician, seeing my rage, dashed out the back door of the tent.
I ignored Yatarah's irritation as I wiped my bloody hands on the now tattered prayer shawl and fell on my knees before Adah.
She rested her limp hand on my head. "I'm sorry I let them do this… "
"Hush. All will be forgiven. I must kill a serpent and bring it to Moses."
Her brow tightened. "Oh, Hoshua, no!"
"Yahweh told me to do this. He will save me and then he will heal you." But without a weapon, I doubted my own words.
"You may die because of my sin," she said. "Pray the Lord forgives me."
I closed my eyes and held her tightly. "O Yahweh, blessed be the true God of light and mercy, the true God of life and joy, the God of our fathers. Forgive Adah…forgive Yatarah… forgive me. Protect us as we seek to serve you."
Adah cried on my shoulder. "It's hard, but I'll trust this awful task somehow brings Yahweh's love down to us, down to this dust and fire and misery…"
I left the tent, half-blinded by my own tears. All around me the camp suffered with distress as the serpents struck’their screams carried by the breeze, already hot as the sun rose higher.
Without warning, a viper's head rose up from the sand before me. Its body was thick, with a broad head and a small horn above each yellow slit eye. In my confused anguish, I had forgotten my sandals at the tabernacle. I wanted to yell but no sound came. I wanted to run but my feet did not move.
The snake rubbed its scales menacingly. Its eyes were wary. Its tongue flickered out and in like the tail of a fish caught in a trap. It was waiting for me to move, waiting for an opportunity.
"Naked I came from my mother's womb," I recited from the story of Job, "and naked I will depart. Yahweh gave and Yahweh has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."
As the horrible head began to sway back and forth, I realized what it was watching: the bloodied tassels of my prayer shawl blowing in the hot desert wind. Slowly, I slipped off my shawl and held it at arm's length. I moved away carefully, hoping the snake would remain fixated on the shawl. I tensed my body as I prepared to act’my training and my strength encouraged me. I wasn't too old for this. It wasn't so long ago that I had fought other enemies, and my eyesight was still keen.
"Shema Yisra'el…Adonai Eloheinu…Adonai Echad," I intoned.
The snake slid sideways and hissed at me, causing me to jump.
"Hear, O Israel…The Lord our God…The Lord is one."
The serpent lunged forward and my heart stopped. But its mouth opened only in frustration, venom dripping from the milky fangs.
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your strength!"
I swung the prayer shawl forward as the snake struck again. Somehow, I grabbed its neck, sliding both hands up to its head. It writhed and twisted angrily, its teeth still latched onto the wool of the prayer shawl. Suddenly, the cloth came loose from its fangs and venom dripped on the sand as it hissed angrily. I slammed its head upon a nearby flat ledge of rock and then stepped on its neck; its the tail coiling around my leg, squeezing. Not finding a rock of the right size within reach, I took my other heel and bashed its head again and again, harder and harder, until the skull cracked and blood poured from its mouth. I fell to the warm sand with my chest heaving. The creature was dead!
You've done well," Moses said after hearing my story. "It's what the Lord said would happen to the serpent one day: 'And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your children and hers. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.'"
"Is that the prophecy from the beginning? It doesn't apply to me because I wasn't struck. It never came close’praise to Yahweh who is my salvation!"
"Y'hoshua I have named you and as Y'hoshua you will be known for all the generations to come."
Moses took up the dead snake and used three nails to secure it to a slim piece of wood. With freshly dug clay we covered the snake, enclosing the head completely, yet leaving the tip of the tail sticking out. Then we buried the clay mold among hot coals to bake.
Sitting back, Moses asked me a strange question. "How would you feel if you were to be nailed to a branch?"
"I wouldn't want to be."
"What if you could take the people's sins upon yourself?"
"You mean like a scapegoat?"
"Yes. Do you love these people? Would you die for them on a branch?"
I had to think about that. "For my tribe, maybe. To die in battle would be better though."
Moses blinked. "What about your wife? Would you die for her?"
I didn't hesitate. "Yes."
"Then remember that we are God's betrothed and this snake represents the death of our sins nailed to a branch. One day Yahweh himself will fulfill his covenant with our father Abraham and die for all our countless failures."
"This is not an Egyptian idol then?"
"No, it is our assurance that God remembers his covenant with our fathers."
We talked for a long time while the clay baked and the flesh of the snake inside turned to ashes along with the thin wood. Craftsmen worked alongside us, melting bronze inside a clay pot, which was then buried in a pit of hot coals and fed by bellows. When all was ready, we lifted the clay mold from the fire and shook the ashes out’but the skeleton stayed inside. Then we laid it upon a large angled rock and poured the blazing white-hot bronze into the mold.
We waited for the mold to cool some, finally pouring jars of water upon it, which shattered the clay and allowed the steaming bronze snake to emerge as if from a tomb. Soon the metal snake was cool enough to touch, and we were able to snap off the thin bronze branch. I marveled at the intricate details of the viper's face, body, and scales. Strangely, some of the snake's ribs had survived the casting and, though burned, were visibly embedded within the metal. Moses took the snake and hammered it onto a stout pole. Then we took it outside the camp’to the kind of place where a scapegoat would have been loosed’and raised it upon a hill.
By now, word had spread that all those bitten should come, look upon it, and be healed. As thousands began to move toward Moses and the bronze snake, I ran to get Adah. As the crowds thinned, I saw her. She leaned on Yatarah, but she was moving. I scooped her into my arms and took off with a gift of speed I'd never known before or since. The Almighty was with us and soon we were at the hill.
Adah exhaled deeply, and time froze as I feared it was her last. Then she inhaled, opened her swollen eyes, and squinted up toward the gruesome snake glaring down at us in the sun. I felt a wave of life and strength come back into her limp body as she was healed.
"I am made new, Y'hoshua. Truly Yahweh is salvation."