Shown above is the logo of the American Medical Association. It is a snake, wrapped around a pole. Of all the things doctors do and work with, why would the AMA pick a snake as the logo for their association? People don’t like snakes. And what do snakes have to do with doctors, anyway? When you think of doctors you might think of a stethoscope, or a thermometer, or a scalpel, or a bottle of pills, or a white jacket, or a needle for giving shots. There a hundred other things you would think of when you think of doctors and medical care before you would think of a snake.
I went to the AMA website for an explanation of their logo. It says there that the design comes from an ancient Greek symbol of medicine, which is the staff of Aesculapius. According to Greek mythology, Aesculapius was the son of the sun god Apollo and was gifted in the healing arts; and, he had learned a thing or two from watching one snake bring a dead snake back to life with some magical herbs.
The AMA should have instead based their logo on the Bible which has a better story of snakes and healing. The Old Testament book of Numbers tells of how Moses led the people through the wilderness to the promised land. God had just freed these people from slavery in Egypt, and they had seen God act on their behalf with one incredible miracle after another. One would think that they would have by then known enough to trust God. But there is no end to their grumbling and complaining, and now God, who for so long had been extremely patient, has had enough. Therefore, says Numbers 21:6: “The Lord sent venomous snakes among them, and they bit the people and many Israelites died.”
This finally got everyone’s attention and they realized how ungrateful they had been. They cried out to Moses, admitted their sin, and asked Moses to pray to God to forgive them and rid them of all those deadly snakes. So, says verse seven, Moses prayed for the people. And God answered the prayer– but NOT by taking the snakes away. God allowed the snakes to remain in the camp, and allowed them to continue biting the people with their deadly poison. God did, however, provide for a cure, as described in verses eight and nine: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked up at the bronze snake, he lived.” It was by obeying God and looking to a snake on a pole that they were healed. I think that would be a better story for the American Medical Association’s logo.
What a strange and powerful story this is! Think about it. The snakes remained in the camp, the camp where people lived and slept in tents. God allowed the snakes to remain and do their slithering around and biting everyone. What God did provide was a cure, a solution to the problem, and a chance to stay alive. But God did not take away the snakes.
This is an accurate illustration of what life is really like. When has God ever, in response to anyone’s prayer, taken away all their troubles? Never. That never happens. God heals, God delivers, God protects, God gives strength, God gives solutions and assistance in all sorts of ways– but never does God take ALL of the troubles away. Some of the irritations, the troubles, the heartache, the worry, the sadness, the stress, or whatever it is for you, remains. The ‘snakes’ remain in one form or another. And, just like in Numbers 21, as we continue to get bit by our troubles, we must continue to look up to God. If, in our present state of sin, God would ever bless us with a perfect life, the first thing we would do is forget all about God. That is the story of the Old Testament in a nutshell– the better things would go for the people, the more apt they would be to forget all about God. That’s the nature of human ingratitude.
This old story really does ‘tell it like it is.’ God provides rescue and deliverance in the midst of the problems that continue to plague us. Jesus himself picked up on this illustration and applied it to himself and his mission in the world saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man (Jesus), must be lifted up, (not on a pole but on a cross), so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14). (continued…)
Numbers 21:4-9 — They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (NOTE: The verse says ‘anyone who is‘ bitten, not ‘was‘ bitten. The present tense indicates that the snakes were still there and people could still be bitten.)
Help me, O Lord, to make a true use of all disappointments and calamities in this life, in such a way that they may unite my heart more closely with you. Cause them to separate my affections from worldly things and inspire my soul with more vigor in the pursuit of true happiness. Amen.
–Susanna Wesley (1669-1742), mother of John and Charles Wesley and 17 other children