Book Two Part Three

 

RETURN TO THE WHOLE

A study of the landscape symbolism of the Bible

as it relates to the spiritual journey


1996, 1997, 1999, 2001 by Ann K Elliott

 

 

BOOK TWO

THE WILDERNESS

PART III

THE WILDERNESS WANDERERS

The account of the wilderness wandering
provides us with a whole series
of profound symbolic images
pertaining to the individuation process.
Edward F Edinger
(1)

 

 

The Re-kindling of Hope

When we are young our hopes and expectations are charged with an enthusiasm and faith in the future. But if too often those expectations are disappointed, hope begins to dim and even may turn to despair. Similarly, without a vision to guide, the life of a people can die. After four hundred years of Egyptian enslavement the light of the people of the Promise was about to go out.

In Canaan they had lived a good life until the cycle of nature had turned against them. It was then that Jacob had sent his sons down into Egypt where, it was rumored, grain could be bought. Arriving there, the brothers of Joseph hadn't known it was the brother they had sold into slavery from whom they would have to purchase the grain. Joseph, however, had long ago forgiven his brothers their evil deed. He was, in fact, so overcome at seeing them that he sent everyone else out of the room. Alone with his brothers, he burst out weeping so loudly that it was said all of the household of Pharaoh heard him. "I am Joseph," he said, "whom you sold into Egypt." But quickly he added, wanting to alleviate any guilt or fear of reprisal they might have:

Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you . . . to preserve for you a remnant on earth . . . So it was not you who sent me here, but God.(2)

Joseph provided his brothers with grain for the trip back to Canaan, making them promise to bring their father Jacob and the entire family back to Egypt. And it was a good thing because the drought, the severest in anyone's memory, lasted five more years, during which there was "neither plowing nor harvest."(3) While many in the land of Canaan died, the lives of the Israelites were sustained in Egypt. For the remainder of Joseph's life and for some time afterwards, the Israelites prospered and multiplied. Eventually a Pharaoh came into power who saw the Israelites as a threat and placed "taskmasters" over them "to afflict them with heavy burdens."(4)

We hear no more of the Israelites until the birth of Moses and the decree that "Every son that is born to the Hebrews [be] cast into the Nile."(5) Moses is one of the doomed infants, but is miraculously saved--a pattern to be re-enacted in the life of the Christ Child.

Dore's Finding of Moses

Next we know, Moses is grown and residing in the royal household as the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter. He is now around forty years old and, inquisitive about his origins, goes out among the Israelites. This is how he happens to observe an Egyptian slavemaster beating one of the Israelites. At the sight Moses flies into a rage and kills the Egyptian. When Pharaoh hears of the incident he orders Moses killed.(6) Thus Moses, like Jacob before him, flees for his life into the Wilderness.

 

 
~

Moses' Call

In the next scene, Moses has been in the Wilderness for forty years. During this time he has married the daughter of the priest of Midian and become shepherd to his father-in-law's flocks. In addition he has received from his father-in-law initiation into the sacred mysteries of the Midian priesthood. So it was that one day, as Moses was tending sheep on "the mountain of God",

. . . the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.(7)

At this Moses said to himself,

I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

At this point he heard a voice calling to him out of the bush,

Moses, Moses! . . . Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.(8)

Thus Moses was called to the task of leading the Israelites out of their Egyptian bondage.

It had been six hundred years since the time of Abraham, and four hundred since the Israelites had come to Egypt. By now they had lost hope of ever returning to Canaan. To get their lives back on track Moses would have to re-awaken their sense of being the people of the Promise. He would have to re-kindle their hope of returning to the Promised Land. He would do so by recalling for them the Promise given Abraham concerning their exile in Egypt:

Know this for certain, that your descendants will be exiles in a land not their own, where they will be slaves and oppressed for four hundred years. But I will pass judgment also on the nation that enslaves them and after that they will leave, with many possessions.(9)

 

 
 

How a People are Enslaved

One of the ways a people become enslaved is through the disruption of their sense of community and continuity. In America, the slaves brought from Africa were separated to the extent of disallowing those from the same village, or who spoke the same dialect, to live or work together. Separated, isolated, unable to communicate, and deprived of participation in the rituals of communal life, their spirits as well as their bodies became shackled. If they resisted, mindful of the dignity due them as human beings, then they were beaten into subjection or to death.

In Egypt the Israelites' sense of self-worth and dignity had been similarly breached. Its healing would take time. Not only would Moses be leading his people through the Wilderness, he also would be coalescing them back into a people, remolding them collectively into the people of God. Moreover, the Wilderness was where they would be forged into a twelve-tribe nation with laws by which to live; a societal structure within which to build their sense of community; and a moveable Tabernacle, minutely detailed for enacting the proscribed sacramental rites by which the whole of their lives would become consecrated to God. To further order and instill their lives with a sense of harmony, a yearly round of feasts and festivals would be established.

 

 
 

The Pattern of Resistance

Moses' whole life had been preparation for the task to which now he was being called. Nevertheless he resisted. Nor can we fault him his reluctance. Beyond being self-consciousness around his "slowness of speech," he was reluctant to have his life, for a second time, totally disrupted. When he had been forced to leave Egypt forty years before, he had been torn from the only home and family he ever had known. He had managed to make the adjustment and had rebuilt his life as a desert herdsman. But now? At eighty? To return to Egypt and demand of Pharaoh that he let the Israelites go? "No way," we can hear Moses arguing with himself. Yahweh, however, kept insisting. And in the end, a destiny such as Moses' could not be escaped

Kluger reminds us that resistance to the call of individuation only serves to confirm its authenticity. In the case of Moses, once he had said yes to Yahweh the battle then became one of wills between Yahweh and Pharaoh, a battle that ended ten plagues later when, finally, the Israelites made it safely and miraculously out of Egypt. In so doing they crossed what would turn out to be the great divide of their sacred history. They were on their way back home.

In escaping from the Egyptians the Israelites had entered into a cloud that had hidden and thus protected them; not only from the Egyptians, but from the unfamiliarity of the place into which they were being led. Similarly, there are times on the spiritual journey when what is taking place in inner depths needs to be obscured from the conscious mind in order to bypass its resistance to change. It is then that the work of transformation is said to proceed as in "a cloud of unknowing."

Once into the Wilderness, however, the Israelites' resistance to the demands of the journey broke out into the open. Eventually their unrelenting resistance earned for them the reputation for being Yahweh's "stubborn and stiff-necked people." They became, in fact, a case in point of what it means to be dragged kicking and screaming into consciousness. Kluger explains how even though they had left Egypt physically, they were still there psychically:

The people are still in Egypt, still contaminated with the unconscious, still slave to the great mother [i.e. the regressive pull of the unconscious]. In the course of events they reveal themselves as a resisting, stiff-necked people who do not want to become conscious, who demonstrate the resistance of the natural man against the opus contra naturam, and who again and again make life go sour for Moses with his higher consciousness.(10)

Nor is anyone immune to the resistance that accompanies a major transition in consciousness, one such as is symbolized by the "Night Sea Journey"--the descent into unconsciousness that marks the beginning phase of a passage or "birth" into a new level of awareness.

It may be that we have been drifting calmly on the sea of life when suddenly the winds of change begin to blow. The clouds thicken and darken. Our boat begins to rock. We take hold of whatever we can. With all our might we resist being dumped overboard. But finally, dumped we are--out of our apathy and into the fathomless waters of the unconscious. From this point on, although it may appear that we are functioning as usual, something all-consuming--something like a gestation--is happening deep within. Unseen, unknown, the energies of the psyche are coalescing around a new potential which, when its term is fulfilled, will bring about a rebirth of soul.

 

 
 

Satan as the Personification of Resistance
to the Creative Movement of Life

Consciousness, whenever it is facing a major transition, is countered by a resistant, antithetical force. Stasis--the static--stands in opposition to the dynamic. In this sense the Self, as the dynamic creative principle, is opposed by an aspect of the ego which seeks to hold onto its hardwon ground.

A time of transition upsets the status quo. It forces us to ask questions we thought were settled: Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I go from here? In order to sort out and resolve such issues we are led by Spirit into the Wilderness--if not into a geographical Wilderness, then into an inner one.

Like the hatching of a chick whose time has come to crack out of its egg, so when our time is at hand to crack out of our cosmic egg, we too must overcome the resistance of the shell in which we have been contained.

The resistance--the opposition--comes from without as well as within, even from those with whom we have the closest ties: those who over time have become attached to our being who they want us to be. John Sanford, in speaking of family and "tribal" loyalties, reminds us of Jesus' warning:

A man's enemies will be those of his own household.(11)

And even if they don't voice their disapproval we may sense their disappointment. More than likely this will cause us to feel guilty. Doubts and fears will enter our minds and we will be tempted to fall back into line--back into the box, the container, the shell that has become too tight, too constricting.

By both inner and outer pressures we are constrained to preserve things the way they are. But equally we are compelled to follow the new creative urge. For once it has taken hold it serves as the fire--the inner dynamic--by which we are thrust out of one stage of life (or consciousness) into another.

Sanford refers to a time of "standing alone," and being

plunged into the inner fire, there to be purged, purified, and made fit for the kingdom. In the group we are protected from direct contact with the fiery nature of the process of coming into selfhood, but when we stand alone we feel the burning intensity of the inner life. (12)

Here Sanford quotes also from The Gospel According to Thomas:

Jesus said: Whoever is near to me is near to the fire, and whoever is far from me is far from the Kingdom. (13)

The creative impulse leads to the Wilderness. We are impelled by a sense of urgency: We sense that if we follow where the compelling force is leading something in our soul will be reborn. On the other hand, we fear change and so resist. But what is the cost of holding back? Will something in us then die? Will we miss the Kingdom?

Resistance to the creative movement of life puts us in touch with a force or a principle the Bible calls Satan. Thus it happened that when Peter tried to keep Jesus from his destiny with the Cross, the Master--who loved Peter with all his heart--nevertheless turned to him and said, "Get behind me, Satan!"(14)

 

 
 

Trouble at the Beginning

The ancient Chinese "Book of Changes" The I Ching, speaks of "trouble at the beginning". As is characteristic of Wisdom teachings, we are alerted to the interplay of opposite, or opposing forces that is typical (archetypal) of a situation such as the one in which the Israelites find themselves at this new beginning of their lives.

Through the Cloud of Unknowing they had escaped the Egyptians . . . only to fall into the hands of another enemy: their fear and mistrust of the unknown. However were they to survive in so inhospitable a land? Perhaps it was at this point that it became apparent to them that Moses had neither plan nor resources for getting them through this desolation in which they found themselves. As for Moses, all he knew was that up until then whenever he had come to an impossible situation where there seemed no way out, he had been told exactly what to do. And when he had done as told, then Yahweh had done the rest.

Their problem was not so much an expectation of trouble as the depression of their spirits due to the disappointment of their high expectations. Having so miraculously crossed the Red Sea they had sung and danced for joy.

Miriam's Song by Poynter

Their exuberance, however, was so short-lived. As their spirits fell they began muttering about the barrenness and harshness of the land into which they had been led. What were they to eat? What were they to drink? In Egypt they had been desperate for freedom. Now, only a few days into their journey, they were ready to abandon hope and return to their lives as slaves.

 

 
 

Egypt as Symbol

Symbolically, Egypt is where we are conditioned for survival, where even the Christ Child was taken for that purpose. But if we stay there too long (and four hundred years was too long) our lives become subservient to Pharaoh and to Great Mother--to the dictates of ego and instinct.

In Egypt we learn what we must do to survive. Since ego and instinct rule through fear-of-consequences, they keep us under bondage by preventing us from letting go of the ways we have learned to protect and guard our physical, emotional and mental vulnerability. Under Pharaoh's rule spiritual consciousness is obscured--the sun is darkened. The desire to escape is met with omens of disaster. We are plagued with doubts and fears. Time and again our will to break free is undermined.

Only when Moses appears, as the heroic impulse to individuate, do we stand a chance of escaping from the land of our bondage. If Egypt is where we are conditioned to "save our lives," the Wilderness is where we undergo the de-conditioning--the dying--by which the gift of the eternality of the soul--the essence of being--is born.

 

 
 

Bitter Waters

In the Wilderness, where survival is foremost, whatever threatens life has the power to evoke fear. But fear has an other side--anger. When threatened, one of the things human beings tend to do is fall back into reliving the past in order to find someone to blame for the emotions that presently threaten to overwhelm consciousness. The effect is to stir the stagnant waters of bitter memory back to life.

When the Israelites were only three days into the Wilderness and had run out of water, they began envisioning themselves dying of thirst. Imagine their relief when word came that water had been found. But their terrible disappointment when the water turned out to be too bitter to swallow. It was as though in this one experience all the bitter disappointments of their entire lives came flooding into their minds. They had expected that once out of Egypt their lives would be better. But this? To die of thirst. The cruel irony of it all.

At Marah--place of bitter waters--the Israelites mirror an aspect of human nature that feels all too familiar: how just beneath the surface of consciousness the emotional charges of past hurts and frustrations await detonation by some present, triggering situation.

And so, with the blink of an eye, the Israelites' dashed hopes turned to anger and they began "murmuring" against Moses. He was the one who had gotten them into this predicament. In response Moses cried out to Yahweh (who after all had gotten him into it). Yahweh, in turn, showed Moses a tree. When Moses threw its branches into the water, the water turned sweet.(15)

What is the tree that turns bitter water sweet? What but the tree that unites the soul to God . . . the Heaven/Earth Axis . . . Jacob's Ladder . . . the Tree of Life . . . the Cross?

It also may have been that Moses was familiar with the belief among native healers that within the immediate vicinity of every harmful substance was another that was its remedy. In any event, for the time being their bitterness was put on hold, as similarly we sometimes have put the lid back on our own bitter memories. But only on hold, because sooner or later the bitterness will have to be faced and purged . . . if, that is, the Promised Land is to be gained.

Sometimes, however, bitterness can go so deep as to be a bitterness towards life itself, and therefore towards God. For the Israelites, bitterness was something that came up again and again. But always there was Moses as a target upon whom to project their deep-seated anger at life, and at his Yahweh. Moreover, the projection phenomenon appeared to have been mutual, with Moses retaliating by threatening the Israelites with Yahweh's "wrath," which wrath was hard to tell from Moses' own outbursts of vindictive anger.

 

 
 

Hunger and Satiety

The first instance of murmurings against Moses had involved the scarcity of water. It had been this incident that had laid bare the deep-seated roots of bitterness the Israelites had brought with them out of Egypt. Next there arose from the people a cry of hunger. This time their fear, anger and self-pity was directed at both Moses and Aaron:

Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.(16)

The Bible calls those engaged in breeding discontent "the rabble." Nevertheless, Moses again intercessed for the people, and their hunger was met with the manna that had "the taste of cakes baked with oil." Since it fell with the dew every night and appeared fresh each morning, there was no problem of spoilage. It was the perfect food for the Wilderness. But as with the miracle of the water, the manna also served the secondary purpose of exposing an ingrained attitude, this time of dissatisfaction. Back they harped to "the fish, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks."

[And] now there is nothing at all but this manna.
O that we had meat to eat!
(17)

 

 
 

The Hazard of Complaining

As Moses had been accustomed to doing, he passed the complaints along to Yahweh who "caused a wind to blow" that brought in from the sea more quail than could have been imagined. Ironically,

While the meat was yet between their teeth . . . a very great plague [fell upon] the people who had the craving [and they died.](18)

What can we make of this other than a case of gluttony overriding the sense of smell and taste that would otherwise have detected spoiled fowl. I think here of a plaque I had hanging in the kitchen when my children were young. Its words, at that point in my life, summed up my sentiments:

Complaints to the cook can be hazardous to your health!

 

 
 

The Pull of Regressive Tendencies

Kluger, in describing the Israelites' outbreak of reproaches against Moses, speaks of their "menancingly negative projection." He comments concerning the tenacious manner in which they cling to their "satiated unconsciousness." In light of the sheer instinctual power behind regressive tendencies, Kluger would have us see the miraculous in the process by which consciousness is gained.

In the New Testament the rich young man asks Jesus: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Sell all," Jesus tells him, "give the proceeds away, and follow me." Can we see the risk in even questioning the status quo of the life to which we have become accustomed?

In the young man's place, would we have had the courage to ask the question: For the sake of the kingdom, what of my attachments must I give up? Where in my life is the temporal usurping the eternal?

If one compares the wilderness with the satiated unconsciousness of the Egyptian house of slavery, it has something prospective about it in that it signifies being ultimately confronted without any possibility of evasion. [The wilderness] is the symbol of a more conscious suffering which inevitably compels an encounter with the greater. It is the emptiness before fullness, the privation before fulfillment.(19)

 

 
 

The Reconciliation of Conscious Intent and Unconscious Need

The Israelites, upon entering the Wilderness, were in their spiritual infancy and, therefore, unable to distinguish their various needs and fears other than through the typical "mad cry" of a colicky, high-strung infant. Similarly, in order for unconscious emotional needs to make themselves known, they must somehow get our attention. If our ears are deaf to their cry, then their plea for attention turns to an anger bent on getting attention, one way or another. Above all else, the cry of the emotional self asks to be acknowledged. Once our attention is gained, and we truly listen, then nearly always we will recognize the need as a valid human need.

In Man's Ultimate Commitment, Henry Nelson Wieman singles out the highesthuman achievement as the capacity "to get the viewpoint of the other person appreciatively and profoundly and reconcile it with his own so far as possible." This, Dr Wieman pinpoints, "is the supreme achievement of man and his highest vocation." (20) If we apply these same words to inner as well as outer relationships, we begin to appreciate the magnitude of the effort called for if a reconciliation between the intentions of the will and the needs of the emotions is to occur. First of all, there is the ego's self-protective resistance with which to contend. Then second, a sufficient and enduring effort must be applied to the work of becoming conscious. For the predicament of the human psyche remains: no matter how many or how repeatedly good intentions are marshaled, they will continue to be opposed and undermined by unconsciously-held attitudes and obsolete assumptions. Reconciliation, in the end and whether between inner or outer relationships, must be based on self-knowledge--self-knowledge gained as unconscious determinants are exposed to the light of consciousness. This is how self-defeating patterns are overcome; how opposition is transformed to empowerment; how we will come to that "purity of heart" Kierkegaard characterizes as "to will one thing."

 

 
 

The Angry Father and the Placating Mother

The biblical account of the Israelites in the Wilderness characterizes them as rude and demanding children., which is also a good description of the way ignored emotions behave, and from which account we can learn the dynamics of unconscious, self-defeating emotional patterns and how they keep leading us around in circles, or in eastern imagery, keep us chained to the wheel of rebirth. James, in the third chapter, speaks of the tongue as "setting on fire the cycle of nature". James, playing with words in the same passage, refers to the tongue as the means by which the fires of hell are ignited. How aptly his words depict the Israelites' undue suffering due to their maligning tongues, up against which Moses flipped back and forth between helpless frustration and anger.

Sometimes, however, the Wilderness account casts Yahweh in the role of an angry father, with Moses as the placating mother. At one point, Moses appears absolutely driven to distraction by the Israelite's unruly behavior, much like the helplessness a mother feels when she is experiencing her children as out of control. It is then her frustration may turn to anger and cause her to resort to threats: "Just you wait until I tell your father." In like manner we hear Moses threatening the children of Israel that if they don't change their ways Yahweh is going to zap them off the face of the earth.

Moses' threats of an angry Yahweh seem also to approximate the way projection works: Perhaps it is Moses who colors Yahweh as an angry, punishing God to be feared. That Moses does so because of the fear of punishment he believes he deserves--punishment for his own anger that once burned so hot it killed; an out-of-control anger he therefore fears and distances himself from by putting it onto Yahweh.

There are, however, other occasions when Moses seems overly eager to pacify, or overly willing to accept the blame that his people are so quick to put upon him. If their basic needs are not provided for, Moses accepts it as his fault. If anything goes wrong, he is to blame. If Yahwah is breathing smoke and fire, it is up to Moses to cool him off. Whatever the problem, Moses seems to end up feeling both responsible and inadequate--like a sow whose sucklings outnumber her teats . . . until finally his patience breaks and out comes the involuntary "why me?" of helpless frustration.

Why hast thou dealt ill with thy servant? And why have I not found favor in thy sight, that thou dost lay the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I bring them forth, that thou shouldst say to me, "Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries the sucking child, to the land which thou didst swear to give their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, 'Give us meat, that we may eat. I am not able to carry all this people alone, the burden is too heavy for me. If thou wilt deal thus with me, kill me at once, if I find favor in thy sight, that I may not see my wretchedness."(21)

Having had to cope with a mere six children as compared Moses' reported 600,000, nonetheless I can relate to what it is like to feel over-extended, over-burdened, and over-responsible. And sometimes you just have to make a scene in order to get the attention and help of the father of the children. In any event, and as the Bible tells the story, Moses' pleas are heard and Yahweh does come up with a plan to get others to share some of the weight of responsibility:

"Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel . . . . and I will take some of the spirit which is upon you and put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you.(22)

Thus it worked out that when Moses was able to unburden the frustration he was feeling he was given a plan for sharing the burden he had been trying to carry alone. This, in turn, relieved him of the terrible aloneness of one who feels singularly responsible for a situation that is beyond the ability of a single individual to handle.

 

 
 

The Complaints Continue

The complaints had begun at the very beginning of the journey. Considering the extremity of the circumstances, the fact that they were able to survive at all was no small miracle. How irritating to Moses their complaints must have been. In Egypt they had acquired particular tastes and an attitude towards food many children display when they make mealtime a matter of contention, and in this way displace their more deeply rooted dissatisfactions.

If slavery had been bad, life in the Wilderness now seemed worse. As slaves they had wanted what they couldn't have. Now that they were free they wanted back what they'd left behind. They seemed to express the sense that if they indeed were God's "chosen people," why weren't they being treated better?

Sometimes as parents we make our children feel "special." This then makes it difficult for them when they are up against circumstances where "specialness" doesn't count, or at least where it is lost to larger concerns. It is at this point that a child, seeking to regain the center of attention, may create a scene which, in effect, is a demand for attention. When this happens, a parent may choose to placate rather than face the matter head-on. Moses seems often to have made this choice. Nor was it that the problems in the Wilderness weren't real. It was just that the Israelites, like children, had learned that whining got them what they wanted. And so, what worked for them once they tried over and over again, each time sending Moses back to Yahweh to plead their cause.

Never once, as far as is recorded, did anyone come up to Moses and say, "You're doing a great job." Or even, "We know you're doing the best you can under the circumstances and we appreciate it." Nor was anyone ever straight forward enough about the situation to say, "When we've had problems before you have asked Yahweh for help and he has always come through. Would you let him know we need his help again." No, rather than being appreciative and direct they continued to deceitfully "murmur" their bitter resentments and discontent.

 

 
 

The Fiery Serpents

From encampment to encampment and from year to year their complaining continued, until only a few of those who had left Egypt remained. Nearly forty years had gone by without their dispositions improving one iota. Now it was the children and grandchildren of those who had left Egypt from whom the disgruntled complaints arose. Even within Moses' earshot they made so bold as to plot mutinous intentions against him. Moreover, a time came when they spoke openly not only against Moses but had the audacity to speak out also against Yahweh:

Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no water, and we loathe this worthless manna.(23)

"Okay," its not too difficult to imagine Yahweh responding, "What about snake meat?" Thus came the infestation of serpents whose fiery bites caused the Israelites such widespread agony and death that, for the first time ever, the people woke up to the fact they had brought this latest disaster upon themselves.

Sometimes it takes doing something totally out of line before we can see and acknowledge our act for what it is--what the Bible calls sin. But in that moment, in the act of becoming conscious of how sin manifests in our life, it is transformed into wisdom.

At the point in the Wilderness journey when the serpents appeared, the greatest miracle of all happened. The people repented. They actually came to Moses with straight forward self-honesty and humility:

We have sinned for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that he will take away the serpents from us.(24)

How deeply moved Moses must have been, knowing that finally the breakthrough had come. His task was all but complete. The Promised Land was within reach. Their bondage to unconsciousness had been broken. Their psychic tie to Egypt--to the regressive pull of great mother--had been severed. They were now (but without knowing it) on the home stretch of the journey.

 

 

 



Detail from Dore's Brazen Serpent

 

The Brazen Serpent

In order for the Israelites to become a free people they would, of their own free will, have to come to see that enslavement not only had been the outer reality of their lives in Egypt but also the inner condition they had brought with them into the Wilderness. In the incident of the serpents the seeing had begun.

In response to Moses' intercession concerning the death-dealing serpents, he was given an image that embodied the Israelites' need to be healed in both body and soul, a healing symbol that involved them in a sacramental enactment of the elevation of consciousness that was taking place in them. Towards this end, Yahweh instructed him to

"Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and every one who is bitten, when he sees it shall live." Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole, and if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.(25)

Perhaps it was because Moses was "slow of speech," that he recognized the importance of symbolism. But he also demonstrated an uncanny awareness of the necessity for appropriateness in the application of a symbol towards a specific end. And in light of recent studies in immunology and others on how visual imagery effects physical change, it could well have been that the Israelites were healed as their immune systems were strengthened through a combination of faith, imagination and suggestion. In any event, the poison of the "fiery serpents" was overcome.

 

 
 

Healing Symbols

We might wonder: Is the power to heal intrinsic to a particular symbol or symbolic act? Or is the power to heal in the symbol's capacity to establish a link between the conscious and unconscious levels of the psyche, between the personal and transpersonal? The serpent upon the staff was such an image, one directed towards awakening and quickening a desire and willingness to be healed. More than a millennium later, Jesus would refer to this symbol in connection with his own death and rebirth, and relate it to the way eternal life is gained.

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.(26)

Here Jesus, as "Son of Man," was drawing a parallel between himself and the serpent, and by implication between the Cross upon which he was to die and Moses' staff. In another scripture Jesus referred to a life that on one level must be given up, be "lost," in order on another level to be regained or "found"(27) Taken together, these two scriptures help clarify one another.

In the Wilderness the Israelites, by looking up to Moses' spirit-and-meaning-infused image, were physically healed, but not before their suffering had brought them to the point of repentance. In Jesus' analogy he presented himself as a living symbol through whom the way to a higher reality can be found. In both instances the life-from-death theme is repeated. In each case something also was required of the participant: a change of focus that must take place; a change from looking downward and to the past to looking upward and towards the future. In the case of the Israelites, their change of focus led to a change in consciousness, which in turn led to a change in circumstance.

From the point that the Israelites repented and the Serpent/Staff became their healing symbol, things began to go very well for them. It was as though a power beyond their control had taken over their lives. It was as though Yahweh, as in the beginning of their journey, was able again to guide their destiny.

Moses next sent a request to the Amorite king asking permission to travel on his highway. He went so far as to give his word his people would neither eat his food or drink his water. But instead the Amorites attacked the Israelites. And the Amorites lost. As a result of this miscalculated aggression, the Israelites took over the land "from the Arnon to the Jabbok."(28) Moreover, they continued to press forward taking possession as well of the land of Moab and Og, until finally they were positioned right across the Jordon from Jericho, at the very edge of Cannan--the Promised Land.(29)

 

 
 

The Ascending Spiral

As noted in Book One, Part Two the serpent is symbolic of both elemental life and wisdom. The reappearance of the serpent so near the end of the Wilderness journey suggests another move up the evolutionary spiral. It could even be that the "fiery" element of the wilderness serpents points in the direction of something that only now, in light of Twentieth Century quantum physic, can be understood--that at the very heart of matter is spirit. In the words of a song inspired by Teilhard, Sebastian Temple paraphrases this idea:

Everywhere we turn, O Lord we find that You are here,
In every form and shape we see Your substance sharp and clear.
You are the inner fire that keeps our earth aglow,
Heart of the living matter from which every creature grows.(30)

Teilhard saw the light of consciousness as hidden within and animating all life--even the density of matter. He saw this as the divine matrix by which everything is united, and by which everything is a part of everything else:

The true light that enlightens every man
. . . . the light [that] shines in the darkness
[but that] the darkness has not overcome.
(31)

Moreover, we now know that encoded within matter is the secret of each particular matter's form and function: The pattern of the oak within the acorn. The blueprint within the molecule. The Self within the self. For Teilhard the discoveries of science were no threat to faith. Rather he saw the two as converging paths, bringing both science and religion closer to the truth that in Christ all things in heaven and on earth are reconciled.

 

 
 

The Scepter of Authority

Symbolically read, the staff upon which the serpent ascends, whether a rod, a scepter, or a crook, is symbolic of movement from outer (or unconscious) motivation to an inner and consciously-directed authority. Moses' rod symbolized his authority, an authority based on his confidence in the inner Voice he had come to trust. But no matter how miraculous the deeds he performed, he never claimed to do anything by his own authority, rather he always acknowledged that it was Yahweh working through him who accomplished the deed. Similarly, Jesus pointed to the Father as the source of the power behind all he did and said.

The change from outer to inner authority comes about as a result of the establishment of an axis of communication between Self and God. The authentic Self hears the inner Voice and follows where it leads . . . often into the Wilderness. From Adam to Abraham to Moses to Jesus, humanity was ascending the evolutionary spiral. It fell upon Adam to be forced from the edenic womb of unconsciousness, and to Moses to bear the burden and carry the vision of freedom for his entire people. Moses, although he was a man of power, was also said to have been the most humble of men. In and of himself he knew he was as helpless as his people. His ability to keep the Israelites moving towards the Promised Land was dependent upon his staying in constant communion with the directive Voice he knew as Yahweh.

 

 
 

The Union of Instinct and Ego

In the symbolism of the serpent ascending the staff, the two most essential polarities of the human psyche are united: the feminine or earth-related instinct for survival, as symbolized by the horizontally slithering serpent; and the vertical and therefore masculine or heaven-related standard upon which the serpent is raised. In this image the instinctual or lower level is elevated to consciousness. The result is a power-infused symbol incorporating and uniting the two tension-creating but potentially balancing principles of psychological wholeness--instinct and ego.

Through this symbol the Israelites were restored to health of body and, at the same time, put back in touch with a higher order of meaning and purpose for their lives. They could now view their Wilderness ordeal against an historical backdrop. Hope had returned; their vision had been regained. With their renewed determination to press on they were, once again, the people of the Promise.

For us, also, the constant need is to turn from looking down to looking up.

"Look up" the Voice told Abraham.
. . . Look to the heavens and to the eternal.

"Look up", the Israelites also were told.
. . . Look up and be healed.

And in John's gospel:

. . . as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
. . . and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.
(32)

Finally, from the last page of Teilhard's Journal: (33)

 

. . . . . . ..  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Christogenesis
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Noogenesis
. . . . . . . . . . .  Biogenesis
Cosmogenesis

 

 

 
 

Illustrations Credits
Dore's Finding of Moses
Miriam's Song, Sir Edward John Poynter, circa 1864, English artist, from The Old Testament and the Fine Arts
Dore's Brazen Serpent

End Notes
1. Edward F Edinger, The Bible and the Psyche, Inner City Books, Toronto, 1986, p 52
2. Genesis 45: 5-8
3. Genesis 45: 6
4. Ex 1:8-11
5. Ex 1:22
6. Ex 2:15
7. Ex 3:2
8. Ex: 4-5
9. Genesis 15:12-16
10. Rivkah Scharf Kluger, Psyche and Bible, Spring Publications, Zurich, 1974, p34
11. John A Sanford, The Kingdom Within, Lippincott, NY, 1970, p 82, quoting Matt 10:36
12. Ibid, p 81
13. The Gospel According to Thomas, Logion 82
14. Matthew 16:23
15. Exodus 15:24-5
16. Ex 16:3
17. Numbers 11: 4-6
18. Numbers 11:34
19. op cit, Kluger, p 37
20. Henry Nelson Wieman, Man's Ultimate Commitment, So Illinois Univ Press, 1958, p 170
21. Numbers 11: 11-15
22. Numbers 11:: 16-17
23. Numbers 21:5
24. Numbers 21:7
25. Numbers 21:8-9
26. John 3:14-15
27. Matthew 10:39
28. Numbers 21:24
29. Numbers 31:12
30. From the title song of Sebastian Temple's album The Universe is Singing
31. John 1:4-5
32. John 3:14 & 13:32
33. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man, Harper & Row, NY, 1964, p 309

 

 
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