Truth and Consequences
What disgusts is death in the midst of life…
In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge discusses the value of experience in the process of learning, particularly within the framework of leadership. He makes a claim many of us would ratify: “The most powerful learning comes from direct experience.”1Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Currency/Doubleday, 2006), 23. As children, we learn to make our way in the world through trial and error, taking action and seeing the consequences. But when we become part of a larger, complex entity, like an organization, this learning pattern that has been well-established no longer works effectively. The cause of a problem is never solitary; rather, it is usually multifactorial. The consequences of any particular decision may take many years to unravel. Senge prompts us to reflect on how this eats away at the very act of learning:
What happens if the primary consequences of our actions are in the distant future or in a distant part of a larger system within which we operate? We have a “learning horizon,” a breadth of vision in time and space within which we assess our effectiveness. When our actions have consequences beyond our learning horizon, it becomes impossible to learn from direct experience.2Ibid.
For Senge, it is this loss of the direct consequence of organizational decision-making that creates what he calls a core learning dilemma. Cycles, he points out, are particularly difficult to see if they last for several years. Applying this to elected positions of power, we find that two- and four-year terms hardly allow us to measure the success of any particular leader because that politician or official may have spent his or her entire tenure in office fighting the ravages of a decision made several years before his or her election. Without sufficient time to confront and reverse the consequences of decisions that leaders inherit, they are all too often spurned and not reelected just when they may have reached the point of influence and change. And thus, the cycle of bad leadership continues.
Senge observes that most organizations “solve” this dilemma by breaking up large entities into smaller divisions and departments to give the impression of manageability. In actual fact, the fragmentation may only contribute to the problem, as departments become more isolated and territorial, shielding themselves from consequences by blaming others. Blame, lack of cohesion, ignorance, and defensiveness all get in the way of learning, what Senge cites as “skilled incompetence,” proficiency in keeping oneself from learning.3Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 25. Senge attributes this expression to Chris Argyris.
The school of life that was the wilderness was designed to teach the Israelites about the direct impact of decision-making. Behaviors have consequences. This educational policy was laid out three days into the journey, in Exodus 15, right after the crossing of the Reed Sea, when the Israelites first complained about bitter water:
There He made for them a fixed rule, and there He put them to the test. He said, “If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I am the Lord your healer.” (Ex. 15:25–26)
God was a healer to those who kept His covenant. Fail to keep the contractual obligations of a partnership and God would not take that role. The fixed-rule approach was nonnegotiable. It was also direct, a learning tool that most complex entities never benefit from because of the indirect way in which acts and their consequences typically play out. The wilderness, for better or worse, was their school of education.
God, in the incident of the serpents, would once again be a healer – but only after first being a tormentor. The wilderness was a school of accountability with God as its chief educator. God needed to show the Israelites the cost of wrongdoing and the way in which consequences can have immediate impact and require immediate attention.
It is fair to say that a snake is not a well-liked animal. It induces fear, a certain type of tremulousness brought on by the uncertainty of not knowing whether the snake is poisonous and when it had its last meal. It need not be large to be deadly, yet regarding the larger varieties, thoughts of being strangled by a snake is the stuff of nightmares.
These negative feelings may be exacerbated by the role that the mythic snake in the Garden of Eden had in the story of primordial man. The serpent occupied a seminal role in the Adam and Eve narrative, serving metaphorically as the voice of temptation and disobedience. That snake was very powerful indeed, and for its punishment it suffered the indignity of losing its legs, a sure way to reduce its power visibly, but to increase the fear of it at the same time. The Hebrew for snake is “naĥash,” an onomatopoeic word that makes a hissing sound with a slight delay at its end that feels like the linguistic equivalent of a slither. It is a harsh word and, not coincidentally, a word used in prophetic texts to refer to an enemy.4See, for example, Jeremiah 8:17 and Isaiah 14:29. When we describe someone as snake-like, we usually mean that the individual is crafty, conniving, and manipulative. It can describe duplicitous behavior. In the Hebrew Bible, “naĥash” is used to describe something even more dramatic and dangerous than a garden snake variety of reptile, referring to a dragon or particularly venomous serpent.5Examples of this are found in Deuteronomy 32:33 and Psalm 74:13. It can also imply chaos, as it does in Isaiah 27:1 and 51:9.
After a wilderness complaint about bread and water, God punished the people with an attack of fiery snakes, “The Lord sent fiery [seraphim] serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died” (Num. 21:6). After using various plagues and fire, God used a new form of punishment to silence their incessant groaning. This time, the punishment did not seem to fit the crime. Or did it?
Two collections of midrash, the Midrash Tanĥuma and Numbers Rabba, saw the similarities and expounded upon them.
Since the serpent was the first to speak evil and was cursed, and they [Adam and Eve] did not learn from him, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Let the serpent, who was the first to speak evil, come and exact punishment from those who spoke evil.” 6Midrash Tanĥuma, Ĥukkat 45; Numbers Rabba 19.
The serpent was associated with evil, manipulative speech and was a fitting character to appear in the book of Numbers. This was an era of sharp words and wounds inflicted by painful speech.
Having harsh words described as burning serpents captures and merges two distinct images: the wild, uncontrollable nature of fire and the sharp, venomous nature of serpents. The snake of Eden was linked with speech and language because of what he said to Eve in Genesis 3:1: “Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say you shall not eat of the tree of the garden?’” In fact, the first words uttered by Eve in the biblical text were those she said in response to the serpent’s question. The serpent teased her and raised doubts in her mind about God’s authority over her. As George Bernard Shaw writes in his play, Back to Methuselah: “Well, as the serpent used to say, why not?”7George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah (Lawrence, KS: Digireads.com, 2011), 16. His was the voice of devil-may-care impulse.
Other commentators noted the similarity between the early chapters of Genesis and this narrative in Numbers. Ibn Ezra, on the unusual word, “seraphim” or “fiery” to describe the snakes, wrote that this means of punishment was used because, like the complaining Israelites, snakes loosen their tongues to bite. Rabbi Obadiah Sephorno suggests that the parallel is not about the method of punishment, but the price of sin. Just as the serpent of Eden was punished for abusing language, so too were the children of Israel. The serpent paid a heavy price for his words:
Because you did this, more cursed shall you be than all cattle and all the wild beasts. On your belly shall you crawl and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers; they shall strike at your head and you shall strike at their heel. (Gen. 3:14–15)
The potent image of crawling upon and eating dirt is suggestive of all that the snake would become as the lowliest of creatures. It is interesting to note that the serpent is introduced as the shrewdest of animals – a title he did not lose – and was then given another title: most cursed animal. Acts have consequences.
The serpent came to mimic in literature and religion what it looks like: curvy and creepy, a long-tongued dirt-crawler capable of strangulation. Its violent force is captured and depicted in one of our psalms:
Rescue me, O Lord, from evil men;
Save me from the lawless,
Whose minds are full of evil schemes,
Who plot war every day.
They sharpen their tongues like serpents;
Spiders’ poison is on their lips. (Ps. 140:2–4)
The serpent became cursed because he was shrewd. Having the Israelites bitten by snakes for slandering God and questioning His judgment is a way of reciprocating their own venom.
The Magic Staff
Moses was introduced to God’s power early in Exodus when his rod turned into a snake and then back again. Like the snake, this symbol of leadership instructed Moses that power is also duplicitous and easily abused in the wrong hands. It seemed an easy enough trick to turn a staff into a snake when later performed before Egyptian magicians; they were not the slightest bit entertained or impressed. But it did impress Moses. How might he have understood that his staff, the tool and symbol of his authority, could turn into a potentially venomous creature with the power to kill him? It may have been instrumental in helping Moses understand the power and danger of leading and the potential consequences of making mistakes in leadership.
The snake as a symbol for that which changes and can change others takes on a fascinating symbolic life in Numbers. As a manipulator, the snake turned into something unexpected. Our biblical snake tales fall into the trickster genre of literature; “trickster tales” is a term used by anthropologists and folklorists to refer to narratives about someone who is cunning but also lives by his wits. In the words of Dean Andrew Nicholas in The Trickster Revisited: Deception as a Motif in the Pentateuch, tricksters are often regarded as comical characters, “breaking social boundaries and using deception and trickery to survive.”8Dean Andrew Nicholas, The Trickster Revisited: Deception as a Motif in the Pentateuch (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 9. The trickster character also, ironically, generates optimism for those on the margins of society, those who feel powerless or without access to power structures. He is the one who gives us hope that, despite the present reality, somehow the “bottom rail becomes the top riser.” Nicholas describes the paradox that the trickster is the one who creates “order through chaos, the underdog that overcomes.” He is the one who occupies “the liminal role, and all the dangers associated with it”; he is what, Nicholas says, “personified Israel.” 9Nicholas, The Trickster Revisited, 100. Somehow the trickster is the one who is not expected to succeed but does.
This paradox is nowhere more striking than in Numbers where the wounds inflicted by snakes were to be healed by looking at a snake. The problem became the cure. Looking at that which terrified you saved you. God sent snakes to punish the Israelites for disobedience with the animal most associated with disobedience. The serpents were sent in numbers in response to another Israelite complaint, their oft-repeated contention that God and Moses took them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, as if they were victims of nature rather than protected by God. God, on this particular occasion, decided to show them just how close they were to death, precisely because they did not believe in God as a protector: “The Lord let the serpents go against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died” (Num. 21:6). Some translations of this verse fail to recognize the subtle difference in word choices and render the sentence as “God sent the serpents” instead of God letting them go, as if they were all penned up and ready to strike. Professor Nehama Leibowitz pointed out this discrepancy and explained the divine protection that the Israelites did not sufficiently recognize that brought them to this tragic place:
If the serpents had not bitten them till now, it was only thanks to Divine Providence which had been watching over them, leading them through that great and terrible wilderness and not allowing the serpents to touch them, just as He did not allow the drought to overcome them with thirst but drew then out water from the rock. The children of Israel, however, had spurned the Almighty’s supernatural intervention, not wishing to live in the bread He provided, but aspiring to lead a more normal “natural” existence. He allowed the serpents to behave in their natural manner.10Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, 262.
The Israelites who complained of being subject to the constant and unconquerable forces of nature had no idea that, in actuality, God was engaged in their protection continuously. The serpents were there as an immediate and sudden experience of what life would actually have been like had God not been there for them. Dangers were an ever-present wilderness reality. Snakes bite; it’s what they do. The fact that they had not been bitten up until this point was not fully appreciated until the divine force field was lifted, precipitating an urgent and immediate plea for help with the very next verse: “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord to take the serpents from us,’ and Moses interceded for the people” (Num. 21:7). God suspended nature continuously, but let them experience its indifference to them in this instance because they had become too accustomed to a life of protection. The snake became an apt symbol for the slithering, pernicious sin of ingratitude that wrapped itself around these wanderers, strangling and choking their capacity for appreciation and wonder.
The Bite and the Bandage
In an unexpected turn, the salve in this narrative was the snake that could not bite, the bronze serpent that Moses carried. In the words of one Bible scholar:
The fiery, red-inflamed wound, inflicted by the bite of the serpent, was healed by a look of faith to the bronze serpent which Moses had set up. Here is an intimation at least of spiritual homeopathy which rests on a sound basis in human experience.11George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1953), II:243.
God wanted the Israelites to look at the snake as a way to confront their worst fears, that which repulsed them. The people, as a result, begged for forgiveness. Rashi cites a midrash that claims this as the source for an important Jewish law; when someone petitions for forgiveness, it is cruel not to grant it. God forgave them, but in a most unusual manner.
The meaning and value of revulsion has been taken up by a number of philosophers who try to understand its nature. Thomas Nagel contends that, “Unlike fear and anger, but like shame and guilt, disgust seems to be an emotion unique to humans, and like language it appears only at a certain stage of human development.”12See Thomas Nagel, “It’s Revolting,” The New York Review of Books (November 24, 2011), accessed at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/nov/24/its-revolting/. See also Daniel Kelly, Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust (Boston: MIT Press, 2011); Colin McGinn, The Meaning of Disgust (London: Oxford University Press, 2011); and Martha Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law (New York: Princeton University Press, 2006). Revulsion seems to be a distinctly human response to the repression of our own biological functions and organic matter. Because we have a soul, we may deny the fact that we excrete and vomit and bleed. Disgust offers us a subtle boundary between that which we associate with life and that which represents our death and dying.
Revulsion may have an evolutionary benefit in keeping us away from parasites and other contaminants, as it alerts us to the very physicality of all life.
The experience of the emotion, as opposed to those things which commonly induce it, is fairly primal itself: the visceral sense of revulsion, the slight feeling of nausea that unsettles the stomach, the worries about physical contact and contamination, the gaping facial expression that could tip into actual retching.13Kelly, Yuck!, 1.
But there is more than biology at stake. We are proud of our higher natures; consequently, anything that makes us aware of our likeness to other animals or our decomposing, highly material, and base selves, like fecal matter or other bodily emissions, surfaces our disgust. We move away from what Nagel calls “the putrescent underworld.”14Nagel, “It’s Revolting,” 32. That which disgusts us also sets up societal parameters and taboos for what is acceptable and unacceptable within any bounded group of people. Most of what revolts us is not actually dangerous to us. It just makes us cringe and pull away. Yet serpents present both disgust and danger. Adopting Nagel’s mindset, the serpents in our Numbers narrative may actually represent a stage in our own spiritual evolution. The Israelites in feeling revulsion were ironically also displaying a separation from a lower stage of existence that was more physically centered.
In the act of looking at the copper snake, the Israelites were, in effect, holding up a mirror to themselves. And they were disgusted by what they saw. In the wilderness, they had become every association they had with snakes: biting, strangling, duplicitous, and two-faced, believing in God and Moses when they received what they wanted but turning from them the instant their immediate needs were not gratified. Their complaints had a sharp, toothy, even monstrous effect. They consumed their victims whole. In this act of looking, they were forced to face their more demonic inner natures and also the consequences of their own ugliness.
To understand the oddities of the tale, we turn to an unlikely source, a nineteenth-century German draughtsman, who drew a rendition of the scene that draws us into the primal terror and the appeal of confronting that which scares us. Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld renders Numbers 21 with characteristic drama. There are several people in the foreground who are struggling with violent serpents as the snakes ensnare their legs and arms. These men and women all have their eyes set on snakes unless their faces are bowed to the ground or are contorted with pain. The individuals in the background have arms raised to Moses, who stands majestically, graced with horns of light, and points to a serpent on a stick. This serpent is the source of healing and is larger and thicker than the more evil snakes that slither on the ground.
Schnorr depicts multiple verses in this one biblical rendition: the sin and the punishment. Here, God’s forgiveness comes in the curious guise of another snake that Moses mounted on a pole. This snake was not real, but made of copper, and had a unique healing property. Anyone who looked at it would be cured. This would seem to be the first case of a symbolic antidote. The metaphoric venom of the snake was injected by looking at this figure of a serpent; those suffering from snake bites recovered. It is strange that the same animal that strikes fear in people’s hearts and leads to death would come to be used as a medicinal image, as it is today. It must have been difficult to focus one’s vision on an image so frightening in hope of a cure.
Rabbinic literature contends that when Israel looked upward and served their Father in heaven they were healed, but if not, they were endangered. The Mishna addresses this paradox and resolves it by emphasizing intent: “The snake neither killed nor brought back to life, rather if those bitten were reminded to serve God by looking at the snake, they would remain alive.”15Mishna Pesaĥim 4:9. The Mishna takes a conservative approach to the copper snake’s healing capacity, perhaps because of the dangers inherent in such a powerful object. In II Kings 18:10, we learn that King Hezekiah had to destroy the copper snake because people began to worship it.
There are many objects that have dualistic and contradictory properties. The hand that hits can also be the one that extends itself in friendship. The tongue that hurts can also become an instrument of praise. However, a snake by its nature, and certainly in its biblical associations, is generally not thought of with any redeeming characteristics.
Perhaps there is, hidden in the concentrated and intentioned look of the snake-sufferer, another, more profound level of knowledge. Healing sometimes comes from where we least expect it. Sources of goodness are often concealed in places normally associated with evil or pain. The Israelites needed to face their pain directly. In this act, they not only confronted the instrument of their suffering, they perhaps learned not to make judgments about what might bring salvation. Returning to Schnorr’s illustration, we understand why he chose to merge both the scene of the punishment and that of recovery. As mentioned earlier, the people in the foreground were so distracted by the appearance of snakes that they looked away from the mounted copper snake so close to them in its proximity, the very source of their recovery. They needed only to look up, and they would be saved. But they did not. They focused only on the immediate pain and turned away. It is those in the background whose eyes and even arms are upturned who saw in the snake the cure. Solutions to some of the most pressing problems may be right in front of us, begging us to see them, but if our eyes are closed, they might as well be far from view. The text emphasizes that true healing only comes through open eyes. If acts follow from what we see then passivity can follow from what we do not allow ourselves to see. If there are consequences of action, there are also consequences of inaction.
Looking back at the story as a whole, we see that danger can turn into something you least expect. Power can be used for good. It can turn to evil. Consequences can teach us how to live better by overcoming our mistakes or they can become an endless cycle of repetition from which we can find no relief. Often, it is the leader who can help educate us in the school of life by interpreting potentially transformative moments for personal growth. Moses, for example, held a staff that turned into a snake and back into a staff. He also held a copper snake that brought healing from snake bites that caused revulsion. As Howard Gardner observes in Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, “A tension will always exist between those who use their knowledge to manipulate and those who use their knowledge to empower.”16Howard Gardner, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 306. Sometimes it may be the very same source of knowledge which can be used to stymie a future or create one.