Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏹️

Bronze snake image, from media library

And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
Numbers 21:6-8

While skirting Edom, and being attacked by the army of Arad, who with God's help they conquer, the Israelites resume their torrent of complaints, this time adding that they loatheth this light bread1 (the manna) God has provided them. Perhaps it is this ingratitude, this denigration of the divine gift that causes God to respond with such lethal punishment. Again, Moses intercedes on behalf of the people, and God's wrath recedes enough for an antidote to be offered.

Moses creates the snake out of bronze2 and attaches it to a stick to be held high for all to see. This seems like a magic charm, and in some way it is. The people believe that the bronze snake will cure them and indeed it does. Today we call this the placebo effect. Traditionally the placebo effect has been denigrated by many scientists and lay people as 'faith healing' and ignored in serious research. More recently though much attention has been paid to the power of the placebo effect in aiding recovery from many illnesses.3 It is interesting that the snake on a staff motif has been adopted by healers over the centuries and even today is the symbol of the medical profession.4 That modern-day medicine, so intimately tied up with the pharmaceutical industry, and largely opposed to any alternative approaches should have as its symbol the ultimate placebo is somewhat ironic. Somewhere along the road of the last few thousand years mainstream medicine may have lost its way.

The placebo effect has its opposite too, the nocebo effect.5 This occurs when people are told to expect the worst, that they are likely to fall ill, to not recover from a present condition, to develop mental health problems, and so on. The effect of such negative messaging is to increase a person's emotional arousal, cause distress and result in a deterioration of mind and/or body. As with a placebo, the expectation is fulfilled. We can witness the nocebo effect taking place very strongly in our current climate of fear brought on by Covid19 lockdowns and other social controls.6

For the bronze snake placebo to work, the Israelites needed to first admit their wrongdoing, i.e. see their own part in the problem, secondly ask for help, and finally have complete faith that the cure would be effective. Perhaps, to counter the strong nocebo effect we are under due to the reporting and responses to Covid19, a similar process of prayer, petition and faith (or the secular version: release, request and trust) is required of us today. The imagination is a powerful tool for healing, if we learn how to use it in a positive way.

1 Numbers 21:5
2 Numbers 21:9 (the KJV translation is actually brass, but later translations agree on bronze)
3 See, for example, The Power of the Placebo Effect, Harvard Medical School, May 2017
4 An interesting history of the snake-entwined staff, more commonly known as the "Rod of Asclepius" is described in Does the Serpentine Symbol of Healing Have a Biblical Origin? Watch Jerusalem, February 2019
5 The term nocebo was coined in 1961 from the Latin noceō "I harm/shall harm" to counter placēbō "I shall please".
6 See, for example, Giving Hope in Troubled Times, Human Givens Institute, November 2020