Saturday, April 9, 2011

Talk about graven images!

The Divine Office is giving me lots of good apologetics this week. Today's Office of Reading contains a selection from the book of Numbers that is the Single Best Verse to give pause to a Protestant  about the Catholic use of statues. I tend to think first about the golden cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus) or the decorations of Solomon's Temple (one of the books of Kings), but this one is so startling that even a Catholic might wonder what God was thinking.

In Numbers 21, we have the story about the Israelites rebelling over  the lack of water in the dessert. God directed Moses to obtain water from the rock, and there's that puzzling verse where God condemns Moses for not being faithful (how? was it wrong to strike the rock? wrong to strike it more than once? or maybe saying "Are we (Moses and Aaron) to bring water for you out of this rock?" rather than crediting God? It just isn't clear. ) 

Anyway, after the miraculous water is provided, God punishes the people by sending poisonous snakes among them. Soon they are all sick and dying. So what is the remedy??

"Make a bronze serpent and mount if on a pole, and if anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he will recover."

Whoa. God is telling Moses and the people to 1. make a graven image 2. hoist it high in the air for everyone to see 3. look UP to it (sort of respectful, reverent, even --dare I say--like an attitude of worship), in order to 4. get healed. Furthermore, this is an image of 5. a snake, something we associate with You Know Who.

Wasn't God concerned that the people of Israel, ever prone to worshipping and attributing powers to idols would attribute their healing to the bronze serpent? Apparently not. So we learn from this story that not only are there circumstances that God will use a Graven Image as a visible sign and conduit of his mercy, but that He also expects us (since even  the idolatry prone Israelite could do it) to make the distinction between the image that we honor and the true God that it represents and Who works through the image. Can you say sacramental?

Furthermore, there's that time when Jesus said, "Just as Moses lifted up serpent in the dessert, so shall the Son of Man be lifted up..."

So next time you get the statues=idolatry argument, respond with, "Suppose I can show you where God commanded someone to make a graven image of an animal so that people could be cured of illness by honoring it?"