14 June 2006

God's Fiery Serpents

And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. 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. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived. - Numbers 21:4-9
These verses have long fascinated both believers and skeptics. What were the mysterious "fiery serpents" that God sent to bite the people, causing many of them to die? Well, parasitologists say it may have been the guinea worm (The nematode Dranunculus medinensis).

To understand why the guinea worm is suspected, you must understand its life cycle.

Guinea worm larvae are released by their mothers into a body of water. The larvae thrash about vigorously until they attract and are eaten by a copepod, which is a small, nearly microscopic, crustacean. The copepod is, however, just a temporary home for the worm. It cannot complete its life cycle unless it can somehow get inside its definitive host: a human being. This is accomplished when someone drinks water containing the infected copepods.

The copepod's body is destroyed by the stomach acids, releasing the guinea worm, which then burrows its way through the intestinal wall. It begins to migrate through the abdominal cavity and into the connective tissue, stopping to mate with another migrating worm that it runs into along the way. By this time females have grown to be nearly a meter in length, while the males are only a few centimeters. After the worms have sex, the little male wanders off to find a place to die, while the female continues her journey through the human host's body.

While the migration of the female worms causes great pain and discomfort, it is when the worm reaches its final destination that the torment really begins. The worms end up just beneath the surface of the skin, usually in the legs or feet, where they remain for a month or more. Their metabolic wastes and the host's allergic reaction cause a blister to form, resulting in intense itching and burning pain. One of the few ways to relieve the pain is to immerse the blister in water, inducing the worm to break through the surface of the skin releasing millions of guinea worm larvae. A copepod eats the larvae, completing the guinea worm life cycle.

But the human suffering is far from over when the worm breaks through the skin, for although the female worms die soon after releasing the larvae, their dead meter-long bodies are not easy to remove. And even if the dead worms can be extracted without rupturing, serious secondary infections often occur.

So how is the worm removed? Well, the traditional way, which is still used today, is to carefully wind the worm around a stick. The only other option is surgical removal, but this is extremely difficult and not often successful.

Well, now that was interesting. But were the "fiery serpents" of Numbers 21 guinea worms in disguise? I'll leave that for you to decide, but some aspects seem to fit the description in Numbers.

The pregnant females are rather large worms and cause excruciating pain when breaking through the skin to release their larvae. So it is easy to see how they could be called "fiery serpents".

Guinea worms would have been present in the region at the time of the Exodus, as they still are today. If the Israelites encountered drought conditions, as they did according to the account in Numbers, it would have facilitated the transmission of the disease by concentrating worm larvae, intermediate hosts (copepods), and infected humans at the same water source.

And the serpent on a pole could well represent the most common form of treatment, then and now: pulling out the guinea worm by winding it on a stick.

Okay, let's assume the "fiery serpents" were guinea worms. If so, what message should we take from all this? What is God trying to tell us here? And what can we learn about God from this passage in Numbers?

One thing that should be clear to us all, of course, is the moral of the story: Don’t whine. God can’t stand a whiner. So if you or your children don’t have enough to eat or drink, well, just keep quiet about it. Whatever you do don’t mention it to God. If you ever get tempted complain about it, just look at this as a reminder.

So we know why God did it. What isn’t so clear, to me at least, is how. Did he simply infect the drinking water with guinea worm larvae? Or did he specially create guinea worms just for the occasion? If so, why didn’t he clean up afterwards? Why did millions of people have to suffer (and still suffer today) because the Israelites complained to God about their living conditions?

And what should we make of the “serpent on a pole” thing? The bible says that people were cured just by looking at it. Would it still work today? If so, then someone should let people know because the current treatment is much more involved (and painful) than that.

You also have to wonder why God didn’t explain how to prevent further infections, because prevention is much easier than treatment. All that is needed is to filter the drinking water through a fine-mesh cloth to remove the copepods. (The World Health Organization has nearly eradicated the disease by using this method.) Wouldn’t that be better than the Moses’ magic brass serpent - or the real treatment that this may have represented? Didn’t God know how to prevent the disease that he created?

But the last question is most important of all. Why are there guinea worms? Did God specifically design these worms to live inside the body of humans? Or were they created by Satan? Or did they just evolve, and God had nothing to do with it? If the first is true, then God is evil. If the second, then there are at least two gods. If the third, then God cannot control his own creation. Which do you think it is?


Hepzibah The Watchman said...

Wow, I love the information about the parasites and you just may be right that these were indeed the fiery serpents.

I would like to address some of your questions. God did provide prevention for the parasite. When the people needed water, Moses would strike or speak to the rock and the rock would produce water (from underground streams). This parasite lives above ground in standing or stagnate waters. Apparently, the people were not drinking from God's provision but from their own knowledge.

Also, why would God invent a parasite whose main function seems to be to kill humans? My guess is this parasite was created to thin herds of animals who came to drink at the stagnate ponds. It was population control for animals - not humans.

Let's not forget that when God created man, his intent was that they live 'in the Garden' not on the whole earth. And, why would that be? Because when Satan's rebellion was defeated, instead of destroying Satan, God wanted to allow him a time to repent, so he cast him down to the earth.

Then, when God created man, he placed man in the Garden - a place set aside where man could live in relative safety from Satan. Unfortunately, Satan slipped in disguised as a serpent.

When man decided to disobey God by eating the apple - he was expelled from the Garden - so now we are in Satan's domain. Thus - the parasite.

God bless you.

Steve Wells said...

annie said: "why would God invent a parasite whose main function seems to be to kill humans?"

Good question, Annie. Dracunculus medinensis only affects humans; no other mammals are used as hosts. So apparently God invented them to torment and kill humans. Why would he do that?

"- so now we are in Satan's domain. Thus - the parasite."

So Satan created the guinea worm? Were some species created by God and others by Satan? Do you know which were created by God and which by Satan?

organelle said...

Fascinating post.

Firstly, the problem is not God.

Invariably, humans who have been confused by reading various religious texts -literally- obtain greater ignorance rather than understanding.

However, also invariably, man blames God for what man has created, not god, and not satan.

Parasites are an unusual life form, not entirely dissimilar to viruses.

To make a very complicated story short: certain activities of mankind affect heaven in ways that are so problematical that they threaten the basis of all universes, and mankind.

Since heaven is essentially 'a source placeBeing' what is done here, has purchase upon it in a way not unlike how what is done to a child affects the parents, families, etc.

In this case, what happens is a feedback event. The event emerges in evolutionary time as many different kinds of results, however, -all native peoples- are aware of this whole 'snake problem'. It's not actually about snakes — it's about a root-form of something which is a metaposition to animals in general.

Your essay is brilliant, and I am grateful to have seen it, but your conclusion is mistaken.

The snakes were created by the humans, who did things (I can tell you what but will not here) which essentially caused this result. They then blamed God, who, rather than punishing them for blaming him, or for anything at all, sent healing.

Unknown said...

And my question to you....
does he still send healing, as I'm sure many children still suffer from this worm now...

Johnny Draco said...

"...instead of destroying Satan, God wanted to allow him a time to repent, so he cast him down to the earth."
Annie, Why did he "cast him down to earth" and not on Pluto or any other planet?

Clarke Waldron said...

At the time that Satan was cast out of Heaven, the only other place (planet) that existed was Earth. I guess that Hell hadn't been created yet. So there you have it. At the time, the planets (wanderers) were nothing more than twinkly things in the night sky.