“And the Lord said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail.” – Exodus 4:4
Moses had been called to deliver his people from bondage in Egypt. It was the Lord, of course, who delivered them, but this deliverance had to be effected through human instrumentality, for that is always the method of Divine operation.
We are familiar with the story of the birth of Moses. Hidden because of the fear of the Pharaoh he was put in a little ark of bulrushes and placed among the reeds of the Nile, and left to the care of Him who feeds the ravens and clothes the lilies. The Divine providence watched over him and destined him to become greater than the Pharaoh who ruled the greatest kingdom in the world, and to play a part in history which would immortalize his name, while the powerful dynasty of the Pharaohs was doomed to disappearance and oblivion.
Moses, knowing the weakness and infidelity of his own people, was reluctant to undertake the task to which the Almighty had called him, and said: “But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice.” Moses held a staff in his hand. “What is that in thine hand?” the Lord asked him. “A staff,” replied Moses. Then the Lord commanded him to cast it upon the ground, and lo, it became a serpent, from which Moses fled in fear. Then the Lord said to him, “Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail,” and when he did so, the serpent became a staff again in his hand. Such is the story.
Being part of the Word of God it has, though literally true, a spiritual meaning within it. A staff is used to help in walking and spiritually means that which helps us on our spiritual journey, serving us as a support in living the life of the commandments. We do not live a spiritual life alone nor a natural life alone; both should exist together and make one life. The natural mind, like Moses’ staff, should be in our hand and controlled by it as its servant.
The serpent represents the senses by which we are in contact with this world and are enabled to live in it. This region of sense life, when properly subordinated to the spiritual man, is the staff in his hand, a real means of help in developing the life of his soul. We should be able to see the world of nature, which we can know only through our senses, as an embodiment and expression of the love, wisdom, and majesty of the Creator. Then the beauties of the spiritual life will become more real to us. The senses are roads down which the soul travels that it may give spiritual life fixity on the natural plane. The strongest spiritual natures are those whose religion is both spiritual and natural. A religion which seeks to maintain itself by shutting itself off from the world is weak, and in the other world will wither and die. By the proper use of the senses, the foundations of spiritual life are broadened.
But we have a higher plane of life than that of the senses. We have a natural mind and a spiritual mind. The natural mind opens out into nature, collects its facts, analyzes and systematizes them, and calls this science. This degree of life is incapable of seeing spiritual truth; to it there is no reality above the senses. This is not its fault. God made it that way. “The natural man discerneth not the things of the spirit.” If we had no higher mind, we could never rise above nature to a belief in God and immortality. But we have a higher mind – a spiritual mind – which when formed brings us into conscious relation to the Lord and to heavenly realities. To this spiritual mind the natural mind should serve as a staff. For all natural truth is in agreement with spiritual truth, and all true science agrees with true theology, and if our natural knowledge is used rightly, the facts of natural science become a staff in the hand of Moses.
A church is weak if it has to ignore the truths of science, but strong and mighty if it can hold them in its hand as a staff to support its feet. This the New Church can do, and this is her might and glory. And this is her claim upon thoughtful and intelligent people.
The staff became a serpent because it was cast to the ground – separated from the hand of Moses. To the New Church science, which had been a serpent to be fled from, is become a staff in her hand. God is the Author both of revelation and of nature, so that contradiction between the two cannot exist.
The fact is that the development of spirituality calls for a broad foundation of natural truth. Religion does not mean getting out of the world, but right living in the world. The Lord prayed not that His disciples might be taken out of the world but that they might be kept from the evil thereof. We need to walk on the earth, to open our minds to all natural truth, and to make it serve our spiritual life. This will give us strength of character. It will give substance to our religion.
One of the great mistakes that the church has made in the past is to teach that the religious life requires the abandonment of natural delights, pleasures, and amusements. The Lord never meant that religion should rob us of one single legitimate pleasure, but that it should descend into them and sanctify them. It is the perversion of religion that has made monks, nuns, and hermits. The very moment one attempts to live a spiritual life apart from a natural life, he becomes either a fanatic or a hypocrite.
We are told in the writings that even the angels have to have times in which they are in natural delights; otherwise the spiritual life would become monotonous. We should not seek to destroy our natural delights but to fill them with spiritual motive and thought.
When the staff was cast to the ground, it became a serpent. So it is with our life. The natural mind separated from the spiritual – standing alone by itself – becomes the prey of all sensual delusions, and all its reasoning becomes false. To the sensuous man nothing is real that he does not see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. All that lies above the senses he denies, and the spiritual degrees of his mind become closed and dark. In him is fulfilled what Jacob said of Dan: “Dan shall be a serpent in the way, an adder in the path that biteth the horse’s heels, so that his rider falleth backward.” This is the serpent that beguiled the first people of this earth, and that has driven every Adam and Eve ever since out of the Eden of innocence and purity.
The lesson is that the spiritual man must be master of our whole being. The process of regeneration takes place in the natural mind. The natural mind with all its planes must be lifted up from the earth by the power of the spirit. It may be refined and cultivated, but it still remains a serpent and is not changed into a staff until by the power of the soul it is converted and lifted up.
But Moses was commanded, “Take it by the tail.” The tail of the serpent is the ultimates of the natural mind, our sensuous feelings and thoughts. We cannot start by taking the serpent by the head; by reasoning about our natural inclinations. We must begin by bringing into order our outward thoughts and conduct, thus forming new ultimates for the influx of the Divine life. This is what the Lord meant when He told His disciples that those who believed in the Gospel would be able in His name to take up serpents.
As we day by day enter upon this task, we come into conjunction with the Lord, and into a state of peace from Him, a state of peace and happiness deeper than that pictured in the Garden of Eden, because of the new spiritual truths revealed to the church. And the Lord has gone before us in this task. The Lord has made this possible to us by Himself descending into all the planes of our natural life, glorifying them, and so making the natural a staff in the hand of His Divinity. We recall that in the book of Numbers there is another story about the serpent and Moses. The people because of their lusting for the food of Egypt were bitten by fiery serpents, and large numbers died. Then Moses was commanded to make a serpent of brass and raise it up on a pole, that all might look up at it and be healed. And the Lord, when He was in the world, used this story in His instruction of Nicodemus when He said of Himself: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”