Tyranny, Snakes, and the Army Chaplain

By | August 1, 2022

[August 1, 2022]  That day, the senior sergeant on duty gave me a simple choice.  I was transitioning out of the U.S. Army, and it was August, a very hot and sweltering day at Fort Dix, NJ.  I could see Soldiers outside mowing the grass, cleaning up the sizeable grassy parade field next to the large building where I sat.  I could see the sweat pouring off those young men, clearly uncomfortable out in the heat of midday.  “You can go to the chapel and hear our Chaplain give his sermon, or you can help outside with the grass.”

I don’t remember his name or much about the Chaplain that day, nor did I try.  I was interested in getting the heck out of the military and returning to college, where I was accepted into the Engineering program.  What I remember well about sitting in the air-conditioned chapel was the Biblical story of Moses and the Israelites we were to hear.  I’d heard it before.  I thought about how I would be bored again, much as I had often been in the past.  Another hurry up and wait episode in the Army; I was used to it.  Sit there, look interested, don’t fidget in the pews, occasionally smile, and be polite if necessary.

I was about to gain an important understanding of fear.  Now, I’m was no idiot.  I was in the Army for nearly seven years and had done my time in some challenging circumstances that most of us fear.  It matters not who you are or how much experience you have; you can still be halted by fear.

This chaplain told the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of the tyranny as Egyptian slaves and into the desert.  The Chaplain began his sermon by stating something profound; that tyranny over humans is not a natural state; that slavery is an immoral condition that is imposed upon us as an outside, unnatural force (I think he might have used the word “unholy”).  We are not the kind of people that should be subject to arbitrary tyranny, the tyranny of the state and tyranny internally of ourselves.

He proposed to us a moral, philosophical question.  Out of the tyranny, into the desert.  Which is worse?

The Israelites are now out in the desert and have been there for 40 years.  Oddly enough, they don’t go to the promised land.  They go into the desert.  The desert after tyranny, now that’s a real problem.  They are now wandering around in the desert, and in that 40 years, they start worshiping false idols and fighting with themselves.  Maybe they are not so sure that the god that informed them to leave the tyranny was right in the first place.  They are suffering in the desert; they lack faith.

God is not happy about this, and He sends poisonous snakes in to bite them.  That’s pretty brutal and a very unexpected act of God, especially as we know Him to be a merciful being.  The poor Israelites.  First, they’re in tyranny and slavery.  Then they had to go across the Red Sea and into the desert, where they wandered around for 40 years, and the best solution for them was for God to send in venomous snakes to bite them.

I’m rephrasing here a bit, of course, but Moses’ people go to Moses and ask him to ask God to call off the snakes.  God could have called off the snakes after he got their attention to show that He is compassionate and kindhearted.  But that is not what He did.  God says to Moses, cast an image of a snake in bronze, place that image onto a wooden staff, and stick it into the ground.  And, then have the Israelites go and look at the image and then the snakes won’t bite them anymore.

I’d read this line in the Bible many times before but never understood, nor did I know I didn’t have a clue what it meant.  The doctrine from all fields of therapeutic treatment in the last 100 years says to confront what makes you afraid voluntarily, and you will get better.  It’s curative.  That’s the message.  If something is terrifying you, pay more attention to it.  If you can get people to face what they are afraid of, they don’t get less afraid; they get braver.  They discover that there is much more to them than they thought; they’re not as easily intimidated; they see themselves in a new light.

Face what you are most afraid of, and you will be free.  God doesn’t take away the snakes.  He makes everyone braver because that’s better than being safe.  It follows that a world with snakes is a better world because people are now braver, better, and more awake.

The lesson is that bravery is far better and a more reliable way to be human.

————–

Please read my new book, “Our Longest Year in Iraq,” on Amazon (link here).

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

16 thoughts on “Tyranny, Snakes, and the Army Chaplain

  1. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    The story of the Israelites in the desert is a classic. Now I see we have another interpretation of the events. If I’m not mistaken, it was Dr. Jordan Peterson who also said sometime similar. I recommend for those that read this blog to also watch Dr. P on Youtube (I’m not a fan of Youtube because they censor political speech they do not like). But when Dr. P gets his own channel, we can go there.

    Reply
  2. José Luis Rodriguez

    This article is the reason I keep coming back to this leadership website. Gen. Satterfield makes it possible to gain just a little insight into human behavior and thinking and does it every day.

    Reply
    1. Dead Pool Guy

      Got that right Jose. Thanks. You and I have been regular readers and commentators for a long time. Stick with me. I believe we will go far.

      Reply
  3. Anya B.

    Gen. S. I appreciate this kind of blog post. More of them is okay with me.

    Reply
  4. Pink Cloud

    This is the best part of the article. “Face what you are most afraid of, and you will be free. God doesn’t take away the snakes. He makes everyone braver because that’s better than being safe. It follows that a world with snakes is a better world because people are now braver, better, and more awake.” That is what makes us who we are, to see and to recognize that we must have faith and that we must be brave. Is there a link betw/ being brave and having faith? Yes, I think so.

    Reply
    1. Veronica Stillman

      Too many are even afraid to read articles like this. We have a pandemic of fear.

      Reply
  5. Winston

    Interesting interpretation from Gen. Satterfield. ” That’s the message. If something is terrifying you, pay more attention to it. If you can get people to face what they are afraid of, they don’t get less afraid; they get braver. They discover that there is much more to them than they thought; they’re not as easily intimidated; they see themselves in a new light.”

    Reply
      1. Tom Bushmaster

        Me too. Fear overwhelms too many folks. Their solution to fear is right in front of them.

        Reply
  6. Rev. Michael Cain

    The desert is where the turning point of Moses’ life took place. The desert stripped him, and put him face to face with his own nakedness and fragility. Moses learned, in 40 years in the desert, to bless his fragile humanity and to no longer think of himself as a hero. And, as he crossed the desert, that is where God made himself present, using the sign of a fire that burned a bush without consuming it.

    Reply
    1. Fred Weber

      Right Rev Cain. The account of Moses and the Bronze Snake in the Bible is one of the weirdest stories ever. It’s found in the Book of Numbers 21.

      Reply
      1. catorenasci

        All you need to do is, by faith, trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ and you will be saved from hell.

        Reply
        1. Rev. Michael Cain

          This story was significant enough that Jesus later referred to it when he spoke of his death on the cross: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15).

          Reply
  7. Greg Heyman

    Gen. Satterfield sure has an interesting way of looking at the Bible and giving interpretation a new twist. ✔

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.