Poisonous Serpents – Ether 9:29-35

29 But the people believed not the words of the prophets, but they cast them out; and some of them they cast into pits and left them to perish. And it came to pass that they did all these things according to the commandment of the king, Heth.
30 And it came to pass that there began to be a great dearth upon the land, and the inhabitants began to be destroyed exceedingly fast because of the dearth, for there was no rain upon the face of the earth.
31 And there came forth poisonous serpents also upon the face of the land, and did poison many people. And it came to pass that their flocks began to flee before the poisonous serpents, towards the land southward, which was called by the Nephites Zarahemla.
32 And it came to pass that there were many of them which did perish by the way; nevertheless, there were some which fled into the land southward.
33 And it came to pass that the Lord did cause the serpents that they should pursue them no more, but that they should hedge up the way that the people could not pass, that whoso should attempt to pass might fall by the poisonous serpents.
34 And it came to pass that the people did follow the course of the beasts, and did devour the carcasses of them which fell by the way, until they had devoured them all. Now when the people saw that they must perish they began to repent of their iniquities and cry unto the Lord.
35 And it came to pass that when they had humbled themselves sufficiently before the Lord he did send rain upon the face of the earth; and the people began to revive again, and there began to be fruit in the north countries, and in all the countries round about. And the Lord did show forth his power unto them in preserving them from famine.
(Ether 9:29-35)

How does God influence our lives? In this passage, we see a very dramatic example of the Lord’s influence in the lives of a generation of Jaredites. Here’s how I read the sequence of events:

  1. The people abused and murdered the prophets whom God had sent to warn them to repent. In doing this, they acted with the explicit endorsement of the king. There was no higher earthly authority to prevent these unjust actions.
  2. There was a famine. The people had rejected the spiritual water—the gospel message the prophets had brought—and so they also experienced a shortage of physical water.
  3. Next, there was an infestation of poisonous snakes. These snakes were so widespread that the people had to move to the land southward. For some reason, the snakes didn’t follow the people to the south, but they did “hedge up the way” so that the people remained together in the south. What was the result? More people living in close proximity to one another. A more rapid exchange of ideas. Presumably, if some of the people began to humble themselves and repent, others would follow quickly.
  4. Eventually, they all recognized that this adversity was a direct response to their own actions. They humbled themselves and prayed for God to help them. In response to their sincere prayers, God “did send rain upon the face of the earth.”

What role did the poisonous serpents play in this story? They functioned as a particular kind of adversity: one which pushed the people to take actions which would render them more likely to repent. For whatever reason, they had been unwilling to humble themselves until after the migration to the south. The serpents were exactly what was needed for them to turn their hearts to God again.

What “poisonous serpents” do I face or will I face in my life? What kinds of adversity am I currently experiencing and do they play a similar role in my life? As Howard W. Hunter testified at a devotional address:

We all have difficult moments individually and collectively, but even in the most severe of times, anciently or modern, those problems and prophecies were never intended to do anything but bless the righteous and help those who are less righteous move toward repentance (“Hope: An Anchor to the Souls of Men,” BYU Speeches, 7 Feb 1993).

Today, I will think about the challenges and trials I face. I will ask myself, “How can each of these difficulties bless me? How can they help move me and others closer to God?”

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