Look at a Snake and Live (or Maybe Just Wear a Mask)

The story of Moses and the Brazen Serpent is one of the most fascinating narratives in the standard works. I say this because the same story is referenced in three different scriptures, and each time it is invoked to demonstrate a different set of principles.

It all starts in the Book of Numbers, during the Exodus, when the Children of Israel decide to take a detour around Edom (and, really, who doesn’t), and, in the process, start to complain against God and Moses for taking too long. God is not impressed, and he sends some fiery flying serpents to teach them a lesson:

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: 6-9)

The theology here is pretty clear, and absolutely consistent with message of most of the Old Testament: don’t complain about God, or He will do something unpleasant. But if you trust Him, and obey Moses, you will be fine.

This was probably the theology that the Children of Israel needed when they were wandering around in the desert for 40 years. But it didn’t map well onto the Christian message, which was largely about grace and atonement and no so much about flying snakes. But the New Testament writers understood the Old Testament typologically, and, in the Gospel of John we see a very different typological interpretation of the story:

And 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. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

In the theology of the New Testament, the important figure in the story is the brazen serpent, which is a type of Christ. In this reading, the Israelites represent all of humanity, condemned to misery and death for their own sins. But Christ has allowed himself to be lifted up, and all we have to do is look at him. This is where the grace part comes in. Christ has done all of the heavy lifting necessary to reconcile us to God. All we have to do is acknowledge this. It is as easy as looking at a snake.

The Book of Mormon adds yet one more dimension to the story. Nephi tells us that, not only were there people who looked at the brazen serpent and lived; there were many who actively refused to look at it–who took pains to look away from it to make sure that they didn’t see it. And these people perished:

And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.

And they did harden their hearts from time to time, and they did revile against Moses, and also against God; nevertheless, ye know that they were led forth by his matchless power into the land of promise. (1 Nephi 17: 41-42)

Once again, this narration of the story is completely consistent with the overall theology of the Book of Mormon, which sees conversion as basically a process of agreeing to do what you already know to be right. Those who fail to become converted in the Book of Mormon–think of people like Lamen, Lemuel, Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor–have to actively turn away from the obvious truth of the gospel. They have to try hard to reject the grace of God. Salvation is easy, but some people are so rebellious and stiffnecked that they will work hard to avoid it.

All of these versions of the flying serpent story have value for different times. But the Book of Mormon version has a lot of value for now. The core elements of the narrative go something like this:

  1. People are really sick, and many of them are dying.
  2. The people have access to a really simple thing that they can do that will make them not sick anymore.
  3. The thing they have to do is something that every one of them can do.
  4. Some significant portion of the population refuses to do the simple thing that will save their lives.

With one key difference, this is remarkably similar to the situation that we find ourselves in today. For “flying, fiery serpents,” read “COVID 19” and for “look at the brazen serpent” read “wear a mask.”

There is no reasonable argument against the universal wearing of masks. Studies consistently show that universal masking would cut COVID transmissions by 80% or more. These numbers are consistent across computer model simulations and studies of countries that have actually adopted universal masking. Even Fox News is on board. As a public health measure, masking works. (And here, and here, and here, and here).

But we still have a large population of people who outright refuse to look at the snake. Both wearing a mask and not wearing a mask have become markers of political affiliation. Stores that require masks often receive protests, and occasionally even violence. And the President of the United States has consistently refused to wear a mask or even permit those around him to be seen with their face covered.

One imagines that there were Israelites who made the same kinds of arguments against looking at the brazen serpent as Americans now make against wearing masks. The actions are similarly simple, and similarly valuable. But there is a very important difference. Those who refused to look at the snake died, and those who did look at it lived. There was a one to one correspondence between looking and living.

But mask-wearing is a social and a community measure. It only works when everybody, or at least almost everybody, does it. everybody’s actions affect everybody else’s chances of survival. Many public health interventions — including wearing masks during a pandemic and, to push another hot button, getting vaccinated for deadly diseases — convey only marginal benefits to any one person, which may or may not outweigh the inconvenience they impose. But when everybody does these things, the societal benefits are enormous.

And the thing required for all of us to have the benefit is for all of us to incur the very small inconvenience of looking at the snake–or at least to do something just as easy. That so many people so adamantly refuse to do it speaks volumes about where we are as a nation and where we are going to end up.

Comments

  1. Not Fenimore says:

    There is a *fourth* reference, actually, in 2 Kings 18:4 :

    “He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)”

    I… have no idea how that might be fit into your analogy.

  2. We used to shake our heads at how could the Israelites be so stubborn as to die rather than turn and look? It’s such a simple action!

    As a parent with stubborn, single minded children I no longer have to wonder. But, this lesson will be so clearly believable after our lived experience in the next few decades. I want to believe that but the continuing arrogance and questioning of science leave me with little hope that it will be universally recognized.

  3. Anonymous for this one says:

    I take exception to your point that everyone is capable of wearing a mask. That is false. Children, and people with certain medical conditions that make mask wearing dangerous can’t wear masks. I have a medical condition that makes mask wearing dangerous, but that does not increase my risk for covid, and on the advice of my doctor, I am not wearing a mask. And I’m really, really tired of having to defend that decision to self-righteous people on the internet. I shouldn’t have to disclose private health information in order to get people to stop judging me. I’m not trying to kill Grandma; I’m trying to preserve my own health.

  4. Wetwipes says:

    As of today, 14 JUN 2020, the WHO, the largest health organization in the world, does not support your opinion shared on the universal wearing of masks. One of the great things about God’s word, is that unlike your opinion or mine, it always teaches truth, insofar as it is understood correctly. Perhaps a better way to understand the miracle you describe is that it is a reminder for all of us look unto God and live, not the opinions and interpretations of man. After all, if our loving God can tell you through His spirit to wear a mask to protect yourself, can’t He also tell me not to? I certainly support your belief in and desire to wear a mask. And I’m not saying masks aren’t valuable. But truth is universal and it comes from Heaven through the Spirit in perfectly parceled individual packages. The fact that yours and mine don’t match makes neither false.

  5. Michael Austin says:

    Wetwipes,

    The WHO actually reversed themselves last week and now does support wearing masks in public:

    https://www.bbc.com/news/health-52945210

    Their initial advice was that there was not enough evidence to support the argument that universal masking reduces transmission of the disease. I believe that God talks to us through peer-reviewed studies, and there are now enough of these about mask use to make it very clear what He is saying.

    The WHO had previously argued there was not enough evidence to say that healthy people should wear masks.

    However, WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday that “in light of evolving evidence, the WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments”.

    Anonymous,

    I will walk back my statement slightly and say that there are some medical conditions that make wearing masks difficult, though not as many as many people believe. It is for the sake of people in this category that everybody who is not in this category needs to wear masks. But, because this is a public health situation, in which the wearing of masks conveys community protection, I believe that those who require exceptions for their own health should be required to document the reasons why.

  6. DeAnn S says:

    Wetwipes … Listen to this interview with Dr. Atul Gawande. He works at the Mass General Brigham Hospital System.
    https://www.npr.org/2020/06/11/875311079/how-the-widespread-mask-use-could-slow-the-coronavirus-pandemic

  7. Anonymous for this one: Children can’t wear masks? I was at church today and most of the kids wore masks.

    I believe you when you say your doctor told you not to wear a mask. I think we can also conclude that whatever medical condition you suffer from is likely to be uncommon among the larger population. So what was the post’s author supposed to do? List all the possible exceptions to the point he was about to make? This would be silly, extremely cumbersome, and would dilute the message.

    There are exceptions to rules, but good, wise rules that should apply to “almost everyone” (see OP above) shouldn’t require a laundry list of potential exemptions. Wise people can figure that out for themselves, and can also agree that the broader directive is entirely sensible for the vast majority of people. You can hold both views at the same time.

  8. There is a coherent (but admittedly not universal) argument that salvation in the Book of Mormon and the New Testament is a collective concept, while punishment is an individual concept. I think the idea of being saved together is worth thinking about in the context of serpents, and masks.

    I know it is terribly judgmental of me, but every time I hear an argument for not wearing a mask I assume the speaker is thinking of himself or herself. And every time I hear an argument for wearing masks I assume the speaker is thinking of others.

  9. Loursat says:

    I really like the idea that using masks can reflect a charitable feeling and a commitment to cooperation. Especially when you’re talking to a religious audience, that’s an important argument to make. It’s also an essential part of a larger political effort; most people want to see themselves as good and helpful. But in the larger political effort, you need a bigger argument. You also need a compelling argument about selfish interest.

    An argument to self-interest is readily available here, and it’s just begging to be made by any barely competent leader. Severe and increasing long-term economic damage is a real danger if we keep our economy shut down for very long. People are right to worry about that. Wearing masks is one spectacularly good strategy for making it somewhat safer to increase our activity. There are huge political wins to be had in encouraging the use of masks to preserve both our health and our prosperity. It’s so easy!

    In fact, in getting buy-in from people, the project of using masks is even better than telling them to look at a statue. For most people it’s not terribly hard to wear a mask at appropriate times, but it requires a bit more commitment than what Moses was asking. If you’re enlisting people in a cause, as political leaders do, you want them to take continuing action. It’s perfect if you can get people to do something that is not too hard and is genuinely useful. It makes people feel better about the cause and better about themselves. Yet these simple ideas are beyond our current leaders.

    So much about the incompetence of the current American government astonishes me, but nothing is more astonishing than the administration’s total inability to grasp the opportunity that a crisis presents. A crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic is a terrible thing, but for a politician seeking re-election it’s manna from heaven. There is nothing that can unite a country behind its leaders like a mortal crisis. It is pure political incompetence that the current administration not only has botched the opportunity, but never even realized that the opportunity existed.

  10. “ But truth is universal and it comes from Heaven through the Spirit in perfectly parceled individual packages.”

    What happens when you confuse God w/ Santa

  11. Good points.
    We’ve been encouraged to wear a mask at church or in homes of the elderly by the Lord’s servants.

    So look at that serpent. Or if you like listen to tht mother of God who says, “whatever he says, go and do it” when you wonder if the manual work of filling bathtubs full of water is a waste of time or not when that water clearly won’t pass as wine.

    I hope you give as much, if not more obeisance to the actual words of the prophets and apostles and trust if you just do it, both you, families and society will be better off.

    Let just start with this one: “the highest and noblest work in this life is that of a mother” – Russell M Nelson

    Please sisters, don’t pursue other works or give short shrift to your noblest work in this life. Brothers, please support and sacrifice for your wife so she can find priority to her most noble work. Remember, it’s hard to actually believe something is a noble work unless you’re spending at least a plurality of your time supporting it.

    But if that one is too hard or too nebulous, find your own serpents in the gospel you’ve refused to behold, or your own purification pots you’ve been unwilling to fill and go and do it.

    I truly hope you and others who feel strongly on this issue are listening and hearkening to the words of prophets, apostles, and prophetesses as much if not more so as acts of faith rather than the CDC, WHO, Congress, or Whitehouse.

    Hope these small acts of obedience where you have learned to put your trust in man, will allow you to put greater trust in the Lord’s servants.

    Truly, if that’s the end result for my “progressive” bothers and sisters, to learn to make progress in the spiritual things; it will all be worth it.

  12. I watched The Farewell the other day; a chinese family witholds a critical cancer diagnosis from their mother, as a way to carry the burden for her in the last part of her life. The american raised grandaughter has the hardest time understanding why the family would ”lie”, pretend not to know, and even accelerate a wedding to have a plausible reason for everyone to come and visit grandma. She has a conversation with her uncle who tries to explain east does not elevate the individual to the same degree as the west. East considers each individual as part of a larger whole. In this case each individual in the family wants to deal with the ”snake” and not just leave it with/for their mother to endure.

    I dont think we are very far as a nation away from the one who’s founding symbolism included a coiled snake forewarning anyone that they better not look at them. We are individual first; and wearing a mask to protect others is just not western. It is an immaturity baked into our ethos but I don’t see it as a disqualifying marker for salvation.

  13. Geoff - Aus says:

    Bailey, Its not wastern it is American, most other wastern countries are much more willing to take into account the common good. Thats why they all have universal healthcare, accept climate science, and targets to address it, and many have accepted the medical advice on the virus and are having better results than America. Many are addressing financial inequality, and redistributing resources so there are no poor among them.

  14. nate s. says:

    How does wearing a mask make one “not sick anymore”? If you have the disease, wearing a mask won’t cure it.

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that OP is trying to say that the collective society is the organism that is generally sick or not sick, and that the general trends caused by (not)wearing masks throughout the aggregate society are the subject of the analogy. Blah blah blah. . . I get it – spare me the explanation.

    But I still feel that it is a flawed analogy because mask wearing is at best a prophylactic for a disease which the vast majority of people have not & will not get. I’m not saying that the disease isn’t real, or its death toll is unimpressive. I’m saying that people in Moses’ time could gain immediate relief from a wasting disease, and as I read the account the vast majority of the Israelites got the disease. So for them it was a negative-to-positive binary choice with immediate deterministic consequences. For the current virus it is an ambiguous positive-to-negative choice with probabilistic time-delayed outcomes. It’s an apples & oranges comparison.

    I am an engineer by trade, and I believe in the scientific method. I have a general disdain for modern capitalism, and conservative governments – So on paper I’m the OP’s target audience. . BUT I also have problems with authority and a stubborn streak a mile long. No amount of data, medical study citations, or appeals to general virtue are going to sway the stubborn to your side. Posts like this come across as preachy, and very “virtue signal-y”, and will never win the holdouts to your side.

    So, maybe lay off the preachy mask thing. You’re wasting your time preaching to the choir. Those who are going to gladly wear them are already doing it. Those who don’t or won’t want to wear them never will. And if, by force of peer pressure, they end up wearing a mask, they do it begrudgingly, and tend to hold a grudge against those pressuring them to do so.

  15. Michael Austin says:

    “And if, by force of peer pressure, they end up wearing a mask, they do it begrudgingly, and tend to hold a grudge against those pressuring them to do so.”

    The thing about wearing a mask is that there is no substantial medical benefit attached to a good attitude about it. Wearing a mask for the wrong reasons, doing it begrudgingly, and holding a grudge against those pressuring people to do so, conveys the same medical benefits as wearing a mask with love in your heart and joy in your soul. I think you are correct that peer pressure is the only way that some people will do it. But this is exactly the reason that humans evolved to be sensitive to peer pressure. It is how the community convinces holdouts to do the things that need to be done to protect the populace.

  16. There are a lot of good Mormons who are saying, “Nobody has the right to tell me what to do. That’s an infringement on my freedom.” This is simply a poor understanding of freedom. I’m sure these same folks would not say, “Nobody has the right to tell me not to drive 70 miles per hour in a school zone.” Their thinking is nothing more than parroting what they are hearing on right-wing radio and reading on certain irresponsible websites and blogs.

  17. Wally,
    Your body is designed to deal with all kinds of germs and spread them to boot.

    It’s not designed to get hit by a truck going 70.

    See the difference? Ok let’s try this. Muslim nation shows scientific, medical study that pausing multiple times a day facing east and praying makes your immune system healthier and as you are a social organism, your health affects others. So now it’s law, backed by medical science, to stop what you are doing and pray multiple times daily. No issues? (It’s at least as robust an argument as your goofy speeding in a school zone)

    Or do you think mask wearing is content neutral so it’s ok to police it legally? On its face is not content neutral, based on how people feel about it and their philosophy affecting it.

    But at a minimum, we don’t live in a technocratic state where doctors make the civil medical decisions, engineers make the decisions under their purview and everyone else complies.

    There are good reasons to be opposed to mask wearing. Many, maybe even most people disagree. That’s life. Deal with it.

    But the main issue here in this post, is we need to listen and act on what the church authorities have asked us to do. I hope that sinks in and isn’t just used for tactical snark.

  18. Michael Austin says:

    “Your body is designed to deal with all kinds of germs and spread them to boot.”

    I think it is more accurate to say that our bodies are ADAPTED to deal with all kinds of germs. But the reason for this is that hundreds of millions of people through the ages have died from these germs, nobly removing themselves from the gene pool so that our more immune ancestors could reproduce in ways that lead to us. Many, many people paid the ultimate price for the immunities we take for granted. And, as much as I appreciate their sacrifice, I am not keen on the idea of making a similar sacrifice for someone else’s descendants.

    But COVID-19 is a novel virus. No human ever had it before until last year, which means that nobody’s body has had time to adapt to it, which is why we are wearing masks. That is what it is going to take to prevent a much greater loss of life than we have experienced so far. So I would not say that mask-wearing is “content-neutral” any more than vaccinations are content-neutral. They are both positive public health interventions that communities can and should enforce for the good of everybody.

    We get into content-neutrality issues when we start trying to regulate what is on the masks. And, for the record, I don’t think we should. If someone wants to have a picture of Satan torturing baby seals on their mask, then more power to them–just so long as it covers the nose.

  19. wayfarer says:

    Nate, don’t let your problem with authority control you, particularly against your better nature, which I’m sure would prick you to protect your brothers and sisters as far as you possibly might. Nothing to lose here brother.

  20. Loursat says:

    “Or do you think mask wearing is content neutral so it’s ok to police it legally?”

    Who told you that “content neutrality” has anything to do with the government’s legal power to enforce public health measures? It doesn’t.

  21. nate s. says:

    I fell victim to one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is “Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” but only slightly less well known is this: “Never go in against a liberal Mormon internet blog discussion group, when MASKS are on the line!”

  22. C. Keen says:

    It’s hard to argue with Michael’s point when so many people are intent on proving it for him.

    Wear a mask. It’s really that simple.

  23. nate s. says:

    Well, if we all know one thing it’s that Michael loves being right all the time.

    Mods can go ahead and censor this comment. It doesn’t matter to me – I’m 100% done reading this blog and interacting here.

  24. Nate
    This isn’t an airport. You don’t have to announce your departure

  25. Loursat
    When you pass a law (or more nebulously, issue a guideline that implies the weight of law) that’s based on research, it sounds wise. But it privileges that research into account vs other research that’s not done. And that decision isn’t content neutral, it’s filled with bias. That doesn’t mean research is bad. But we don’t dictate laws based on research. (Or if so, I can assure you, research shows that a person who only ever has sex with a married spouse in their lifetime are much less likely to get or spread an STD – that would save more lives than a facemask).

    Researching the effectiveness of mask wearing isn’t content neutral. It has bias built into it. Know what else is a public health issue? Rest homes. And obesity.

    40% of covid deaths are in rest homes. That’s more potent then not wearing a mask. Rest homes demonstrably make us less safe by driving up death rates and acting as super spreader sites.

    Next, mild obesity makes you 100 times more likely to die from covid. These are also a significant amount of the people who are spreading the virus as their immune system can’t keep it in check.

    A year long anti obesity fitness/diet requirement for all mildly obese and above would go farther than face masks or even covid vaccine research.

    Now I don’t care about your facemask predilection, or even the zeal to wear them. I’m not arguing that. Principles do matter because they can forecast the future.

    Many things can be declared public health issues. And research can be marshalled to support it, and opposing research can be suppressed.

    Think that’s an exaggeration? Look at how quickly the updated mortality rate from the CDC is suddenly attacked and downplayed.

    What was once bandied about as 5%, or maybe 3% or even if it’s 2% it’s a disaster is now… 0.26%. Seasonal flu deaths of .1% and if it’s bad, is 2x as high, and now this “so much worse than a bad flu season” is suddenly right about being equal to it.

    I’m not primarily debating covid here, before people want to say this is new and different. I’m talking about the use of data and “science” to make claims that are biased from the outset.

    Back to the original point, we have cultural biases that aren’t content neutral. We worship, after a fashion, the god of science. So it’s no surprise we’re donning the facemask of a scientist.

    If we were a religious culture, we’d be researching and emphasizing other means.

    Jesus told John to take Mary into his home and make her his Mother, so to speak. Not to put her into a crowded nursing home. God says to control our appetites and to fast.

    Following those religious prescriptions would actually have a larger reduction in the death toll but masks are the focus. That’s an implicit bias.

    Anyway, this is all an aside. I hope you guys and girls are giving head to more of what the church is teaching now that you have learned to be obedient in mask wearing.

  26. C. Keen says:

    Sute, for your sake I hope you don’t actually believe the “it’s just the flu” nonsense. The disinformation in your post is so bad that it deserves the typo in the last paragraph.

  27. Sute, “content neutrality” is a real concept in the law, but it has no relationship to the jumble of ideas that you’re expressing here. You should figure out what you really want to say, then you should find a meaningful phrase to say it with.

    Here’s a thought to get you started. Science is never content-neutral. “Content-neutral science” is absurd. If you mean bias-free, then that’s what you should say. But, as you seem to acknowledge, science is never free of bias, either. The way we evaluate science is by looking hard at the way it was done, testing it, and arguing over the details of it. If you have a problem with some piece of scientific research, that’s fine, but it’s ridiculous to dismiss it simply by claiming that it’s biased. That claim tells us something about you, but nothing about the research.

    If you want to make an argument against using masks, again, that’s fine. But what you’ve written here is not an argument. The way you’ve expressed your ideas, they read like a collection of random paranoia. You really need to do some better work if you actually think there’s merit in what you’re saying.

    I’m glad that you encourage us to follow President Nelson’s counsel to wear masks. I hope that you understand that the value in following that counsel is not because there is some kind of magic in it, but because wise counsel has a basis in real-world consequences.

  28. Sute, President Nelson’s counsel is surely based on good science. He’s a doctor.

  29. Chadwick says:

    I’ll probably be raked over the coals for this, but here goes:

    Firstly, I support wearing masks in public.

    I do think nate s has a point that the analogy here doesn’t completely hold up. The story teaches us to look and live. End of story. But. With coronavirus, I could do everything right and still expose a loved one who may die. I may also disregard all precautions and live. The bible story says you look and live, otherwise you perish. Our personal experiences with coronavirus will not be guaranteed. That being said, there is merit in considering the parallels and I thank the OP for that.

    I also think sute has a point. In my state, over 50% of deaths are from SNF. That is sobering. I’ve had loved ones in various types of care facilities over the years and to be honest, I thought some of them rocked! I could picture myself 40 years from now living in some of these places. Based on how this virus spreads, I’m now going to re-think this strategy both for my aging parents as well as for myself.

    So yes, I’ll wear a mask. Yes, like looking at a staff, it’s an easy ask. But there are other takeaways from this virus that are perhaps more important, and I actually appreciate nate s and sute for mentioning these.

  30. Good post. A few comments:
    1. It’s okay if things aren’t universal in their application. The June 18 California Health Department guidance on mask wearing has several carve-outs—kids under 2 shouldn’t wear them due to risk of suffocation, and on and on. The exceptions still don’t swallow the helpful rule.
    2. Don’t forget the commentary on the serpent story on Alma 33:19-21. Among the interesting things there, it seems that “many did look and live” but “few understood the meaning” of the symbolism. It was also a moment where individual faith was needed and there was no collective miracle (like the parting of the Red Sea or manna) was offered. It was a collective miracle (get rid of the snakes) that was requested, however.
    3. Not a bad book by James Charlesworth: The Good and Evil Serpent, How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized.
    4. Masks do help, from some scientific perspectives, and to just help people move forward, especially those that have not been able to carry out their normal livelihood due to the pandemic.

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