Exodus: Audacious Moses, Part 2

Moses does not give up until he exacts a promise from God.

Moses, a drawing by Jacob de Wit, Dutch, 18th century

As I noted in my last blog posting, the infidelity of Israel in worshipping the golden calf poses an existential danger to Israel. God wants to destroy the nation and begin all over again. Moses challenges God not to do so, arguing that God must be true to God’s character. God changes his mind. 

This sets Moses free to descend the mountain and deal with the crisis himself. There is a confrontation with Aaron, followed by a purging from the nation of those who constitute an unruly mob (said to be running wild). This work done, Moses again ascends the mountain, where God still seethes with anger over what Israel has done. 

Moses shows unbelievable solidarity and loyalty to the people despite their sin. 

Then the text (Exodus 32:30-33:23) carries us back to the dialogue between Moses and God. When they broke off their conversation on the mountain, God had determined not to destroy Israel. But will he forgive Israel? That is not yet certain. This sets the stage for Part 2 of Moses’ audacious challenge of God. 

Moses asks God to forgive Israel. And if he will not, then Moses asks that God blot him Moses out of the book of life. Moses shows unbelievable solidarity and loyalty to the people despite their sin. 

So when we come to chapter 33, we find God responding that Moses may lead the people to the land God has promised to them. God will honor at least that part of his promise. But ominously, God says he will not go with them. Israel is a stiff-necked people. They are not docile and obedient. As a result, God in his anger might just consume them if they sin again. So instead God will send an angel to take God’s place. This is an assurance of something less than God’s full presence. 

This word of God devastates the people. It means that their future is precarious. They may survive for the moment, but they can have no confidence for the future. They will live with constant anxiety that they may just trigger God’s destructive anger once again. 

I often think that describes well the spiritual situation of many Christians who live in constant fear that they will do something so heinous that it will trigger God’s anger. God will bring upon them something truly evil, like a serious illness, a tragic death, or some other terrible misfortune. It is not a way to live with a sense of spiritual peace, because we can never truly trust that when the pinch comes, God will truly be there for us. 

Moses in the Breach

This leads to further negotiation between Moses and God. Moses is not willing to settle for an angel to lead them. It must be God himself. Will God’s own presence go with them or not? If not, then Moses says, Let’s call a halt to this project immediately. Will you go with us with your full presence, God, or not?

What this question does is ask the question: Will you, God, fully forgive your people, or will you hold back on forgiveness? If you are going to hold back, then there is no reason why this whole exodus event should go forward. Only full forgiveness will satisfy Moses and meet the needs of Israel. No half-way forgiveness will do the trick.

God continually shows favor and partiality to Moses, but Moses does not use that favor to his own aggrandizement. Instead he plays that partiality as the final card in his effort to get God to fully forgive the people. 

Only full forgiveness will satisfy Moses and meet the needs of Israel. No half-way forgiveness will do the trick.

We come to the climax in verse 33:17. God promises to Moses to do what Moses asks. He will forgive the people and go with them with his full presence. He does so as a special favor to Moses who has stood by his people. Moses has won in his negotiation with God. 

Then God grants Moses a special blessing. He permits Moses the special favor of a partial vision of God’s glory. Not a full vision. Moses is allowed only to glimpse the backside of God as he passes by in glory. But it is something no one else has been granted.

God will revive the covenant with Israel. As a sign of that restoration, God presents Moses with new stone tablets. Israel’s relationship with God is secure.

Majestic Moses

As I read through this extended session of negotiations between God and Moses, I feel utter astonishment at what I have called the audacity of Moses and Moses’ solid spiritual backbone. Moses could easily have been cowed into unquestioned submission to whatever God proposed to do. Afterall, God was the far superior power. But Moses does not cave. He stands up to God and stands up for his people. 

…Moses holds God accountable. God is not allowed to be an arbitrary and irresponsible authority.

Moses also steers his way through what for most people would be irresistible temptations. God proposes to make Moses patriarch of his own nation. Moses turns downs that proposition. 

Instead Moses holds God accountable. God is not allowed to be an arbitrary and irresponsible authority. God must honor God’s character and exercise his power in accordance with that character. Moses will settle for nothing less.*

In this part of the Book of Exodus, we see Moses rise to his true majesty. He remains humble in his ambitions. And we see the immense love that he has developed for his own people. Over and over again the people will try his patience and treat him with some disrespect. But Moses will never waver in his commitment to them and their welfare. He will become a living icon of God. No wonder he is the prophet without compare for the Jewish tradition. 


* One is reminded of the famous aphorism of Lord Acton that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Moses will not allow God to fall for the potential temptation to corruption posed by God’s own absolute power.

Exodus: Audacious Moses

After the incident of the golden calf, Moses stands up to God.

When we come to chapter 32 of Exodus, we find Moses is still on top of Mount Sinai. He is continuing in his kind of “classroom” experience as God instructs him on how to build the tabernacle and set up Israel’s institutions of worship. 

Moses by Michelangelo

Meanwhile on the plain below, the people have set up the golden calf and proclaimed it to be their god. Infidelity has invaded the sacred relationship between God and Israel. This leaves us with the question: What will be God’s response? Is divorce or destruction the next step? We are left with that hanging question as we read that on the morrow the people of Israel rise up early and join enthusiastically into sacrifices to the calf image and a reveling feast afterwards.

The text then turns back to the mountain top where God and Moses have been in dialogue.  We get God’s angry response to what is happening on the plain below. God says to Moses:

“Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’ “(Exodus 32:7-10)

Note carefully the wording. God begins the Ten Commandments with the statement, I am the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….(Exodus 20:2).

But now God disavows any connection to Israel. It is Moses, he says, who brought the Israelites out of Egypt. (That’s why I boldfaced the your and you in the text above.) They are not God’s people. They are Moses’ people. 

In the legal language of the covenant, these are words of divorce. God threatens to destroy the people and then start out a new course by creating a new nation out of the descendants of Moses. If God does this, he will be stepping back from his promises to Abraham. 

His words pose a severe temptation for Moses. God holds out the option to Moses of becoming the patriarch who replaces Abraham. If he wishes, he can reach out and seize this special honor which will redound to his glory. 

Moses Argues with God

We now come to a passage that I consider one of the most extraordinary in all of the Bible. It takes my breath away. Something totally unexpected happens. Moses turns down the temptation. Instead he engages in an audacious argument with God. 

First, Moses throws God’s word back into God’s face. It is not Moses who brought the people out of Egypt. It is God. He says God cannot disavow that responsibility.

Second, he pulls out the public relations card. He says to God in effect, “Think of how this would affect your reputation in the world. The Egyptians whom you have just defeated would laugh uproariously, saying, “Look at this God, who freed the people from slavery only for the purpose of destroying them.” Does God want to acquire that reputation?

Third, he reminds God of the promises God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Is God going to refuse to live by his own promises? Is God going to be untrue to himself? Who then in the future would ever believe in one of God’s promises? 

I find this dialogue extraordinary because of Moses’ boldness in challenging God himself. This is the Moses who earlier in Exodus told God frankly at the bushing bush to find someone else to free the Israelites from Egypt. Now we have a Moses who boldly insists that God be true to himself. Isn’t that extraordinary in showing us the evolving character of Moses?

Also, we see Moses’s own humility. Offered to become the ancestor of another great people—something most kings and dictators dream of—Moses turns down the offer and instead remains committed to the people of Israel, a people whom God has described at still-necked. 

Again we are given an insight into the developing character of Moses. As a matter of fact, when Moses dies, he is not succeeded by his son or grandson. His descendants vanish into history.

And maybe most astonishing of all to me, Moses’s audacity works with God. God steps back from the disaster of destroying Israel. Possibly that audacity is what God was looking for from Moses all along. 

Faith as Bold Assertion

If that is true, then this passage turns our conventional ideas of what faithfulness looks like on its head. Rather than faith becoming synonymous with meek resignation and passivity, faith is pictured as strong assertion. Moses holds God accountable for being true to God’s character. God is not allowed to evade his own promises. And Moses is not shy about doing this.

Lest we think this passage is without parallel in Scripture, I call our attention to the fact that we encounter this same faith as bold assertion throughout the psalms. In psalm after psalm, the psalmist calls upon God to be true to his promises.

One notable example is Psalm 89. In this psalm, the psalmist celebrates the covenant that God establishes with David. God promises that he will show faithfulness and steadfast love to David and his descendants. Their kingship will last forever. 

But the psalmist is writing after Babylonian imperialism has brought an end to the Davidic dynasty. Jerusalem with its royal palace and temple have been razed to the ground. The psalmist questions how this is consistent with God’s promises to David. He concludes his lament with these words:

Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,

            which by your faithfulness you swore to David?

Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted

    how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,

         with which your enemies taunt, O Lord,

            with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.

        (Psalm 89:49-51)

Implicit in the psalmist’s complaint is the assertion that God be faithful to his promise to David. The psalmist has stepped into the shoes of Moses.

The psalmist as well as Moses give us warrant for being bold in holding God accountable. The life of faith never gives us grounds for manipulating God. We must accept that God’s ways and God’s will may not be our ways and our will. But we can always hold God accountable to his promises and his character.



Exodus: Bridegroom of Blood

Can we make sense of a seemingly senseless story?

Probably the strangest and most troubling story in the whole book of Exodus is the incident recounted in Exodus 4:24-26. It is a postage stamp of a story, very short, and yet it raises all kinds of questions.

The incident takes place as Moses and his family are journeying from Midian to Egypt. Moses, somewhat reluctantly, is responding to God’s call to return to Egypt to direct Israel’s liberation from Pharaoh’s bondage. The family has stopped for the night. 

During the night God tries to kill Moses. Moses’ wife Zipporah comes to the rescue. She circumcises one of her sons and touches the excised foreskin to Moses’ feet (probably meant as a euphemism for Moses’ genitals).* This works. Moses survives. But Zipporah is shaken. She exclaims to Moses cryptically, Truly, you are a bridegroom of blood to me!

We are far from the first generation to scratch our heads over this story. How are we to make sense out of what appears a senseless story? Generations of Bible commentators have struggled with this story without any consensus of interpretation emerging. 

Troubling Questions

The question that jumps up for all of us is: Why? Why does God, who has just commissioned Moses to his world-changing mission, try immediately to kill Moses? Why is Moses saved by the circumcision of his son? Why does in fact this story even appear in the book of Exodus? What significance did the book’s editors see in the story that they had to include it in their narrative? 

The text gives almost no clues to interpretation. When we try to blow away the obscurity, it just resettles back in.

I will say right up front: there are no conclusive answers to these whys. The text gives almost no clues to interpretation. When we try to blow away the obscurity, it just resettles back in. All we can do is speculate, which I will do.

When I said there are almost no clues to interpretation, that almost reserves space for one possible clue. That is the story’s placement within the narrative of Exodus. It comes after Moses’ call at the burning bush, but before Moses’ arrival in Egypt. The journey Moses and his family are making marks an important transition.

Moses is leaving behind his 40-year life as a Midianite shepherd living within the family tents of Jethro. In Egypt Moses will embark on a fearful mission of political provocateur and freedom fighter, then later in the wilderness as spiritual and political leader of an emerging nation. 

Cultural Associations with Circumcision

In the realm of world cultures, the rite of circumcision often serves as an identity marker. It establishes a man’s identity within a group. The rite is also associated with times of identity transition. 

For example, in Judaism, a male child is circumcised eight days after birth. Circumcision seals that boy’s membership within the covenant circle of Israel. This comes through clearly in the account of the institution of the practice of circumcision recounted in Genesis 17:9-14. There it is said that any Israelite boy who remains uncircumcised shall be cut off from his people, for he has broken my covenant (Genesis 17:14).  

In other cultures, especially some African tribal cultures, circumcision is a rite performed when a boy at puberty transitions from the status of child to a full-fledged member of the tribe’s adult males. It forms an important element of the initiation ceremonies that take place at that time. 

My speculation is that we need to keep these cultural associations in mind as we read this particular story in Exodus.

Moses in Transition

As I said earlier, the journey marks an important transition in Moses’ life. He is also moving from one identity to another. Although born a Hebrew, Moses was raised in an Egyptian household, presumably acquiring many of the cultural attitudes and mindsets of Egyptians. Then he spent another 40 years living in the tribe of Midian, presumably adapting to the life style and cultural attitudes of that Bedouin tribe. 

In his new role Moses will be living in and leading an Israelite people. He will need to identify and adapt to this new cultural setting. He will have to sever any lingering ties he may still have to his Egyptian upbringing and to his Midianite life. His identity must now be completely and fully with the Israelites. 

In his new role…[Moses’] identity must now be completely and fully with the Israelites.

Exodus does not tell us if Moses was circumcised as a child or not, but if he was not, he will now have to be as a part of this psychological transition. Is it possible that this short incident is a disguised recognition by the editors that Moses had to undergo this identity marker himself?

The transition that Moses must undergo in his identity is one his family must undergo as well. They too will now have to identity fully with their new Israelite cousins and neighbors, severing any lingering psychological ties to the Midianite family and heritage.

If Moses’ son has not been circumcised, then there is a serious deficiency in Moses’ family as the family moves into the circle of the Israelite people. Moses’ mission as liberator is undermined by inconsistencies in his own family. The family must complete its transition into the new social circle. Zipporah is possibly recognizing this harsh fact when she blurbs out about Moses being a bridegroom of blood. The transitions Moses and his family are going through are painful and disruptive.

Baptism as a Christian Rite of Transition

In the Christian church, baptism replaces circumcision as the identity marker that identifies an individual as a member of the community of believers. In the early church baptism was regarded as a serious affair. It marked the decisive transition point when an individual passed from the community of pagans or Jews and one entered fully into the new family that constituted the Christian family. 

The baptism of Jesus as pictured in the dome of the Arian Baptistry, Ravenna, Italy, 6th century.

Interestingly this rite of transition was regarded as an experience of spiritual death and resurrection (see the apostle Paul’s exposition of that belief in Romans 6:1-4). And in terms of the real social consequences many early Christians experienced by their decision to become a Christian (such as ostracism or persecution), Paul’s language takes on real psychological weight.** 

On the basis of this analogy, one may argue that this incident in the desert is Moses’ spiritual baptism into his new role as God’s appointed man to assist in God’s creation of this new people of Israel.*** Certainly both of these rites–baptism and circumcision–carry these associations with transition. 

I freely admit that what I have just expounded is pure speculation on my part. It is importing insights from non-biblical cultures into the interpreting of scripture. And some of my readers may regard that as inappropriate. 

Ineradicable Ambiguity

Nonetheless, the story remains an enigma. It possesses an ineradicable ambiguity. It reminds me of Japanese haiku poems like the one by the Japanese poet Basho.

The autumn full moon:

All night long

I paced round the lake.

The poem has an ineradicable ambiguity, too. What does it mean? It all depends upon what one associates with the poet’s night walk around the lake. Is it a pleasant night stroll or is it a fretful walk as the poet contends with some great agitation in his mind? The poet gives us almost no clues apart from the possible suggestion made by the word paced. We usually do not use the word pace to describe a relaxed, peaceful walk.

This story in Exodus functions somewhat in the same way. We ultimately cannot nail down its meaning definitively. And in that characteristic it may bear witness to an uncomfortable feature about divine activity in the world. Sometimes God’s ways can seem so absurdly senseless. We cannot detect the divine motive or purpose for things that happen in our lives, if there is even one. Yet the biblical witness is that God is at work in the world to accomplish his purposes, purposes which move towards healing and fulfillment. But we cannot always see that clearly. So we live our Christian lives by faith rather than by sight.  


* The antecedents of the pronouns are ambiguous in the Hebrew. Does Zipporah apply the excised foreskin to Moses’ feet or her son’s feet? It is not clear. Many translations (like the NRSV) assume the ‘his’ means Moses’. Here we have a clear example of how translators sometimes make assumptions that go beyond the Hebrew text proper.

** The radical nature of Christian baptism got lost when Europe turned into Christendom. In that setting baptism became more a symbol of citizenship.

*** Here I am not trying to Christianize Moses’ experience. Rather I am trying to call attention to the similar effects that both Jewish circumcision and Christian baptism have on the respective spiritual status of their recipients.

Compassion Turns into Defiance

Opposition to Pharaoh begins where he least expects it: in his own family.


When we begin reading the book of Exodus, we encounter an Egyptian king who is determined to eradicate the Israelites. His method: the killing of all newborn Israelite boys.

He orders the Hebrew midwives to carry out this policy. They undermine it by practicing subterfuge on Pharaoh. We are not surprised; they are after all Israelites themselves. We do not expect them to be party to the destruction of their own people.

What we don’t expect is opposition to Pharaoh arising within his own royal court. But that is what we find when we read on.

As chapter 2 begins, an Israelite couple gives birth to a son. (He will grow up to be Moses.) The mother hides him for three months. When she can no longer safely do so, she adopts a bold, risky tactic. She creates a waterproof basket, places her son in it, and sets the basket adrift among the reeds lining the Nile River. It’s risky because she seems to entrust her son’s life to chance. In the perspective of the author of Exodus, however, she is really unknowingly giving her son over to a divine plan.

The daughter of Pharaoh comes to the river to bathe. She sees the basket, hears the baby’s cries, and, the text says, “she took pity upon him,” even though she realizes it is a Hebrew child. That’s the remarkable thing about this princess. Despite her high station, she possesses a heart of compassion.

She adopts the baby as her own son and raises him in the palace. But in so doing, she must defy her own father. His policy is to destroy the Israelites; her compassion moves her to save one. Of course, she plants the dragon seed that will grow and mature into the formidable leader who will ultimately thwart her father and destroy his carefully nurtured plans.

It is easy to appreciate the courage of Moses’ mother. She risks all when she places her son in the basket and sets him afloat on the river. We seldom appreciate the equal courage of Pharaoh’s daughter.

The text does not tell us whether Pharaoh ever knew what his daughter was doing. Does she keep Moses’ origin a secret from her father? If so, she practices deceit on her father. Or does her father know, but make an exception for this child because of his special attachment to his daughter? If the latter, then we find Pharaoh, despite his fierce resolution, is at heart a double-minded man. And a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Whatever the case, in exercising compassion, Pharaoh’s daughter in effect defies her father just as much as the midwives and Moses’ mother.

We see in this story how the unfolding of God’s plan depends in part upon the courage of two women. Small acts of compassion can have major consequences. I find that a thought-provoking take on the Exodus’ story of liberation.

A Note:

This insight into the Pharaoh’s daughter is not original to me. I first encountered it in a Krista Tippett interview of Avivah Zornberg on Tippett’s PBS program On Being. Zornberg draws upon the understanding of Pharaoh’s daughter that we find in the Jewish midrashic tradition. The interview is well worth listening to.

Image by Gustave Doré.

God’s Law as an Ice Cream Sundae

In its attitude towards Torah, Psalm 119 easily throws us off balance.

One of my pleasures in life is eating an ice cream sundae. Take some chocolate ice cream, pour on some melted marshmallow, pile on the whipped cream, and top with a maraschino cherry. I don’t often indulge in such pleasure. My weight control discipline won’t allow it. But when I do, it is sheer delight.

This image comes to mind when I read Psalm 119. This is the longest psalm in Book of Psalms–176 verses. It is an extended celebration of Torah.

Most Bible translators translate the Hebrew term Torah as Law. That has precedent in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint. Certainly Torah has many laws, precepts, and commandments. The ancient rabbis are said to have identified 613 in that most narrow of meanings of Torah: the five books of Moses that open the Hebrew Bible.

But Torah means literally “instruction,” and includes the narrative portions of the Pentateuch as well as the legal portions. As Judaism developed, Torah grew to include the oral Torah as well as the written Torah. This development found its definitive expression in the Talmud. So in many ways, I think it is legitimate to understand Torah as the whole extended theological tradition of Judaism, something that extends beyond just the laws and commandments themselves.

Psalm 119 is like one exuberant aria celebrating Torah. But the psalmist particularly has the legal portion of Torah in mind, as we see the many synonyms he uses for Torah. They include: commandments, ordinances, precepts, statutes, as well as promises, words, and testimonies. He seems especially focused on the Torah’s guidance for behavior.

An Unexpected Way of Looking at Torah

Now here’s the unexpected thing about Psalm 119 that can easily throw many Christians off balance. We have a long tradition of looking at the Jewish Torah as an oppressive, deadening legalism. We think it is a burden, whose function is primarily to instill a sense of guilt. That view of Torah has a long history in Christianity. It finds particular expression in the characteristic way the Protestant Reformers played off law against grace.

But when you read Psalm 119, you find none of that depressing spirit. For the psalmist, Torah is the joy of his life. When I read the psalm, I am struck by the repeated use of the word “delight” in the psalmist’s description of the Torah. In the Revised Standard Version translation, we find the word in 119:14, 119:16, 119:24, 119:35, 119:47, 119:70, 119:77, 119:92, 119:143, and 119:174.

Along with these verses are a number of verses where the psalmist declares how he loves Torah (119:47-48, 119:97, 119:113, 119:119, 119:127, 119:140, 119:159, 119:163, 119:165, 119:167). In 119:111, the psalmist asserts that Torah is the joy of his heart. In 119:127, he says he values Torah higher than fine gold.

And in 119:103, he says:

How sweet are thy words to my taste,

                        sweeter than honey to my mouth!

It’s as if Torah is this particular person’s ice cream sundae.

Many Christians find the psalm unnerving. How can anyone say such startling things about something as oppressive as the Mosaic Law? Does the psalmist have some warped sense of value?

Judaism as a Religion of Grace

To appreciate the psalmist’s sentiments, a lot of Christians are going to have to radically revise the way they look at Jewish Torah. For what the psalmist does is show us how Judaism is as much a religion of grace as is Christianity.

How can I say that? It is important to reflect carefully on how the Bible pictures God’s giving the Torah to Israel. The gift of Torah comes at Mount Sinai after Moses has led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and in the years following. It is important to notice the dynamic of the Biblical narrative as we have it in the five books of Moses.

God does not give Torah to Israel before its liberation from Egypt. God does not give Torah to Moses at the burning bush and then say to Moses, “Take this law to my people Israel in Egypt. If they obey it, then I will come and release them from their bondage.” If that had been the case, liberation would have been conditional on Israel’s obedience. Torah would indeed be legalism, and Israel’s religion a religion of works righteousness, to use a favored Protestant theological term.

No, God liberates Israel from Pharaoh’s tyranny, brings them out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, and there creates his covenant with Israel, with Torah as part of the gift of this covenant. Obedience to Torah had nothing to do with Israel’s liberation. Its liberation is an act of God’s sheer grace, of his faithfulness to his own promises.

But now that Israel is free, how will it sustain its freedom? How will it avoid falling back into the behaviors that would re-establish the kind of bondage they experienced in Egypt? Torah is the answer. In its laws and commandments, Torah establishes a way of life, a way of behaving, that offers assurance that Israel can preserve the freedom and liberation God has given it.

Yes, there may seem to be some strange laws in Torah that Christians don’t understand how they sustain freedom. I cite the commandment not to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19). But the heart of Torah is its many regulations for ordering Israel’s relationship to God and the relationship of Israelites with one another. Jesus will later summarize the focus of Torah in the two summary commandments: Love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Torah gets specific about what that means in practice.

When Israel fails to live by this structure of law, it gets itself in trouble. That becomes clear as you read the Old Testament prophets. Their denunciations of Israel revolve around two major sins: the apostasy of idolatry and social injustice.

Torah as God’s Good Gift

So in this Biblical perspective Torah becomes a great gift. It points the way to fruitful living. It is wisdom. We hear that theme ringing through Psalm 119.

I will never forget thy precepts;

            For by them thou hast given me life. (119:93)

I will keep thy law continually,

            for ever and ever;

and I shall walk at liberty,

            for I have sought thy precepts. (119:44-45)

We live in a world today where many people regard religion as a form of oppression. I think that is the view of religion that most people have in mind when they say: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” For them, religion consists of a mass of obligations, dry rituals, guilt-producing preaching, and hypocrisy. They cannot imagine the traditions and rituals and morality practiced by historic religions, like Christianity and Judaism, as anything being near to liberating. Give us instead something freer, a spacious but largely undefined spirituality.

That is not the attitude, however, of the psalmist who wrote Psalm 119. In the commandments, the statutes, the precepts of Torah, he finds something that allows his spirit to soar. As a result, he breaks literally into song.

How can we recapture the spirit behind his song? I think it means we must get in touch once again, at a very deep existential level, with an experience of God’s saving grace. Only when we know that at his very heart God is a God of love who yearns for the best for his people can we begin to appreciate how the doctrines, rituals, and moralities that express our understandings of his grace can become life-giving and freedom-sustaining.

When a Bible Story Appalls Us

How do we handle the Bible’s grim stories?

Over the last year I’ve made a practice of reading some of the books of the Bible I seldom pay attention to. For example, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Leviticus, and Numbers. It has given me several surprises. Some have been pleasant; others not.

In the latter category stands Numbers, chapter 31. It recounts an appalling story, at least to my sensibilities. It tells of a raid that the Israelites make on the Midianites, a raid that takes on the cast of genocide.

The Israelites are nearing the end of their 40-year exodus wanderings through the desert. They are camped on a plain of Moab, ready to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land.

As they prepare for this momentous move, they take care of some unfinished business. Moses organizes an army of Israelite warriors and sends it off to massacre the Midianites. (In the story the Midianites and the Moabites seem at times to be conflated. They are called both.)

The purpose of the raid is vengeance. The Israelites are to avenge an incident recounted in Numbers 25, where a group of Moabite and Midianite women entice the Israelites into some sacrifices to their pagan gods. The Israelites’ participation violates the First Commandment that Israel is to worship no other god than the God who has freed them from slavery in Egypt.

The Israelites attack and slaughter all the Midianite men and boys. They also slaughter any women who are married and have borne children. However, unmarried, virgin women are separated out and carried off captive as personal booty of the Israelite soldiers. The soldiers also carry off vast quantities of the Midianites’ treasure.

If one were to substitute ISIS for the Israelites and the Yazidis, Shiites, and Iraqi Christians for the Midianites, you would feel you were reading a news story fresh out of the Middle East today.

Why is this story even in the Bible?

What makes the story even more appalling is that the text says in its opening sentences that God himself orders this attack. For Jews and Christians like myself raised upon the many other passages of the Bible which proclaim God as loving, merciful, and compassionate, then we are going to ask: What is this appalling story doing in the Bible? How do we come to terms with it?

The answer is easy if you believe that all religion is violent and intolerant at heart. Many despisers of religion so argue. I know because some of them have told me. But that’s not an answer a believing Jew or Christian can give. So I must wrestle with the questions. I also must wrestle with them as a pastor for they are questioners that parishioners will sometimes bring to me. Let me share some thoughts on a tentative answer.

First, I start by recognizing that the Penteteuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) is a composite work. Editors at some point stitched together stories from a variety of sources to create the integrated narrative that we have today. So the question I start with is: Why did the editors who compiled the Penteteuch consider it important to include this story?

One answer might be because it happened exactly as they write it. Maybe God did command it as the text says. The writers of the Bible show themselves unusual in acknowledging the darkness in their stories as well as the light. Take the story of King David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12). How many times will you find the crimes of Pharaoh inscribed on the walls of Egyptian temples? Only his glorious exploits are recorded.

But if the incident happened exactly as it is told, then we are going to have to acknowledge there is a dark side to God. We do not understand God as well as we think.

Are we dealing with a primitive concept of God?

A second approach is one that has deep roots in Christianity. It stretches back to Marcion in the second century. This is the attitude that the picture of God in the Old Testament is imperfect compared to the picture we get in the New Testament. We hear it all the time when people talk about the God of the Old Testament being a God of wrath while the God of the New Testament is a God of love.

This approach will argue that the editors of the Penteteuch are still operating with this more primitive understanding of God that we find in the Old Testament.

But that doesn’t hold water for me when I recall that the editors of the Penteteuch also present us with some of the most sublime pictures of God in the whole Bible. They include the majestic picture of God the creator in Genesis 1. He creates with loving power a cosmos of order and beauty.

Also we have the amazing revelation of God at the burning bush on Mount Sinai. The dialogue between God and Moses (Exodus 3-4) contains some highly exalted views of God, especially the revelation that the name of God is the mysterious I AM. And again during his dialogue with Moses (Exodus 34) on the peak of Mount Sinai, we are presented with another sublime description of God as the merciful and compassionate one.

The editors of the Penteteuch are not incapable of any more exalted view of God than a vengeful tribal deity.

Is the story a morality tale?

A third option is that they tell the story as a kind of morality tale. Hebrew religion demanded a strict monotheism, an exclusive devotion to the God who had covenanted with them at Mount Sinai. The great danger to this monotheism was religious syncretism.

One way religious syncretism crept into Israelite life was through intermarriage with non-Israelites. Spouses often enticed their partners into participating in the worship of their own gods. The classic example is King Ahab’s marriage to the Phoenician princess, Jezebel. Jezebel seeks to supplant the worship of God by importing the worship of her native god Ba’al. (1 Kings 16:31-33).

In the incident recounted in Numbers 25, it is Moabite women who entice the Israelites into the worship of their pagan gods. The story therefore highlights the constant danger of religious syncretism creeping into Israel through inter-marriage, or in this case, through sexual fraternizing with Israel’s neighbors.

The editors may have included the story of Numbers 31 in the Penteteuch to warn its readers about the risks of religious syncretism by sexual engagements outside the boundaries of the Israelite people. We encounter a similar fear about the dangers of assimilation through inter-marriage in the post-exilic policy of Ezra requiring Israelite men to divorce their foreign wives (Ezra 9-10).

If this is the case, it will not be the first or last time when religious leaders have used the name of God to enforce social or religious solidarity.

The important question: How do we understand Biblical inspiration?

I incline towards option 3, but I am not sure it really answers the question that troubles us most. Why does the text say God ordered the attack? How is this consistent with the picture of God unfolding in the rest of the Bible?

To tackle this question, we may have to tackle the issue of the divine inspiration of the Bible. This is a widespread belief among Jews and Christians. But what can we legitimately assert if we adhere to it?

When Christians assert the doctrine of divine inspiration, what they usually say is that the Holy Spirit so guided the process of composition of the Bible that it provides a trustworthy revelation of God’s character, purposes, and will. But Christians like myself would also assert that that does not mean the Spirit dictated the composition. The authors and editors of the Bible were not God’s amanuenses who wrote down what they heard the Spirit speaking directly into their minds or ears.

The composition of the Bible was a very human process, involving human authors and editors who worked out of their own specific cultural contexts. If the Spirit was inspiring their work, he was doing so in a divinely subtle way.

If this is correct, then the composition of the Bible involved an undetectable partnership between the Spirit and the human authors/editors. Undetectable in that the human partners would not likely have been aware of any divine influence. That the text was inspired would have been detected only after the process was complete. It would have been evident in the impact that this text had on nurturing faith in the communities who read and cherished it.

But God’s human partners in this process would have always been fallible, morally flawed human beings, as all of us are. They did their best to bear witness to the God they had come to know in not only their personal lives, but in the history of their people, and for Christians, most especially in the person of Jesus Christ.

This means that there is a possibility for inadequate perceptions of God and God’s will to be included in the Biblical text. The corrective on these inadequate perceptions is not a gift of infallibility, but the presence of a plurality of theological viewpoints in the text. That plurality corrects inadequacies through the give and take of dialogue and debate. There is wisdom, for example, in the fact that the church canonized not just one gospel, but four.

So as we read the Bible we must keep alert to the fact its witness to God is a mixed one. We can never read any one passage as an authority in isolation from all the rest of the Bible. We must join in this dialogue by bringing our own challenges and questions to the text and listening to alternate interpretations.

When I do this, I find that the picture of God that I get from Jesus’ teaching is dramatically different from the picture I encounter in Numbers 31. So I cannot read Numbers 31 without challenging its picture of God. This does not mean I am able to reconcile Numbers 31 with Jesus’ teaching. It simply means that the key to reconciling Numbers 31 with the gospels still eludes me.

If any of you my readers have thoughts on this dilemma, I welcome hearing from you.


Humble Moses

Moses by Michelangelo
Moses by Michelangelo

Moses did not let power or access go to his head.

I was reading in the Book of Numbers when I came upon this extraordinary sentence: Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)

I call it extraordinary because it says something extraordinary about one of the world’s great leaders. It claims that Moses was humbler than anyone else on the face of the earth.

That’s not how I expect someone to praise a leader he or she admires. I expect the admirer to praise the leader’s charisma, his projection of power, his effectiveness in getting things done, his ability to inspire, his skill in defeating opponents, or his superior giftedness over others. But who expects to praise a leader for his humbleness?

I found myself stopping to ask: Why? Why this particular commendation of Moses? Because if anyone had reason to feel proud, Moses did.

He had defeated a powerful autocrat. Actually God had, if we read the story of Exodus carefully, but a lesser leader might have been tempted to think that he had done it by himself alone.

He had freed a vast multitude of slaves. Talk about revolution. Moses ought to be up there on the pedestal with the great liberators of the oppressed. In that respect, he changed his world.

He had been given privileged access unmatched by anyone else. He was given access to the very presence of God on Mount Sinai. There he had received revelation from God directly, not through any intermediary. According to Numbers 12:8, God himself says about Moses:

With him I speak face to face—

clearly, not in riddles;

and he beholds the form of the Lord.

This is the kind of divine access that humanity has long dreamed of.

And yet Moses does not let this divinely accorded power and access to go to his head. Says the Torah writer, “Now the man Moses was very humble….”

Exploring the extraordinary in context

Whenever I read something extraordinary in the Bible, I like to notice the context in which it is said. Often that context fleshes out the meaning. It does so, for example, in this very case.

Numbers Chapter 12 tells the story of a challenge to Moses’ leadership. It comes from his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam. They manifest jealousy of Moses’ position with God. They complain, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”

But rather than express their jealousy openly, they hide it by criticizing Moses’ wife. How many pastors could testify to similar experiences? Unhappy members in a congregation are just as likely to disguise their hostility towards the pastor by making cutting criticism of his or her spouse and children.

The Lord vindicates Moses by a direct endorsement of Moses’ position and by inflicting a serious skin disease on Miriam. (This raises questions about why Aaron escapes this punishment. Does the writer—or God—show a gender bias?)

What fascinates me is Moses’ response. Moses does not gloat in this divine endorsement. Instead he immediately pleads with God to heal his sister. He takes his place on the side of the wronged and wounded, even the sinful.

A recurring pattern in Moses’ leadership

That led me to remember the other times in the Exodus journey when God threatens to destroy the whole people of Israel and form a new people out of the descendants of Moses. (See Exodus 32, Numbers 14, and Deuteronomy 9.)

In each case some blatant expression of faithlessness on the part of the people of Israel provokes God to make this threat. God has come to their rescue time after time, and yet they continue to grumble and doubt God’s power or love. Once again many a pastor could share stories about how expressions of faithful care to a congregation is rewarded by a congregation’s complaints that the pastor is not doing enough for them.

If Moses had let the extraordinary power and access that God has conferred on him to go to his head, he would gladly respond to these promises by God. He would be flattered that his descendants would displace the descendants of Abraham as the people of God’s special favor. What a historical honor!

But Moses does no such thing. Instead time after time, Moses pleads with God to forgive the people of Israel, to remain faithful to his promises to Israel, not to abort the process that God started when he freed the people from slavery and led them out of Egypt.

The most extraordinary example comes in Exodus 32. There Moses has been detained on Mount Sinai for 40 days. The people of Israel despair over his long absence, and so persuade Aaron to create a golden calf that they can worship as a god.

God responds in rage. He threatens to wipe out Israel. He even denies that he brought them out of Egypt. He spits out to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” But he honors Moses’ faithfulness by promising to make a great nation of him.

Moses, however, responds with one of the great prayers of intercession to be found in the Bible. It is fascinating how Moses expresses his arguments with God (something to analyze in another blog posting). And he prevails. The text says that God changed his mind. Israel is saved from destruction.

In all these cases, Moses puts the welfare of the nation, the wellbeing of the rebellious, above his self-advantage. Moses remains committed to the enterprise of the Exodus when even God seems sometimes to waver.

Now that’s what I think the Torah writer had in mind when he commends Moses’ humility. When Moses has the temptation to advance his own cause at the expense of his people, he chooses the cause of his people every time. He stands to the side and lets the people take their place of priority with the Lord. And that, I think, is extraordinary humility.


Meeting the Mysterious I AM

From where comes the power of religious faith?

Bible text: Exodus 3:13-14

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Revised Standard Version)

Like the moth attracted to the glowing light bulb on the front porch, I am continually drawn to this passage in Exodus. I circle around it over and over again, without fully understanding it. Yet I can’t leave it alone. Its mystery fascinates.

The passage comes from the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush on Mount Sinai (Exodus 3:1-4:18). Moses sees a bush burning on the mountainside, but it is not consumed. Curious, he investigates. To his surprise, he encounters the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

God explains the reason for the encounter. God is going to send Moses to Egypt to deliver the Israelites from their bondage to Pharaoh. Moses raises various objections to this task, before he submits to God’s call.

One of the objections is that he does not know God’s name. When the Israelites ask what God has sent him to deliver them, what shall he tell them? Who is this God who confronts him in the burning bush?

God responds to this question by saying, “I AM WHO I AM…Say to this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

What a strange, puzzling name! Yet what an appropriate name for the God we encounter in the Bible.

A name that reveals yet veils

There are a number of ways to take this name. For one, it says to me that God is one who always is. God lives in the eternal present. Time may flow all around us, but God is outside time. In a strange way, Einstein’s theories of relativity confirm this. Time as well as space are part of the created order, not eternal verities.

Second, the name reveals yet at the same time veils. The name reveals the reality of God, but it gives us no avenue for comprehending God. Because of that fact, we can never so understand God that we gain the power to control or manipulate God.

Human beings have invested a lot of time, energy, and money in the pursuit of knowledge. But why? One dominant reason is that we hope that by coming to understand our world, ourselves, and even God, we can shape and influence the forces of life and the universe to work for our benefit and prosperity. How much of science is motivated by the frantic hope that if we can just understand nature, we can compel nature to bless us.

This is not the only reason to pursue knowledge. We can also seek to know so that as the mysteries of nature, of ourselves, and of God are disclosed, we stand in awe of the majestic order that is revealed. Awe does not seek to manipulate. Awe stands in silence, with a gaping mouth. Awe appreciates without a desire to use.

The God whose name is I AM is a God whose essence we can never comprehend. In that respect, God is one whom we can never hope to know all about God that is possible to know. This I AM remains forever mystery.

Knowing God versus knowing about God

Yet the Bible is very confident that human beings can know God. But notice a careful distinction in the words I use. We can never know all we want to know about God. But we can know God in a personal relationship with God.

We can know God in terms of a dialogue with God, as Moses has there on Mount Sinai. We can know God in hearing God question us, in hearing God address us, in experiencing God loving us in his various acts of sustaining us and liberating us. We can know God by listening to God. We can know God by trusting God as our good and divine shepherd. We can know God by loving God.

In this relationship, we can learn something about God. That enables us to talk about God. Theology does. But we never so understand God that we can swallow and digest God. God remains the eternal Other, and so his ways will at times mystify us.

I once viewed a documentary titled “Oh My God.” In it the director wandered around the world quizzing people he met. His question: What is God? I think he was trying to understand the mystery of religion by exploring the many different concepts of God that people hold.

As I watched it, however, I felt he was asking the wrong question if he was trying to penetrate the mysterious power that religion has on people. It assumed that God is an intellectual concept that somehow holds a strange, captivating power over peoples’ minds and feelings. God becomes an object of intellectual inquiry.

But I don’t think anyone can ever understand the power of religion until one realizes that the power is to be found in that encounter with the divine Thou. Only when we relate to God as the ever present Thou in our world and in our lives can we begin to experience the transforming power of religious faith.

The secret of religion only opens up when we realize that it is contained in a meeting, a meeting between the I (or the We) and the divine Thou. That Thou is the one whose name is I AM.

Martin Buber capsulizes this insight for me in a sentence he wrote about the free man who “believes in the real solidarity of the real twofold entity I and Thou.” He then goes onto to correct himself. “I said he believes, but that really means he meets.” (Martin Buber, I and Thou, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958, page 60061)

Moses meets the I AM on that mountainside. His life and ours are never the same.

God’s Temptation

Bible text: Exodus 32:7-14

This morning I was reading the story of Israel’s creation of the golden calf at Mount Sinai. Moses has been on Mount Sinai 40 days in dialogue with God. Israel gets impatient with his absence. They want action now, and so they ask Aaron to create them a god. He creates a golden calf.

This creates an interesting turn in God’s dialogue with Moses. Hot with anger, God tells Moses to leave the mountain immediately. God says he is about to destroy the people of Israel for their apostasy. Instead he will create a new people from Moses’ line of descent.

What caught my attention is how God introduces this conversation. He says to Moses: “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely….” [I added the italics.] Suddenly the people of Israel are not God’s people. They are Moses’ people. And Moses is the one who brought them up out of Egypt. God lays no claim to them.

Moses, however, will not allow God to wipe his hands of the connection. He retorts: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” [Again, I’ve added the italics.]

Moses does not allow God to cavalierly displace the connection between God and Israel. It is not Moses who brought Israel out of Egypt. It is God. And the Israelites are certainly Moses’ people because he belongs to them. But in terms of covenant ownership, they are God’s people because God called and created them.

Moses then reminds God of the stake he has in Israel’s fate. If God destroys Israel, it will reflect very badly on God’s reputation. The Egyptians will laugh in derision.

Furthermore, God has made a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If he destroys the Israelites, God will show himself an unstable god like all the fickle, unstable gods of the other ancient Near Eastern polytheisms. God will show himself to be a God in whom no one would be advised to place any ultimate trust and loyalty.

The text says Moses wins the argument. God changes his mind.

I find this a fascinating dialogue for two reasons. One is the effrontery exhibited by Moses. Moses is neither bribed by God’s promise to make a great nation out of Moses. Nor is he meekly cowed by God’s presumption to pass the buck of responsibility onto Moses. Moses does not accept the role of scapegoat.

Instead Moses stands up to God. He presumes to argue with God. And Moses wins.

The other fascinating feature is the argument Moses makes. If God is going to be God, then God must be true to himself. God may need to be flexible in dealing with humanity. The story of the Bible gives many examples of this flexibility.

But God cannot be untrue to himself and remain God. God cannot betray his eternal purposes and character and remain a God in whom humanity is called to place ultimate trust. In times when God is thwarted and frustrated with the erring ways of humanity, he may be tempted to act in ways that are less than God. But if he does, he will cease to be God. He will become the Devil.

God faces a temptation. He has been betrayed, and he is tempted to respond in kind. But Moses reminds God that if he gives in to the temptation in the heat of passionate emotion, he will cease to be God.

So God must work with recalcitrant humanity is a way that God remains true to God’s own self. How he does that is the story of rest of the Bible. 

Discerning God with Hindsight

Bible text: Exodus 3:7-12

I love reading the story of how God calls Moses to go to Egypt, confront Pharaoh, and lead the Israelites out into freedom. It is told in Exodus, chapters 3 and 4.

I love the story because Moses is such a reluctant leader. He raises one objection after another as to why God has chosen the wrong man. This series of objections climaxes with his blatant and direct statement to God in Exodus 4:13: “O my Lord, please send someone else.” Talk about hutzpah with God.

When we talk about God being in the transformation business, there is no better example than Moses before and after.

I was reading this call story recently when one thing God says jumped out at me as it had never done before. In Exodus 3:7-10, God reveals for the first time why he has confronted Moses out of the burning bush. He is calling Moses to the daunting task of leading the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage.

This evokes Moses’ first objection, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses does not see himself at being up to the task—at all. This is more than a big hairy goal. It’s an impossible goal.

God responds: “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

God promises to be with Moses. God also assures Moses that he will be with Moses with a sign: when Moses’ task is complete, he and the Israelites will worship God on this mountain of Sinai.

Now most of us when we seek a sign from God seek some kind of divine guarantee that God is truly with us. We want proof that the promise will be delivered. And we want that proof here and now.

But God gives a proof that lies in the future, not in the here and now. Moses will know that God was with him when in the future he arrives back at Mount Sinai. In the meantime Moses must live by trusting in a promise that has no guarantee in the present. He must, like all the faithful through the ages, walk by faith, not by certainty. He must trust in God’s promises, period.

The life of faith is challenging. And sometimes I worry that I have been deluded into adopting a way of life that is nothing but foggy illusion, illusion that will vanish when the burning heat of reality settles in. I long for certainty, but certainty is not given. We walk by trust, not clarity.

The clarity comes, paradoxically, by hindsight. I have found that when I am living out the life of faith, I have no certainty that God is with me and directing my life. Living can feel very confusing and sometimes disorienting. But as I look back on my life journey, I begin to see how God was at work in all that confusion, leading me forward into the man I have now become.

When that happens, I feel a sense of awe. The promise to Moses and to each one of us has proved true. God was with us. With hindsight, we see providence at work in a way we can never perceive as we look into the future.

I can never prove to you that God is at work in your life. All I can do is tell my own story and share the story of those whom we read in the Bible, people like Moses. The proof of what I say and the Bible says will be your own experience, as you step out fearfully into a life of trust.

So the life of faith always involves risk, but maybe that is also what makes it an adventure.