Sunday, February 11, 2007

Whose people is this, anyway?

Today's Old Testament reading includes what may be the funniest piece of dialogue in the whole Bible. The subject is very serious, but the dialogue cracks me up. Here's the deal. Moses has gone up the mountain, and he's been talking with God for some days, weeks actually. The people are down below, and they've told Aaron to make an idol for them to worship.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf.... Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “O Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.
from Exodus 32.7-12 (emphasis added)
Now this is not the kind of thing I usually hear in prayer meetings. It's not the kind of thing I usually pray. I mean, to me, Moses seems to be manipulating the Lord. Now it's not all manipulation -- he reminds God that these are his people (they never did belong to Moses) after all. But then he says, "Why should the Egyptians say thus and such about you?"

The astonishing thing is that it seems to work! The Lord relents and doesn't destroy them.

But wait, is that really possible? Does Moses actually change God's mind? Well, I don't know for sure, but I don't think so. The prophets tell us that God knows the end from the beginning, and that he does not change -- or change his mind. Maybe it's a paradox, but here's what I think is happening.

I think Moses is exasperated with the people. He's frustrated and angry, and may be thinking violent thoughts. Perhaps he'd rather they all go away ... but his thoughts aren't fully formed. So I think God is showing Moses the logical conclusion of those thoughts and giving Moses a chance to repent of them. A little reverse psychology, like.

And that's the thing that actually works: God changes Moses’s mind, rather than the reverse. And further on down, in verse 32, we see Moses’s dedication to these folks:
But now, please forgive their sin--but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.
Which reminds me of Paul's comment in Romans 9:
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race...
Romans 9.2-3
This is a greater love than I'll probably ever have for people I don't know. And there aren't many people I do know that I love that way. May God widen my heart to be more like that!

posted 2/14

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