Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Moses's intercession, round two

The scout narrative is rightly called the second main focus of theological reflection on the nexus of sin, judgment, prayer, and divine verdict in the canonical sequence of the Pentateuch. Moreover, the relation between the golden calf account and the scout narrative goes far beyond common themes. There are numerous conceptual and verbal parallels between these two narratives. The problem of YHWH’s presence among a fundamentally rebellious people is significantly developed in relation to the outstanding promised land in Numbers 13–14 (cf. Exod 33:1–6). Moreover, it is in these chapters that the outstanding divine warning of a forthcoming judgment finds a concrete resolution (cf. Exod 32:34). For our purposes, however, most important is the intrinsic relationship between YHWH’s fullest self-disclosure of His name (Exod 34:6–7) and Moses’ praying the divine attributes “back” to YHWH in the face of a threatening judgment (Num 14:11–12). YHWH’s response to Moses’ prayer provides a helpful inner-biblical commentary on the meaning and implications of YHWH’s attributes in a specific context. The divine resolution encompasses both judgment and mercy. Although all the people who have despised YHWH are punished, YHWH maintains the covenant relationship with Israel as a people. By implication, the prayer of the covenant mediator was successful. Israel can continue as YHWH’s people; their children will be the bearer of the divine promise made to their ancestors, and they will eventually be given the chance to inherit the promised land alongside the two loyal scouts. Thus, YHWH’s response to Moses’ prayer includes the complex interplay of human rebellion, divine judgment, prophetic mediation, and God’s merciful and gracious disposition.—Standing in the Breach, page 95

<idle musing>
No one ever said figuring this stuff out would be easy! It gets complicated real fast, doesn't it? It still boils down to our individual response to the grace of God. God remains faithful and calls us to the same. He's merciful, too, and that mercy is huge, but at some point it has a limit, as we'll see later in the book.
</idle musing>

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

That seems backwards to me!

In gratitude and worship for the affirmative recharacterization of the divine name, Moses prostrates himself and launches his climactic prayer. In this petition, Moses resumes most of the major themes of his previous prayers and boldly advances them in the light of YHWH’s new revelation. Holding together personal divine favor and the good of the people, Moses prays: “If I have found favor in your eyes then walk in our midst for they are a stiff-necked people and pardon our guilt and sins and take us for your inheritance” (Exod 34:9; cf. 33:13). In total solidarity and in tune with his previous unswerving loyalty to Israel (Exod 32:32), Moses identifies himself with the people’s guilt and sin and makes their pardon depend on his intimate relationship with YHWH. Moreover, there is good reason to argue that Moses actually promotes Israel’s recalcitrant nature as the very reason for the resumption of YHWH’s presence and pardon. “Please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people (Exod 34:9, ESV).”—Standing in the Breach, page 94 (emphasis his)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Attribute versus action

Anger is an act, a situation, not an essential attribute. This distinction is implied in the words which are of fundamental importance for the understanding of all biblical words: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious.”—Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets, 71, as quoted in Standing in the Breach, page 93

<idle musing>
As always, Heschel hits the nail on the head. Wrath is a reaction of God because of his attributes. It is not an attribute of God in and of itself. This needs to be blasted from the rooftops and drilled into our thick, judgmental, parochial skulls. God is merciful and gracious. Yes, he does have limits to that and wrath and judgment will eventually fall. But, and this is a huge but, it is not an attribute of God to be wrathful.
</idle musing>

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Judgment might come

The revelation of YHWH’s name came as an affirmation to Moses (and through him to Israel) that YHWH is primarily and fundamentally for Israel. This is not to say that divine pardon can easily be presumed, for v. 7b comes as a stern warning that God’s moral order still matters. One could say that vv. 6–7a give expression to YHWH’s fundamental nature, whereas v. 7b gives expression to His action if Israel’s offence persists. Therefore, it can be seen that God’s visitation of Israel’s iniquities does not stand in an irresolvable tension with His fundamental covenant loyalty. The immediate and wider context of vv. 6–7 make it evident that YHWH’s wrath is provoked by and directed against a specific sin. In other words, divine wrath and judgment are circumstantial and temporary, and as the proportion of thousands to four generations indicates, they cannot overrule YHWH’s faithfulness and love.—Standing in the Breach, page 93

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The divine reversal

It looks very much as though YHWH in the aftermath of the golden calf incident deliberately reformulates His previous pronouncement. Most striking is the reversal of the order of His attributes. In Exod 34:6, YHWH commences with a fundamental statement about His nature. He is basically merciful and gracious, whereas in the Decalogue the warning of a jealous God precedes YHWH’s attributes of mercy and grace. In other words, there is a radical shift from an emphasis on divine jealousy to an emphasis on divine mercy, grace, and loyalty without denying justice. God allowed Himself in His sovereignty to be persuaded by the persistent prayer of His faithful mediator to overcome justified wrath with grace and loving compassion.—Standing in the Breach, page 92

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Knowing the unknowable

Reading Moses’ intercessory prayers, one gains a sense that the more Moses engages in prayer the deeper he is led into the divine mystery. There is a clear sense that God’s revelation is intrinsically connected to Moses’ response. Moses self-involvement enables an encounter with God of unprecedented nature. Through the use of a variety of metaphors and anthropomorphic language, a complex and sophisticated biblical truth is established: God is gracious and merciful and yet holy and morally demanding, He is seen and yet unseen, He is close and yet He transcends human perception. These irresolvable tensions are inherent in Exod 33:18–24 and are confirmed in the actual revelation of God’s name (Exod 34:6–7). The text, as Moberly observes, articulates, in its own way, “that sense which has been fundamental to classic theology that to know God is to know the one who surpasses knowledge.”—Standing in the Breach, page 90

Monday, July 17, 2017

Pressing through

Moses’ third prayer has understandably been described as the climactic prayer because, arguably, it is in this intense dialogue that the fundamental breakthrough happens. At the outset of the chapter, everything hangs in the balance: Although Moses is to lead Israel into the promised land, YHWH announces that He cannot go with a stiff-necked people. Thus, Israel’s future is still undecided and Moses is uncertain regarding his role and YHWH’s purposes. Verses 1–11 not only introduce the fundamental problem of how a holy God can live among a sinful people but also testify to a transformation of the people and, implicitly, of YHWH’s relation to them. This change of attitudes on both sides is significant for the development of the story. It seems that the text presupposes this mutual change of heart for Moses’ intercession to be fruitful. At the end of the chapter, YHWH affirms the resumption of His presence among the people and announces a show of His goodness to Moses in a forthcoming theophany.

In contrast to his previous prayer, Moses’ dialogue with YHWH is characterized by an increasingly brave and insistent tone. Although it is clear that the objective of Moses’ prayer has always been the restoration of the breached covenant relationship, Moses initially mentioned sinful Israel only in a seemingly incidental manner, as carefully exploring YHWH’s reaction after the previous divine word of reproof (Exod 32:33). Encouraged by not being opposed this time, Moses becomes bolder and speaks of Israel more directly. Although YHWH shows some reluctance in committing Himself to the people, we note that He does not dismiss Moses’ plea either. Moreover, it is noteworthy that Moses’ brave words are not presented in a negative light. It is likely that this is the reason that Moses’ prayer increases in boldness as YHWH is graciously willing to respond. The reader is reminded of the dynamics of Abraham’s dialogue with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:16–33). Moses’ audacity reaches its climax in his request to see YHWH’s glory (Exod 33:18).—Standing in the Breach, pages 89–90