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

Friday, July 14, 2017

Audacity!

On the next day, Moses returned out of his own initiative to the mountain to advocate for the people before YHWH. So far, Moses has climbed the Mount of God several times to speak with God. Every time, Moses followed God’s summons to come up (cf. Exod 19:3, 20, 21, 24:1, 12); this time, however, Moses sought God’s audition without invitation.—Standing in the Breach, page 87

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Are you listening closely?

I follow a long interpretative tradition, which suggests that YHWH implicitly invites (by prohibition), possibly even tests, His mediator to challenge His justified yet circumstantial wrath. This line of interpretation has been substantiated by a number of observations: First, YHWH could have simply proceeded with His intentions without involving Moses at all. Second, and following from that, it appears that YHWH intentionally makes His decision vulnerable to Moses’ response (cf. Num 14:12). The imperative “leave me alone” opens the door “not to leave Him alone.” Third, by presenting Moses with an offer to make him the new patriarch at the cost of the death of the sinful generation, YHWH makes His intention and the fulfillment of the divine promise clearly susceptible to Moses’ response. All these points endorse the view that YHWH’s “no” is a subtle divine invitation to intercede.—Standing in the Breach, page 85

<idle musing>
Are we listening? Do we hear God calling us to intercede? Or are we too busy playing Jonah and rejoicing in the possibility of destruction? I fear it is too often the latter : (
</idle musing>

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How many times?

It is perhaps the acute seriousness of Israel’s sin and the extensive dialogue between YHWH and Moses that make Exodus 32–34 the most detailed and intense treatment of intercessory prayer in the entire Old Testament. Moses is said to have interceded four times on behalf of the sinful people in order to save them from YHWH’s destructive wrath and to reconcile them to their God (Exod 32:11–13, 32:30–32, 33:12–23, and 34:9). The theme of Moses’ persistent intercessory activity pervades the entire narrative.—Standing in the Breach, page 84

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Prayer as theology

Theology in its purest form is revealed by God Himself. It is certainly important to note that the deepest insight into the nature of God is given in the context of a prolonged prayer dialogue between Moses and YHWH.—Standing in the Breach, page 83

Monday, July 10, 2017

Finally!

This just showed up in my e-mail inbox: The Positive Power of Walking Showcased at National Summit. And it's in St. Paul!
Many things leap to mind when someone mentions walking: fitness, fun, fresh air, relaxation, friends and maybe your most comfortable pair of shoes. But a word that rarely arises is “power”.

That will begin to change after the 2017 National Walking Summit (held in St. Paul, Minnesota September 13-15), which is themed “Vital and Vibrant Communities — The Power of Walkability”.

We'll see; I'm always skeptical about getting people to actually do more than talk when it comes to physical activity. But, hey, it's a start. Maybe if communities built the infrastructure for walking, people would do it. Can't hurt. We walk about five miles per day, but I wouldn't say that Grand Marais is "walker-friendly." There are few sidewalks and it's built on the side of a hill, which scares some people off. But, the whole town is about 2 miles long, measuring from the National Forest Service office on the west side to the DNR building on the east. And, aside from Highway 61, there isn't a lot of traffic.

Maybe we can get the mayor or city council to send somebody...

The rest of the story

The idea of liberation is sometimes summarized in the popular slogan “Let My people go.” The full demand Moses brings before Pharaoh in the name of YHWH is “Let My people go that they may serve Me” (cf. Exod 7:16, 26, 8:16).—Standing in the Breach, page 81 (emphasis original)

<idle musing>
How easily we forget! There is no absolute freedom in this world; as Bob Dylan said, "You gotta serve somebody". I don't know about you, but Joshua summed it up nicely for me:

Worship the LORD, obey him, and always be faithful. Get rid of the idols your ancestors worshiped when they lived on the other side of the Euphrates River and in Egypt. But if you don’t want to worship the LORD, then choose right now! Will you worship the same idols your ancestors did? Or since you’re living on land that once belonged to the Amorites, maybe you’ll worship their gods. I won’t. My family and I are going to worship and obey the LORD! Joshua 24:14–15 (CEV)
</idle musing>

Friday, July 07, 2017

About those warrior motifs

If one upholds the authority of Scripture, one cannot simply reject passages that speak of YHWH’s wars. It may be uncomfortable to modern ears, but one of the main metaphors for God in the Old Testament is that of a divine warrior. After the Exodus, YHWH is praised as a “man of war” (Exod 15:3). In fact, this metaphor is essential to the logic of a lot of biblical accounts that affirm that God saves His people in faithfulness from the enemy(ies). If we stay with the stories and observe what happens to the Old Testament metaphors, themes, and motifs in Jesus, we see that Satan and the demons become the principal enemies of God’s rule (Mark 3:22–27, Luke 11:14–23). Thus, Longman and Reid argue that Jesus’ whole mission should be viewed as a typological fulfillment of the divine warrior motif of the Old Testament. According to them, Jesus is presented as the eschatological divine warrior who by the “finger” (Spirit) of God brings in the kingdom by driving out the spiritual enemies of God (Matt 12:28, Luke 11:20) .—Standing in the Breach, pages 79–80

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Working together

Exod 17:11–13 illustrates that, while Moses’ prayer decides the outcome, Joshua’s leading of the charge in the valley is also necessary for victory. The text makes it absolutely clear, where the power to win comes from. Still, the message of this account is different from the Exodus from Egypt, where the struggle against Egypt was fought by YHWH alone (through the mediation of Moses; cf. Exod 14:14). Thus, Barth found in Exodus 17:8–16 a lesson of God’s working through man in a delicate balance which neither impaired God’s will nor destroyed man’s genuine activity. This delicate divine-human balance is central to the biblical concept of faith.—Standing in the Breach, page 76

<idle musing>
The technical term is synergism—working together—versus monergism, which claims it is only God doing everything; humans are basically puppets in that system.
</idle musing>

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Is YHWH with us?

[T]he Massah and Meriba account finishes with the open-ended question הֲיֵ֧שׁ יְהוָ֛ה בְּקִרְבֵּ֖נוּ אִם־אָֽיִן and implicit judgment: “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exod 17:7). Thus, when it says in the next verse that Amalek came and fought with Israel, the question becomes urgent. Will the Lord help Israel or not? We have seen that, with and through Moses’ intercessory help, God’s divine presence is secured (Exod 17:10–13). Interestingly, in the scout narrative, also in the wider context of Moses’ intercessory prayer, Amalek wins against disobedient Israel because YHWH is not with Israel (Num 14:43). In other words, Num 14:39–45 contains a remarkable contrasting parallel to Exod 17:8–16. This time, Amalek (not Moses) is on “the top of the mountain” (cf. Exod 17:9–13, Num 14:40, 44) and triumphs over Israel. The roles are reversed. The reason, according to Moses: “Because you have turned away from YHWH, and so YHWH is not with you” (כִּֽי־עַל־כֵּ֤ן שַׁבְתֶּם֙ מֵאַחֲרֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה עִמָּכֶֽם)(Num 14:43). In the Exodus account, divine presence is visualized against the Amalekites through Moses’ staff, in the scout narrative through the ark of the covenant (cf. Num 14:44) .—Standing in the Breach, page 71

Monday, July 03, 2017

Yep. Not much has changed

Testing has to do with “putting God to the proof,” that is, seeking a way in which God can be coerced to act or show himself. . . . Israel’s testing of God consisted in this: if we are to believe that God is really present, then God must show us in a concrete way by making water materialize. . . . It is, in essence, an attempt to turn faith into sight.— Terence Fretheim, Exodus, IBC (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991) 189–90, quoted in Standing in the Breach, page 60