[reprinted from November 12, 2009]
11Moses tried to appease YHWH his God. He said, â€œWhy are you getting so angry with your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great strength and a mighty hand? 12Why would you let the Egyptians say, â€˜He brought them out here into these mountains for an evil purpose, to kill them and to wipe them from the face of the ground. Repent from your furious anger and rethink the disaster you are bringing against your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel your servants, to whom you swore, â€œI will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants and they will inherit it forever. â€” Exodus 32:11-13 (HN)
Thereâ€™s a constant tension in scripture between Godâ€™s great power and authority, which we call â€œsovereigntyâ€ and his closeness, mercy and willingness to answer prayer. Theologians use the terms transcendence and immanence. Transcendence means that God is tremendously â€œotherâ€ than what we are, unimaginably more powerful. Immanence means that God is very close to us. In Christianity, both are seen as true about God.
Individually we have a harder time seeing it. For some of us, God is so sovereign that he is unapproachable. How could I possibly dare argue with God. We donâ€™t really pray for anything, and then we say â€œlet your will be done.â€ On the other hand, many of us view the presence of God as something fun and friendly, sort of like having a puppy around, only more powerful. Those of us like this tend to demand things of God in prayer and give him instructions.
I think Moses struggled with all of this, but he managed to get an excellent balance. He was able to submit to Godâ€™s sovereignty. If you donâ€™t believe me, simply read Exodus and see how many times God tells Moses to do something that doesnâ€™t seem to make much sense, and yet when Moses knows God has given an order, he obeys. Look at all the detailed instructions for the tabernacle and for the laws of Israel. To accept all of those laws would require someone who was willing to submit to Godâ€™s sovereignty.
But Moses knows God very well, and he knows when something doesnâ€™t make sense. Itâ€™s hard the get the sense of the first line of our text today. One of my Hebrew lexicons gives the following possibilities: to soften by caressing, to appease, to flatter. The Contemporary English Version reads â€œMoses tried to get the Lord God to change his mind.â€ Eugene Peterson, in The Message, paraphrases it as â€œMoses tried to calm his God down.â€
Is all this respectful? Well, I would hardly want to argue that I have a better relationship with God than Moses did. Moses knew God. He had talked with him personally. He was well aware of the powerful presence of God and of his transcendence. He knew that God was powerful and knew everything. But he also knew that God was a covenant God, filled with mercy and compassion, and that God had a plan.
So Moses steps out on the basis of this strong relationship and says, â€œGod, this isnâ€™t like you! You promised. You put your power on display. You better think again about what youâ€™re doing.â€ And God has mercy. Now Iâ€™m not going to spend my time worrying about whether God actually changed his mind or did what he would have done anyhow. Thatâ€™s all good theology, but the Bible doesnâ€™t present this as â€œgood theology.â€ It just presents it as God intending to do one thing, and Godâ€™s servant Moses persuading God to do it some other way. Sometimes weâ€™re so worried about good theology that we canâ€™t just read and absorb the Bible story.
Here there is good experience, and a good relationship. Is your relationship with God up to a few arguments? Are you so certain of Godâ€™s character that you can get down on your knees and say, â€œGod, this isnâ€™t like you. I canâ€™t believe youâ€™re going to do it. You need to think again!â€
Iâ€™m not saying youâ€™ll be right. Iâ€™m not telling you that God will agree with you. Maybe he will and maybe heâ€™ll say, â€œI know better.â€ But the Biblical example here gives us permission to challenge God on the basis of his word and his character.