This morning we have a perfect example of why I love the Old Testament. There are places in the Old Testament that even a cursory reading can fly in the face of many of our ideas about God and this morning we have read one of them.
First, let’s make no mistake. Moses and God are having an argument; and a knock-down-drag-out argument at that. This is the type of heated argument that if it involved a couple of our neighbors we would divert our gaze, slink into our homes, call the police, draw the blinds and then peak out of them to watch the drama unfold.
To highlight the heat and passion of this argument, I spent some time this week with a slew of my Hebrew books coming up with a more colloquial rendering. Here’s an abridged version of what I came up with:
The LORD, speaking to Moses, commanded Moses, “Get down there! Your people—that you brought up out of the land of Egypt—have polluted themselves. They couldn’t wait to turn aside from the path I commanded for them. Now get out of my face, so my rage would annihilate them; and I will bring forth a noble people from you.
But Moses, begging in God’s face, said, “O LORD why do you rage against your people that you brought up out of the land of Egypt with such strength and with your hand of might? The Egyptians would talk and talk, ‘He took them out there to torture them to slay them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth.’
Now I command you, back off from your blazing rage. Take a deep breath, and turn away from harming your people.
And the Lord did! Moses stood up to God and God changed his mind!
That last idea, that God can change his mind, bothers quite a few people. The reasoning is as follows:
- We follow a perfect God.
- If God is perfect then God knows all things.
- If God knows all things then God will not, and indeed cannot change his mind.
Here’s the funny thing about all that. In the Old Testament there is not a single assertion that God is perfect. There are several times when we are told that God’s work is perfect, or God’s Law is perfect or God’s wisdom is perfect. But never once are we told God is perfect.
Further, the Hebrew word translated as perfect doesn’t mean flawless or ideal. Instead the word means complete, whole, integrity, loyalty. In fact, the very idea that God changed his mind is a perfect example of the Hebrew idea of perfection.
Let’s look at this story. Moses is on the mount with God receiving the tablets of the Law. Down at the bottom of the mountain the Israelites have decided that since it has been a while since they have seen Moses it would be a fine idea to take their jewelry, melt it down, mold it into a calf and worship it as their god.
It is no wonder that God’s anger is riled. God has brought them out of slavery. God has led them through the wilderness. Given them clear and precise directions for how to worship and live together. God has also given them the Ten Commandments once already. The first one of those commandments is to have no other gods but the Lord. The first one! It’s not like it was buried in the text at like number six. God put it at the top of the list.
So God is very angry and he is venting to Moses, saying that he is going to destroy the Israelites and make a new nation out of Moses. God even commands Moses to leave him alone and to let him destroy the people.
But Moses is having none of it. He argues with God, appealing to God’s reputation, God’s respect for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the veracity of God’s promises to them.
And God changes his mind.
Actually a truer reading of the text says that God repented of his idea to destroy the people. That is an important point: that God repented. Because this passage is really about faithfulness.
The people had failed in being faithful. They flagrantly broke God’s commands by worshiping idols. Moses, too, flagrantly ignored God’s command by staying up in God’s face and arguing with him. God is the only character in this story who is faithful.
And that is our lesson today. It is the lesson that we should remember. It is not that God is never proclaimed as perfect in the Old Testament. It is not that God can change his mind, or even repent.
Our lesson, our take-away this morning is that God is faithful to his promises. God is faithful to his plans. God is faithful to the patriarchs who have gone before.
God is faithful. God was faithful then. God is faithful now. God will be faithful tomorrow and every tomorrow after that. That is our lesson today. God is faithful.