What is our Bible doing with this story of a God who has to be shamed into forgiveness? How can Moses change God’s mind? We love to chant “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases” (Lam. 3:22), but God’s love doesn’t look too steadfast in this exchange. What’s this story doing here?
Sometimes you hear people say, “That ‘Old Testament’ God is mean, but the New Testament God is nice. So let’s ignore the old and stick with the new.” But that’s a mistake. It’s the same God in both Testaments. Over and over the Hebrew Bible tells us that God loves us, that God promises great things, and that God never breaks a promise. “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases.” God’s love never runs out.
In fact, that’s exactly what God told Moses. That’s what got Moses mixed up in all this to begin with. Out in the dessert Moses stumbled across the God who had always loved him and his people. He went back to Egypt filled with the news that the God of their ancestors, the God who summoned heaven and earth into being, was still their God. They hadn’t been forgotten. God hadn’t given up on them. God was still calling them out to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. No matter how bad things had gotten, no matter how much their fortunes had changed, God was still the same God making the same promises. That’s the news that kept Moses going.
So when we get to this point in the story Moses has to be just as puzzled as we are. They’ve traveled all the way from Egypt to Mt. Sinai. He’s put countless hours in already, jotting down instructions so detailed it’s a wonder he’s still awake. And then God hits him with two bits of unwelcome news. First: his people have given up on him and started a new religion. That’s bad enough. But second: God’s so upset he’s thinking about scrapping the whole plan, slaughtering everybody, and starting over. Moses has to be reeling by now. In the words of a children’s story, this is turning into a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.
And God doesn’t sound very grown-up about it either—trying to lay the blame on Moses. Did you notice the way God says it? “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” It sounds like, “Your son got a speeding ticket today.” Not a very mature moment. Then God gives Moses two conflicting instructions. First it’s, “Get down there and do something about it.” Then it’s, “Step aside while I do something about it.” God’s so put out it looks like he can’t decide which course of action to take. We may wonder, “What’s this story doing here?” But Moses has to be wondering himself, “How did our story together wind up taking this turn? Who is this God who dragged me into this?”
Now here’s where we can be grateful that Moses lives up to his heritage as a descendent of Israel. Do you remember how Jacob got the name Israel? He defeated God in a wrestling match, so God gave him the name “God-wrestler”—Israel. And now it’s Moses’ turn to live up to that name.
So like a good Jew he talks back to God: “My people have acted perversely? This is your people. You’re the one who brought them out of Egypt. You’re the one whose name will be tarnished if it gets out that you went back on your word. You’re just not yourself today. You’re not behaving at all like the God who made all those promises to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. You’re not acting like the God who dragged me all this way. So I don’t care how loud you thunder now, I’m not going to go along with this. Be the God you’ve always been. Be the God you’ve promised to be. Live up to your good name.”
And it worked! The lesson says God changed his mind. That’s one way to put it. I’m a firm believer in a God who listens to us and who has endless back-up plans for when we don’t listen in return (Jeremiah 18:3-6). But you could just as easily say that Moses called God back to being God—a God whose demands for holiness flow from an even deeper love and a deeper hope for a renewed world.
It’s a shame that over the last 2,000 years we Christians seem mostly to have forgotten Moses’ model of faithfulness. We’ve tended to think of faith as blind obedience. Some of us question parts of the Bible or Tradition, but when we do that we tend to think we’re not being quite so faithful any more—we’re just being modern. That’s not how Abraham, Isaac and Jacob thought of faith. It’s not how Moses thought of it. They knew that faith meant never letting anybody tell you that God wasn’t the God who loves you with abandon. Even if it sounded like a voice from God, they knew better than to let it be the last word.
God loves for us to be bluntly honest when we’re not all that impressed with what God’s been doing lately. God loves for us to question the very character of God—especially when we do it to God’s face. And above all, God wants us to be like Moses and join as partners in working out the shape that God’s love will take in our common life.
That’s why my Church makes such a big deal of sacraments. We come together every Sunday to break bread and celebrate the mystery of God’s life being lived in and through us. We don’t understand exactly how it works, but we believe that in broken bread and poured-out wine we’re actually sharing God with one another. As the poet George Herbert put it nearly 400 years ago, in the Eucharist our hands bear the one who bears our hands. We’re not just play-acting the love of God, we and God are making it a reality.
And we don’t just do this for ourselves—we do it for God’s people, and we do it even for God. And make no mistake, God’s people includes everybody. In a world where some people still get told that God hates them, we’re called to raise our voice with Moses and say, that’s not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Israel, or Jesus. We’re called to take God out of the hands of hate-mongers and let God get back to being the God whose holiness flows from boundless love.
So when I hear Moses chiding God, I hear Moses chiding us also. To God Moses says, “Be the God you’ve always been. Be the God you’ve promised to be. Live up to your good name.” But through this story I also hear Moses and God chiding us: “Be the people of God you’ve always been summoned to be. Be the people of God you’ve promised to be. Live up to your good name. Realize, that is, make real, the all-embracing love that brought us to this point.”