I’ll begin my first guest email for CITC with a confession of theo-biblical geekery: I love the book of Exodus. I love it so much that I almost went for a PhD in Hebrew Bible instead of Pastoral Theology so I could stay in that story. Maybe it’s because when I write in Hebrew I don’t ink up my left hand, but I’m more inclined to think it’s the crazy characters, over-the-top miracles, and human-divine drama unfolding inthe tale that keep this story at the top of my list. It’s also probable that this story is so human, in spite of the weird dramatic stuff happening everywhere, I can’t help but relate.The point being…this Sunday’s conversation will probably involve some good ole’ Bible study, folks. My apologies for email length: If you’re wanting some more background on thediscussion for Sunday, read on.
Lucky for me, the lectionary text this week is Exodus 33:12-23. Setting: the people of Israel just seriously upset YHWH by getting nervous and using the fancy-schmancy gold jewelry they took from the Egyptians to make a calf when Moses and YHWH were out of sight too long. In spite of familiar media portrayal, this wasn’t so much a “false” god to worship instead of YHWH, but rather, an image of the Sacred One who felt really far away to the people – it was an attempt at assurance and security. Upon discovery, Moses convinces YHWH to not, ahem, obliterate the people, and as this tumultuous Sacred One does frequently in Exodus, God changes God’s mind. YHWH also decides that the people have got to get moving: it’s time for them to move along as a people of God’s promise and establish themselves inanother land (For now, push pause on the troublesome bit that other people were already living in that land and the ways this story’s been appropriated by various colonizers throughout history. That’s for another Sunday.). The hard part for the people is God’s insistence that they go without thevisible presence of YHWH – YHWH is fairly certain in this passage that staying among this “stiff-necked people” will invite…a smiting, shall we say. This is where our passage picks up: Moses is bargaining with YHWH.
Moses insists that YHWH remember who started all of this: God came to Moses, and God brought the people out of Egypt. YHWH eases up ever so slightly, saying, “Okay, my Presence will go with you, Moses, because this has been a hard deal for you and our relationship is pretty good. But no one else can know – now relax and get moving.” Moses pushes back: “If your Presence doesn’t go with the all of us, then don’t send us at all – your Presence alone is what makes us who we are.” And then it feels like a palpable pause overtakes the text, as if Moses and YHWH are staring at each other to try figuring this thing out. YHWH relaxes, and says (v. 17): “As you have asked, I will do.”
But the story actually gets better: Moses is on a roll, so he asks to see God’s face.
This seems like a good place to pause and remember that these stories are not meant to be taken literally, but are formative identity stories told again and again to create conversation and dialogue. Rev. Brett Younger said it this way: “The narrator doesn’t hesitate to talk inanthropomorphisms, to give God human characteristics. It is impossible to interpret this story in a literal way. We have to recognize that the writer recognizes that any description of God is inadequate. This is not a story about a God with a physical hand large enough to cover the mouth of a cave. TheHoly One is beyond our understanding, beyond our imagination.” The text is laid out is this beautiful anthropomorphic language, with the intimate friendship of God and Moses taking center stage.
Back to exegesis: “face” in Hebrew connotes fullness of identity, of presence and character – asking to see God’s face is a plea from Moses to know with certainty the inexhaustible God. God says, “Okay, hide in this cave here for a minute and I’ll cover it up with my hand and then you can see my backside after I’ve gone by in all my blazing glory.” I read this as YHWH tenderly understanding the desire for certainty, but not quite granting the impossible request.
What a story. Dialogue, uncertainty, desire and doubt characterize how Moses and Israel relate to YHWH. I may come across all saavy and postmodern, and I really do lovethe complexity and humility that come with constantly “not knowing.” But – I so relate to the desire for certainty, for proof, to actually know for once that I’m on the right track instead of just catching occasional glimpses of an existential thumbs up. It’s a hard thing, knowing deep down that what’s so real about this human journey of faith seems to be theelusiveness of the Holy more than it’s certainty. And yet: there is such integrity in starting here, and there are glimmers of a deeply grounded hope. Maybe the Sacred is present always,in ways so ordinary it is difficult to see. We can’t pin down theHoly, or force God to show God’s face, but I would venture to say that each of us has experienced moments that took our breath with their holiness – in the rain that finally came this week, in the faces of the people we love, in the view from a shoreline or forest or mountain or field. Perhaps being willing to struggle with the tension hanging between our desire to know the Truth with Certainty, and to experience of daily truths about who we are and who we are called to be isthe crux of this journey of faith. I’d love to have you there Sunday to hear your thoughts.
(Genny is pursuing ordination in the CitC community and taking a leading role in worship once a quarter or so).
CITC Garage Sale Fundraiser, Saturday November 5th
Sara Kitto is coordinating a CITC fundraiser, garage sale style. Get rid of stuff or help plan and organize, then come and have a good time! Contact Sara at email@example.com see how you can help.