Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Forgiveness in the Exodus

This is a continuation of note-taking and curiousities emerging from my study of forgiveness playing of the pages off the Bible. See part one (and the comment thread there) for a bit more rationale before taking what follows dogmatically rather than exploratory. In the book of Exodus, there is less about people forgiving each other and more about God forgiving His people even while they fail to cooperate with his larger work of deliverence. Here again we see the words כָּפַר kaphar (to cover) and נָשָׂא nasa' (to lift or bear up), but we also have the introduction of another word that is translated in terms of forgiveness: סָלַח calach, which meant to forgive or to pardon.

The Exodus:
Genesis ended with God's deliverance of Jacob's family from famine by way of Joseph's integral governance in Egypt. Here, time has gone by and God's people have multiplied fruitfully according to God's design but have also tragically become enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians. So we see that God plans to "rescue them" and to "bring them up" into their own land [3:8]. From early on, of course, God's people (with Moses as no exception) will repeatedly mistake a temporary set back for God's betrayal and complain that "you have not rescued your people at all" [5:23]. But in the face of this the Lord initially and then repeatedly promises to free them, redeem them, take them as His own people, be their God, and give them a land [6:6-8]. God delivers.

Moses' Reluctance [Exod 4]:
When Moses asks that someone else be sent to rescue Israel in his place, the Lord is angry and gives him Aaron, but only as a spokesperson. One might look at this as the Lord forgiving Moses' reluctance and granting him some help, or perhaps as the Lord simply giving Moses what he deserves. Aaron will no doubt be of service to Moses, but will also eventually cause incredible problems by speaking out of turn in Moses' absence and leading the people to worship the golden calf [Ex 32]. As a mixed blessing, can this be called forgiveness if dire consequences are still in play? Better to call it a form of forbearance perhaps. This text doesn't prescribe definitions for us, but it does lend credibility to a complex picture of things rather than a simple one.

Pharoah's Back and Forth [Exod 7-14]:
One of the complexities of talking about forgiveness is our concern with both the sincerity of repentance and the question of what the forgiven person does with their pardon. Although there has been much talk about God hardening Pharoah's heart a few times during the plagues prior to Israel's release, it is curious to also look at these episodes as occasions of divine forgiveness spurned. As you are no doubt aware, most of the plagues are followed by some kind of relenting or repentance by Pharoah that is later retracted. It is after the plague of locusts in particular that Pharoah brings forgiveness into the picture, saying to Moses and Aaron: "I have sinned against the Lord your God and against you. Now forgive (nasa') my sin once more and pray to the Lord your God to take this deadly plague away." On this occasion a west wind carries (nasa') the locusts into the Red Sea with emphatically more might than the east wind had carried (nasa') them in [10:13, 19]. But no sooner is Pharoah granted relief than his heart is again hardened. This is the pattern also after the plagues of frogs, flies, hail, and darkness [8:15, 32; 9:34; 10:23-24], although only in the plague of hail do we have another explicit mention of confession of sin.

We wouldn't want to make more of this unique occasion than we ought to, but we note here that God keeps forgiving Pharoah until Pharoah has hardened to death. Certainly God seems to have a hand in driving him further into his hardness of heart at various points, but it is true that here we see Pharoah asking for forgiveness, seeming to get it, and then spurning it repeatedly. The consequences worsen over time, but each time there is new rebellion to occasion it.

Manna and Quail [Exod 16 & Num 11]:
The people in the desert grumble about their lack of food stores, and God sends daily bread to both provide for them and to test their willingness to follow him in reliance one day at a time [Exod 14:4]. This is how God feeds them for 40 years in the desert, and for good reason a jar of manna is kept right along with the 10 Commandments as a testimony to God's faithfulness to this people despite their repeated self-reliance and grumbling. In Exodus it appears that manna and quail go together from the start, but in Numbers we see that the quail was a response to their grumbling over the manna's blandness and the lack of meat. And there the quail is hardly a blessing. They gorge themselves on it and a bunch of people get a disease and die. During all this God asking why he bothers to carry (nasa') this infantile people like a nursing mother and Moses responding that he can't carry (nasa') this burden alone. At this point God shares his Spirit with 70 elders, although we are under no illusions that this solves everything forever after. I don't know how much this all has to do with forgiveness, other than the fact that this daily-bread faithfulness ends up being held quite close to divine and interpersonal forgiveness in the teachings of Jesus and the ensuing patterns of Christian community.

The Crisis of the Calf [Exod 32-34]:
With Moses taking his time up the mountain with the Lord, Aaron and the people offer and eat burnt offerings and fellowship offerings (but no sin offering, a bull don't get to eat) to a golden statue of a cow. God aims to destroy them, but Moses intercedes, asking God to remember His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob [32:9, 11]. God relents, but then proceeds to have Moses kill over 3000 people and still later to send a plague upon them [27-28, 35]. During all this, Moses confesses the sin of the people and asks God to nonetheless bear it up (nasa') or else just blot him out of whatever plans He might have [32]. God insists on blotting out those who have sinnned rather than Moses [32:33] and refuses to go with the people or He might destroy them [33:1-6]. However, Moses pleads again for God to remember them as His people, and the Lord in turn promises His presence and the gift of rest [14].

When Moses persists in pleading the Lord affirms this again and reveals His goodness to him, saying "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy" and "you can not see my face and live" [15-20]. After all this, new tablets are given for the commandments to be re-inscribed [34:1-4], and God passes "in front of Moses, proclaiming, 'The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving (nasa') wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.'" At this Moses "bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. 'Lord,' he said, 'if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive (calach) our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance'”[34:5-8].

Five things might be said about the way God's forgiveness manifests itself in this crisis. First of all, it is pretty implicitly (and wrongly) taken for granted by the people worshiping at the golden calf. Secondly, it seems that on this occasion Moses, like Abraham before him, is the one first pleading for it, and not the people themselves. Thirdly, it seems that God refuses to forgive the individuals involved, but bears with them for a time for the sake of a larger, corporate forgiveness of the people in general. Fourthly, forgiveness is continuous with but distinguished from the original grace of the covenant because, while God was always being gracious by calling a people unto Himself, here he is continuing to do it even though they are stiff-necked and rebellious against him. Finally, it seems that God's forgiveness here ultimately takes the form of commands to be obeyed and the implicit/explicit promise to be with them as they obey [34:10ff]. Happily, the rest of Exodus has God going with the people and the people with God, obeying his commands for the set up of the tabernacle and the priesthood [Exod 35-40].

[to be continued]

1 comment:

Tony Tanti said...

my first thought is how much more complicated these stories are than the felt-board sunday school versions, and how out of context verses are taken (... slow to anger, abounding in love...).

I'm curious as well about stories like this where a person seems to bargain with God and change God's mind, God didn't exactly cave completely but there does seem to be a plan B for the forgiveness/punishment after Moses intercedes.