Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Sunday before Lent – Exodus 34:29-35

There’s something about the presence of God which lights people up. Or does it? In fact the Hebrews word used here can have a very different translation, one which is in fact far more common in the OT. And for centuries this was the way in which this passage was translated by Christians – after his meeting with God, Moses had grown horns! It was only relatively recently that scholars have reverted to a more primitive translation, that of the Septuagint, which put the OT into Greek, and gone with glowing rather than horned. And, it must be said, the reaction of the people when they saw Moses, that of fear, seems far more appropriate if he had have grown antlers. But whichever way we want to translate this term, the fact is that the proximity of God was actually terrifying to the people. In fact so upset were they that out of kindness and consideration to the people he began to wear a face-covering (let those who have ears hear!).

This strange story highlights something which is highly significant throughout the Wilderness narrative (by the way, if you haven’t found my series of podcasts on this period of the OT, have a look on this blog, of search for revjohnleachblog on Spotify of iTunes, and you can hear more about the thrilling adventures of the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land). The whole story is a sad tale of the people’s moaning and grumbling contrasted with Moses’ faithfulness, and it is punctuated with various smitings from God as punishment for their ungrateful and miserable attitudes. The people quickly repent, or say they do, but then go on and do the same things in the next chapter. And God constantly gives them new chances and allows them to fail and blaspheme him again and again. The point of this, I think, is that God is both merciful and scary, a truth which many in the Christian church today seem to have forgotten. We have gone so overboard on a God of love, a God who forgives and is generally nice all the time, that we have forgotten that he is also a God of righteousness, who does get offended by the arrogance and hard-heartedness of the human race. Moses’ face, whether scarily shiny or scarily horned, is an icon of this double-edged sword of the character of God. But it is an icon which we have seen before. In Ex 19 and 20 the giving of the Law which will form the basis of the relationship between God and his people is accompanied by thunder and lightning, and regulations have to be put in place to protect the people from the awesome majesty of God. And as the story continues there are numerous occasions when the people’s attitudes or idolatry mean that they justly deserve punishment, whether by fire, by plague, earthquake, poisonous snakes, or whatever. They may not have learnt much about their behaviour, but they certainly knew that God could punish as well as bless.

Well, I hear you cry, that was before Jesus died on the cross and won our forgiveness. True, it was. But lurking behind this truth is a far more dangerous idea, first proposed by a guy called Marcion in the 2nd century, that the OT God was different from the Jesus of the NT. In the old days he was nasty, scary and at times vindictive, but now he is nice, because of Jesus. So what are Christians to make of the scary God of the OT? The first thing to say is that the unchangeable God does not suddenly become a very different person. It is easy to read selectively, only noticing the OT passages about God’s judgement and the NT ones about his love and mercy, but in fact both are present in both Testaments. The early preachers told the Jewish and pagan crowds that God commanded all people everywhere to repent; the author of Hebrews reminded his readers how dreadful a thing it was to fall into the hands of the living God, who is a consuming fire, and of course Jesus had far more to say about hell than he did about heaven. So we must never believe that God has somehow underwent conversion therapy around 30 AD and is a fundamentally different person.

So if God doesn’t change, maybe we do. In fact throughout the Bible God shows different sides of his character to different people. To those who are faithful to him, love him, and keep his covenant, he shows everlasting and unconditional love. But those who constantly rail against him, disobey him and in so doing forget to show his love and care to others get to see a very different side of him. This truth is even built into the 10 Commandments, which proclaim a God who punishes people to the third and fourth generation of those who hate him, but shows love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments. It has always been the case that the same God treats different people differently, and it stands to reason that a God of righteousness, and God who is simply incapable of doing anything wrong, must have both love and judgement in his character.

That, then, puts a huge responsibility squarely on our shoulders. If God doesn’t change, then we must. We much change from those who reject him and hate him to those who love, submit to and honour him, in our lives as well as in our worship. And that, right there, is the message which we as his church are called to proclaim.

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