Thursday, April 22, 2010

Human Reason Calms an Angry Deity

If you think outwitting a genie in yesterday's blog was impressive, how about talking down the Almighty Himself? This is another essay that was originally printed in an early edition of Oasis. It almost didn't make it to print, however. The one who was editor at the time feared it might be too controversial, but after some consultation with a colleague he decided to include it.

Friendship with God
(Or, What to Do When God Shows His Ass)

Note: In this essay, I will sometimes use the masculine pronoun when referring to God. My intention is neither to offend feminists nor to dismiss political correctness. I am intentionally trying not to "clean up" biblical stories, or to domesticate encounters with the divine. If it is any consolation, in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, the divine is often at its best when described in feminine aspects, and often at its worst when adhering to conventional masculine attributes.

The Bible tells us that God spoke to Moses "as a man speaks to his friend." There is a story of one of those encounters that is quite troubling to those who envision God as all sweetness and light. The fact that it is troubling may be indicative that it is an "honest" portrayal, and one that may be helpful to anyone seeking the spiritual life. You can read it for yourself in Exodus 32 - 33. The story takes places shortly after Moses has led the people of Israel out of Egypt. He is up on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments in stone, while the others are at the foot of the mountain, dancing around a golden calf.

God takes Moses into his confidence and lets off a lot of steam about how he has had it with these people. He tells Moses that he's a good mind just to obliterate everyone and start all over. "You want to see some Holy vengeful wrath, Moses? Well I can show it to you, and don't think I won't do it, either. I am God and I am ticked off. I am going to revoke my promise to those little ingrates. I'll just wipe 'em out, show 'em who's boss. Then I'll start all over with this people-of-God thing. You know that covenant I made with Abraham? Well I'll make the same deal with you right here and now. I'll make your descendants a great nation and we'll just forget about those little piss ants down there prancing around that false idol!"

Moses, however, took the high ground and talked God down, and he did it in a way that would make any Jewish lawyer proud. He was able to remind God of his nobler attributes and his more altruistic qualities. (Okay, he reminded God of his obligations, and he laid a little guilt on him. He told God to consider what other people would think. It's a really Jewish story). He was able to convince God not to do anything rash that he would surely regret later after he had cooled off. The Bible tells us that God then "repented of the evil" that he had so majestically calculated.

After that little discussion, you may remember that Moses went down from the mountain and things just got messy. Moses broke the stone tablets with God's commandments, there was shouting and killing and then the Lord sent a little touch of plague upon the disobedient among the Israelites. Afterward, Moses went back up the mountain to see if God had another copy of those commandments. Of course, it wasn't as simple as having a backup file. God told Moses, "You cut the stone this time, then I'll write the words, just like on those first tablets that you broke."

Once they got that second set of stone tablets, Moses wanted to actually see God. "Let me see your glory," he said. God conceded to the request with a slight provision. He told Moses that he couldn't look at him directly (the Lord who had repented earlier is back to speaking majestically again with, "No man can see me face to face and live"). If he would just tuck himself into a cleft of the mountain, then God would allow Moses to see him as he passed by. We are then told in the story how Moses was able to see God's backside. As the KJV puts it, "Thou shalt see my back parts." In other words, in the previous encounter, God "showed his ass." Then in the next encounter, God quite literally showed his ass. The whole thing is quite a rich psychological study. It is almost as if those early editors of the sacred scriptures wanted to make sure we got the message, in spite of all the exalted holy talk.

"God spoke to Moses as a man speaks to his friend." (Exodus 33:11). Indeed, a friend is someone who can see you at your worst, and still stick with you. It is that security of friendship that gives us the freedom to show ourselves at our worst and weakest, knowing that our friend will not desert us. A faithful friend can talk us down if need be, show us a clearer point of view without thinking less of us. That is a true gift of friendship. To be fair, God also saw Moses at his worst and stuck with him, so the gift of friendship goes both ways. The Hebrew Scriptures say something about divine encounter that Christians often miss. It is okay to yell at God. You can be angry with God, you can question God. If fact, all of the above are preferable to ignoring God. That is what friendship is all about.


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