Archive for October, 2014

Taking the Cobra by the Tail

Posted in Uncategorized on October 27, 2014 by ancienthopes

As we reflect on the unfolding dialogue, it begins to dawn on us we how casual the negotiation flows between mortal man and divine transcendence. As we have seen in the last post, Moses asks some good questions in “who am I,” and “who are you?” Moses’ questions are short, and YHWH’s answers are open, complete and expansive. As the negotiations move on into chapter four, Moses continues to ask valid questions, but we sense an increasing anxiety, even desperation, in his tone. We use the term “negotiation” because it is clear that Moses is trying to negotiate himself out of what seems to be an impossible situation. Again, Moses represents the deepest part of our humanity, the spirit, where the divine Spirit touches spirit, the most holy place, which God takes very seriously, respecting our person-hood to the point where intimacy goes beyond formalities. The dialogue is “casual,” a “back and forth” conversation, but frighteningly serious.

Moses has a very practical sense, arising no doubt from his experience with the Hebrew who showed no respect for him after he killed the Egyptian (2:14), that the Hebrews would be a tough lot to convince that God sent him to them (4:1). Therefore God shows him two signs for him to perform before the Hebrews. First, he is to cast his staff on the ground so that it becomes a snake. He then takes it by the tail, and it turns back into his staff (4:2-4). This is far more that a miracle. We are confident that this snake was a cobra, for the rearing cobra, called the Uraeus, adorned the royal headdress of the Pharaoh, supposedly to protect him by spiting at his enemies. What is more, it is clear that those who handle such poisonous snakes never take them by the tail, but by the back of their heads, least they swing around and strike. The point of this sign is that Moses will be in complete control of Pharaoh, ultimately “crushing the head of the serpent” (Gen. 3:15), and Pharaoh will be able to do nothing about it. On a spiritual level, God intends for us also to be in control of the cobra that lurks in the hidden caverns of us all, bravely taking it by its tail, and turning it into a harmless stick.

The second sign is for Moses to place his hand into his bosom, and when he pulls it out, it becomes leprous. This too is more than a mere miracle. Egypt was known for its diseases (Ex. 15: 26), especially leprosy. In the Hebrew world view, moral corruption is always manifested in the physical realm by disease or natural disaster, a symbiosis which we will soon see with the coming plagues. That Moses could turn leprosy on an off with complete control shows God’s power over the terrors of Egyptian society over which Pharaoh had no power. If this did not convince the Hebrews, he was to turn Nile water into blood (4:9).

As incredible as this is, Moses seems unimpressed. He drums up an old liability that he hopes will work to get him off the hook, his lack of eloquence (4:10). God, in turn, is unimpressed with Moses’ weakness, countering with a most radical statement of divine sovereignty, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” Behind this boast is the wonderful fact that our weaknesses are not accidents of nature, but thoughtfully given so as to mold us into the particular person God wishes to design for His purposes. Moses is in no state of mind to appreciate such fine theological reflection and finally blurts out his real feelings that he suppressed from the beginning of the dialogue, “Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person” (4:13).

At this point YHWH’s anger flares up and ends the negations by installing Aaron, Moses’ brother, to be his spokesman (4:14-17). This arrangement is no accident, even though it seems to be an “off the cuff” divine response to Moses’ reticence to embrace his destiny. As we continue in the narrative, we will see that Aaron, though overshadowed by the towering presence of his brother, is indispensable to Moses. If Moses is the spirit of the person, Aaron his brother is the will. It is through Aaron that Moses accomplishes everything. Indeed, it is through Aaron that Moses will actually take hold of the cobra’s tail.

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Who am I? Who are you?

Posted in Uncategorized on October 21, 2014 by ancienthopes

Out of the blue, and with divine enthusiasm, YHWH hits Moses up with the command to go to Pharaoh and delivering his people (Ex. 3:10). Though Moses is experiencing the mysterium tremendum, the awful numinous presence of God, both frightening and exhilarating at the same time, we have no insight into his feelings. All we have is the question, “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh….” We find no enthusiasm here. This was what God was waiting for all these years. When a young man in Egypt, with a princely upbringing, Moses thought he knew what he was but in reality did not. Now he is older and does not know who he is, at least in relation to the great task before him, but in reality knew well who he was, especially in his limitations. What will soon be revealed, he had learned the simple and humble art of staying out of the way when God is doing something. For the most part, young people do not comprehend this, and for that matter, many of the aged don’t as well.

There is, however, an answer to Moses’ question hidden in v. 12 about Moses’ identity. God assures him with a sign that He will be with him and that he will succeed in his task of delivering the people and will “serve (Heb. `ābad) God upon this mountain.” As we have established earlier, Eden was surely a mountain, the source of the river of life that flowed into the garden and from there to the four corners of the earth (see July 2, 2013). Moreover, Adam was to “work (Heb. `ābad) and keep (šāmar)” the garden (Gen. 2:15). These verbs are used throughout the Pentateuch to describe the work of the tabernacle and the keeping the law. The one idea, or motif, that best expresses what humanity was made for is “a gardener” charged to make things grow, both physically and spiritually, and thus serve God. The verb used here for “serve” (`ābad) is the very same word “to work” the garden. This combined with the motif of the “mountain” of God suggests Moses’ real identity. He is the “gardener” who will bring humanity back to the Mountain of God. True, there was no garden on Sinai, but as we shall see, there are all sorts of garden imagery in the Tabernacle that Moses was to build, which will become the new “mountain,” or Eden, where God will once again dwell in the midst of mankind.

Moses then asks God what His name was. Evidently Moses knew God by the generic word for deity ʹelōhîm, perhaps forgetting with the people the ancient name YHWH, the God of their fathers. The word ʹelōhîm is a common divine epithet in the Ancient Near East, and says nothing specific about Him. Moses knew that God must reveal something about Himself if the people were to get on board with the plan. But by doing so, God makes himself vulnerable to the people. Names in the ancient world were considered to be part of the very essence of one’s personhood, as real as an arm or a leg. To reveal one’s name is to share and entrust one’s very self to that person. It means entering into a relationship where one could harm the other’s reputation. When it comes to God, this is a very serious moment in the history of humanity.

God is very engaging here, ready to reveal. He immediately responds with ʹehyeh ʹašer ʹehyeh, “I am who I am,” but when spoken by humanity, pronounced “Yahweh” (YHWH) in the third person, translated “He is.” The name is ingenious in that it is not a noun, thus limiting God to a thing, nor is it properly a verb, thus limiting God to an action. Rather it is stative, indicating pure essence of being. The Hebrews at this juncture were not ready for such theological reflection. What it immediately meant to them is the translation “I will be what I show myself to be,” for the imperfect conjugation of the divine name can be understood as a future. They do not know Him now, but they will know Him by what He is about to do.

We see that Moses’ questions of identity, “who am I” and “who are you” are fundamental. Everything turns on self knowledge and knowledge of God. Nothing can happen further in the narrative without these preliminaries. Nothing of ultimate value can happen in our own lives without this relational interchange of knowledge.

I have Seen the Affliction of My People …

Posted in Uncategorized on October 15, 2014 by ancienthopes

It was not Israel’s fault that they went down to Egypt, that dark occult land. It was by God’s plan that they went; it could not be avoided. Moreover, according to the prophecy to Abraham, it was by divine design that they become slaves and oppressed there for four hundred years (Gen. 15:13). When we step back and consider the misery with which God’s plan brought upon His people, we are astounded, and perhaps even appalled. Think of the generations lost to all hope, their women and daughters abused, men and boys mercilessly driven by the whip, their lives counting for nothing to their tormentors. We know that in time they lost all memory of their God, the God of their fathers. Ignorant, uneducated, they easily lost moral sensitivities, and fell into the paganism around them. How this could be the will of God for them cannot be accounted for by human reason. It seems that if God does have a design, it turns like some galactic wheel that randomly crushes countless hapless souls along its unfathomable way.

Then God suddenly breaks into space and time with “I have surely seen (emphatic in Hebrew) the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings…” (Ex. 3:7). We are struck by the unaffected divine expression of words and phrases. There is no attempt to explain the past. All there is now is the urgent present. Indeed, that is all any of us have, even when God is silent for vast swaths of time when nothing good seems to be happening. God sees, hears, and knows it all all along. A soul that disposes itself towards God will embrace this in the face of the inexplicable. This is exactly what God expects of Moses and His people. Nothing has changed since this timeless ancient text; God expects this from us all.

That God expects us to believe and understand that He sees, hears, and knows us in our afflictions individually and as a human race is an astounding thought. Pagan gods do not speak this sort of language. They were aloof to human concerns in the main, unless something about the human drama concerned them. The best one could expect was to devote oneself to the nature gods with whom one has to deal, resort to magic, and thrash around in life the best one could. Today’s complex post-Christian cultures do not fare any better with this. Since Voltaire mocked the idea that God sees, hears, and knows our affliction in Candide, the western world trembles before suffering as if it has the ultimate word. We dare not hope, and thrash around in life the best we can.

Voltaire would be right but for one miscalculation. In spite of God’s incomprehensible ways, God still encounters humanity in myriads of ways like He did to Moses at the bush, keeping the flame in our internal sanctuaries burning. As with Moses, once we experience encounter, we know that we know God and that He is more real than anything our senses and reason can reveal to us. Many times it seems that we stand in this naked faith against the howling and icy winds of doubt, but stand we do. When we do, we see that God has been intimate with us and our afflictions all along, both those which we brought upon ourselves, and those that fell upon us by divine providence. We cannot see how God was present with those Hebrew slaves that suffered so badly over those four hundred years. All we have are those timeless words, “I have seen the affliction of my people…,” and if so graced, an encounter with the living God.

Gazing into Divine Fire

Posted in Uncategorized on October 8, 2014 by ancienthopes

How or when Horeb was hallowed as the mountain of God, Moses himself did not know. It was something everyone in the area knew, and had been known by generations reaching back into the misty past. YHWH Himself deemed it holy ground (3:5), and it could only be such if He chose it for His earthly dwelling. Why God should choose a barren place deep in the wilderness is something that provokes thought. We cannot help but contrast it to the great Tower of Babel in the heart of human metropolis, or the famous Temples and Pyramids of Egypt. Sinai is not very accessible, a feature that it shares with original Eden with its garden whose entrance was left guarded by cherubim with flaming sword. Hidden away in the depths of formless earth, one of the three primal elements of chaos, YHWH desired His people to come to Him and serve Him there (3:12). This is counter intuitive; Eden was plush with greenery, Horeb was a rocky waste in the howling wilderness. We do not expect to find God in such a place.

Moses no doubt was drawn to the mountain; it was not by accident that he led his flocks nearby. What he was hoping for is hard to say, but we can be assured that he did not expect to see what he saw on that day of destiny ─ the fire of God! God was watching him before he saw the bush. When he saw it he curiously approaches, but God solemnly calls out his name twice to warn him not to draw near and to take off his sandals. This was no territorial spirit, a mere mountain genie. It was the Creator-God who identifies Himself as the God of his fathers, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (3:6). It is at this revelation that Moses reacted in terror to hide his face. It was a combination of two realities that got to him. First, that he found himself in the presence of uncreated light; second, that this God is relational, the One who entered into covenant with his forefathers long ago, and who knew him by name, and sought him out. We humans can be fairly casual before a general deity like an impersonal “force” or “nature,” but when God gets personal, everything changes.

Moses gazed into the fire of God. In Hebrew thought, we become what we take in with our eyes. There is a direct link between our senses and our spiritual interiors. Something happened in the depths of his spirit that, in this case, is paralleled to the burning bush. A fire was lit in Moses that burned within without destroying him. This is the way with the fire of God; rather than burn away person-hood, individuality, and the powers of body and soul, it enhances them. We become like God but in a completely unique way. We grow into authentic being. On the contrary, the fires of lust, kindled by improper gazing, devour our person-hood and powers of body and soul.

Moses, like Abraham (Gen. 22:1) and Jacob (Gen. 46:2) before him, responded to this divine encounter with the Hebrew hinnēnî, “here I am,” placing himself at the disposal of God. He will never be the same. The encounter set him on fire. He may doubt many things in his future, but he will never doubt the encounter. It is more real to him than anything he ever experienced, even his wife Zipporah and son Gershom. As we meditate on this scene we find that the burning bush is real to us as well, even millennia after the fact, and even though we were not actually there at the moment. But the story becomes ours by meditating on it, and we find ourselves there in our imaginations gazing into the divine fire. The same fire burns within us. The fire makes us alive, and gives us the courage to respond to God with “hinnēnî.”