I remember being very impressed the first time I heard the claim that prayer was not for the sake of God but for the sake of the mortal praying. After all, I remember the argument going, God knows all, therefore God knows all of every mortal’s thoughts. And if God knows all of every mortal’s thoughts, then before the mortal formalizes those thoughts in speech, song, or mental exertion, God already knows. And if God already knows, then prayer must not be for the sake of informing God but for some other purpose.
Then, of course, my perverse Old Testament professors in college and seminary had me go back and read the Bible. There I discovered what remains one of my favorite passages in the Bible and my paradigm for prayer, one whose pattern bears out in the Psalms, in the Garden of Gethsemane, even in the book of Job. When YHWH asks Moses to look away so that he can start blasting things without the guilt that comes from being watched while one blasts things, Moses refuses: he appeals to YHWH’s reputation abroad, he appeals to promises that YHWH has made in publicly available texts; he does not go down the mountain and leave his fellow-Hebrews to get what’s coming to those who cross this hot-nosed deity; he stays and forces YHWH to remember who YHWH can and should be.
To be fair, Moses does not last long as the figure of mercy; when he sees the golden calf festival himself, he goes after his fellow tribesmen with swords and soldiers and the ashes of the burnt idol. Nonetheless, as a moment of high drama, one would be hard pressed to match Exodus 32. Like his distant ancestor Abraham interceding in behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses in this passage prays the sort of prayer that makes sense of all those lament Psalms and the strident protests of Job and the cries of the martyrs in Revelation. Far from being the sort of heavenly dictator who strikes down the impudent, our God, if we believe that the Spirit did indeed inform the gathering and transmission of the Biblical canon, favors such stories. When our God wants to present a holy book to the peoples of the world, that book will feature Psalms and narratives in which mortals contest God, and the nation and tradition most dear to this God will be Israel, the man and the nation who struggle with God.
When Jesus tells his famous trio of parables about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, I remember well that the Hebrews were by no means the most prominent people-group of the ancient world: the Hittites and the Egyptians in Moses’s day were the big dogs in the Mediterranean basin, and in Saul’s day it was the Philistines and the Phoenicians. When the flagging kingdom of Judea became the exiled Jews, and when those Jews split to become the diaspora in Egypt and Rome and Babylon and Palestine, and when the one who would call himself Son of God–and mean it–chose a mixture of Roman collaborators and Jewish nationalists and middle-class fishermen to reconstitute Jacob’s call, I have to think that this peculiar character of YHWH stood on display for the world to see: an almighty whose power lay in the weakness of the faithful, a sovereign whose sovereignty willingly submitted to accountability. This was no factory-standard Marduk or Jupiter or even theos agnostos: this was a God, the true God, who refused and continues to refuse the simple category deus or theos or even god that we mortals construct. Hallelujah.
May our prayers rise to this strange God, and may the Scriptures continue to remind us of our God’s unfathomable love.