A God who's a Character: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 9 October 2011

Exodus 32:1-14 and Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23  • Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23  • Philippians 4:1-9  • Matthew 22:1-14

I love when my favorite texts come up in the lectionary rotation, largely because they remind me that the lectionary does not often allow a preacher to preach favorite texts.  Those who preach lectionary texts must wait patiently for those texts to come around, faithfully engaging with the rest of the Bible until occasion rises to take on those texts that are already on one’s tongue.  Were I a preacher by trade (and to be honest, I’m glad I’m a professor instead), this would have been one of those happy weeks when I preached one of my own favorites.

In a tweetable moment in a recent interview, Christian philosopher Merold Westphal said, “Nobody prays to the ground of being.”  Although I’ve never had the fluency with one-liners to speak precisely that line, engaging Exodus 32 this week makes me realize that at some point I should have.  Here YHWH appears in all of the literary glory that one would expect of a great character, asserting divine will in a way that will negate the very telos of the mighty acts, then hearing from and listening to a metaphysical subordinate in a way that will save the divine glory from the divine wrath.  This is Greek tragedy in reverse, and it’s a story good enough to be preached, taught, and prayed to the tune of.  In short, there’s little abstract in this story, and it’s a hard-hitting, memorable moment in the Bible as a result.

There was a time (and by “a time” I mean something like the span of a decade) when I would have taken this glorious character-liness of YHWH as a sign that the grand superstructure of systematic theology was somehow missing some of the most important points that the Bible itself would make.  And to be fair, I still get sad when I hear people take texts like this one (and its cousin, Exodus 4) and glibly refer to them as “anthropomorphisms,” as if positing a divine being which lacks those things that make us mortals most uncomfortable about ourselves is any less a concession to human weakness than is a divine self-revelation that maintains some sort of danger.  (But I’ll save that rant for another time.)  But these days, I’m inclined to think of classical theology as having more potential to illuminate moments like this–after all, the danger in a pan-literary reading of Exodus 32 is that YHWH might become, like Homer’s Zeus or Ovid’s Bacchus, simply another tribal god who happens to feature prominently in this story.  The episode becomes far more powerful if in fact the entity becoming furious with the idolatry of Israel (and I didn’t put scare-quotes around the word becoming) is the same elohim who separated water from water by fiat, who lent life to all things that crawl and swim and fly, who in later days reveals the salvation of the cosmos in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

In a reading informed both by what’s patent in the text and by what traditions graciously surround the texts in the centuries that intervene (perhaps a reading that the first audience would not have imagined possible), Moses does indeed become a type (in the literary sense) for the true Messiah, not taking the cup of the Father’s wrath himself but certainly forestalling that cup’s being poured out on vulnerable Israel.  (And to be fair, Moses gets Bronze-Age on their butts when he sees the scene with his own eyes.)  And the golden calf, though in its own literary moment a veiled critique of the shrines at Bethel and Dan (I tend to think of the Torah as taking its final written form long after the life and career of Moses, but I try to respect those who differ), certainly invites allegories in the age of the final Son of God: just as the Hebrews point to the work of their own hands as that which delivered them from Egypt (against what the text presents as fairly immediate memory), our own tendencies, kings and capitalists and English professors alike, is to hold up our own efforts as sufficient to make our way in the world.

In short, I’m glad that I went through my theological adolescence (to borrow a phrase from Helmut Thielicke), that time when I rejected the accretions of tradition in order to favor the raw text as it appears in the Hebrew, on the page, in the Bible.  I’m also glad that, on the other side of that period (and I don’t pretend that I’m all the way out, but I have achieved an awareness that there’s a “Bible reader that I used to be” who differs from the Sunday school teacher who led class yesterday), I can once again welcome in the allegories and typologies that the Christians between me and the moment of composition have contributed.  I still heartily reject reductionism in the name of being “systematic” (note that there are scare-quotes there), but I’ve come to think (and teach) that the literary particulars, instead of being the enemy of subsequent ages’ theologies, can be a good dancing partner for them.

As we read, may we read faithfully and humbly and boldly.

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