Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

11th June 2017 (Trinity Sunday)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Moses, Moses, what on earth did you do? Moses had been up Mt Sinai allowing God to inscribe on two tablets of stone the words we have come to know as the Ten Commandments, but when he descended, and found that the Israelites had begun to worship other gods, he threw down the tablets and broke them. Maybe this was the first example of breaking the commandments of God. Now, God instructs Moses to make two more stone tablets for a second attempt at getting these commitments, which is a better translation of the Hebrew, to the people.

Exodus 34:1-9a

1The Lord said to Moses, ‘Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. 2Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain. 3No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain; and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain.’ 4So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. 5The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, ‘The Lord.’ 6The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
     ‘The Lord, the Lord,
     a God merciful and gracious,
     slow to anger,
     and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
7keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
     forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
     yet by no means clearing the guilty,
     but visiting the iniquity of the parents
     upon the children
     and the children’s children,
     to the third and the fourth generation’;
8and Moses quickly bowed his head towards the earth, and worshipped.
9He said, “If now I have found favour in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.

As a professional analyst for most of my working life I cannot help but see some striking incongruities with the overall story of the giving of the commandments. The first is that Moses went up the mountain with Aaron and seventy-two others, but it was Aaron who was accused of leading the rest of the camp astray; the second is that Moses and troop went unprepared for a significant climb up Mt Sinai, and were on the mountain long enough for the people to start a revolt, to build a golden calf, and to establish a worship programme around it. There are problems when a theological text like this is taken literally, and then someone points out inconsistencies or impossibilities.

Moses is asked to make two new tablets of stone for God to write another copy of the commandments. That seems sensible enough, since Moses was the one who broke the first tablets in a fit of anger over what the rest of the congregation had done during his absence, but the instruction is to be ready for the morning and meet God at the top of the mountain. From what I’ve seen on Mt Sinai it would take some effort to climb it without carrying two stone slabs, and would probably take quite a number of hours too! The instruction that no flocks or herds should graze “in front of the mountain” is also somewhat of a problem as that would eliminate most of the region. Some commentators have claimed that differences in various renditions of what happened on the Exodus journey are the result of copies of stories being made, and errors being made in the process. My understanding is that these stories were told over many generations, the details being modified to fit circumstances leaving the message intact, and the differences, when a written form of scripture was created, come from the different versions which had developed over time.

The incongruities stop and the teaching starts, with verse 6. If we want to do what is pleasing to God then we should pay attention to how God deals with matters. The Lord is a God who is “merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” I can’t answer for anyone else, but maybe we should ask ourselves, more often, how merciful we are, how gracious, how quick to get angry, and if we abound in love and faithfulness which will last for an eternity? God keep to His faithful love for as many as a thousand generations. If we take a generation as 25 years, then that love will last for 25000 years, or more than four times how long a literal interpretation of the Bible will tell us the world has been around. God tells us that, for all that time, He will forgive our sins. Anyone who can achieve that must be more than a saint!

If God will forgive all our sins to the thousandth generation, does that abounding grace mean that we can sin a lot more, knowing that we will be forgive. Of course not – and this passage tells us that God’s forgiveness does not equate to being excused from punishment for those sins. God loves the sinner, not the sin, but the sinner must still wear the consequence of his or her own actions.

It might seem unfair on the children, the grand-children and beyond, for the iniquities of the parents to affect them, but if we consider the impact of someone in our own culture doing something seriously wrong, and being fined or gaoled then it will take time for the family to recover and to lose the stigma of a punishment. In some cases it could be some form of illness which can be passed on to subsequent generations. This is, after all, an expression of what was happening to the people at the time, and is their way of explaining something they did not understand in the same was as we do.

Moses bowed his head to pray. I ask the rhetorical question: do we bow our heads, or do we even need to bow our heads, to pray? It used to be common, just as kneeling to pray was common. Have we made prayer a comfortable experience, and forgotten that God wants to make us uncomfortable when we think of all we’ve done wrong because we haven’t thought of the consequences of our actions before engaging them?

God has been quite displeased with the Israelites, and Moses has pleaded on their behalf, and asks if the relationship has been restored enough for God to go with His people? I love the description of the Israelites as “stiff-necked” – they are stuck in their ways and will not, not can not, look at what’s going on around them, and change their ways accordingly. I’m sure we could all think of people and times when that description would be apt.

aAustralian Anglican congregations can expect to read this passage from Exodus, minus the last verse, on Trinity Sunday, rather than the Pentecost passage from Acts, as listed in the Revised Common Lectionary. Roman Catholic congregations will get an abbreviated version of this reading.

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