“The mind and heart of God are vulnerable to the pleas and arguments of human creatures,” declared Dr. Terence Fretheim, as we gathered for the Exodus Colloquium to wrap up our months long study of Exodus on April 7. The rain and snow had finally let up, and pale yellow sunlight suffused the sanctuary of All Saints Episcopal Church in New Albany, and it did, indeed, feel like God was quite willingly answering our prayers for spring.
But many of us felt a certain unease at Fretheim’s remark. After all, we were raised believing that God was omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. And this understanding of God leads many Christians to the logical conclusion that God has some vast and sprawling plan for the cosmos that we simply can’t understand. More than that, we tend to believe that everything that happens is the result of this plan, and must, in some way, be good, even if it appears to be evil. But Fretheim was saying something very different.
He was talking about the scene in Exodus 32, when God threatens to destroy the chosen people. God has reasons to be miffed. While Moses has been up on Mount Sinai receiving the laws, the people at the foot of the mountain have been fashioning all of the jewelry that they took from the Egyptians into a giant calf idol. Moses comes down the mountain to find them worshiping this calf and, what’s worse, partying it up and indulging in acts that we cannot mention in polite society. God says, “Leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
Anyone familiar with Abraham’s story will perk their ears up at this point. This is exactly the same promise that God made to Abraham. It’s as if God has gone through the previous four or five hundred years, protecting Abraham’s family and shepherding them along and trying to teach them, combatting Pharaoh and sending signs and wonders to free the chosen people, leading those same chosen people through the wilderness and giving them miracles of water and food whenever they need them – for nothing. God is ready to start all over again.
And Moses’s answer should also seem quite familiar to fans of the Book of Genesis. In Genesis 19, when God threatens to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham talks God out of it. When God threatens to wipe out the partying chosen people at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses does the same. And, as Fretheim pointed out, both stories seem to indicate that God can be persuaded by human prayer. Argue long enough with God, and you might just get your way.
This feels like a dangerous, almost transgressive thing to say. After all, there have been moments in my life when I’ve prayed, and prayed hard, for something to happen, and then had to deal with a sense of betrayal when it didn’t happen. If God is so persuadable, why wasn’t God persuaded by me?
I don’t have a great answer for this, but I do have Abraham and Moses’s stories as guides for thinking about this question. God tells Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation. Then he waits, and waits, and waits for his wife Sarah to get pregnant. God promises to help Moses bring the chosen people out of Egypt and into a land flowing with milk and honey. Getting out of Egypt is a chore, but the really hard part, the part that makes it seem like God is reneging on the promise, is the forty years wandering in the wilderness. And Moses himself never gets to that land of milk and honey. He dies at the end of Deuteronomy, looking down at the Jordan River and the land of Canaan on the other side.
In other words, God enters into a relationship with us, and is with us all along, and we pray to God as a way of keeping up our end of the relationship. We think that God is going to be persuaded to do things in just the way that we’d like them to be done. God might be persuaded that the things we want are worth having, but God is going to find a way to make them happen that will be wholly out of our control, and entirely surprising. You might get your way, but not in the way you thought you would.
Which leads me to the biggest question that I’ve been pondering during the past eight months as we have studied Exodus. It’s the question of identity. Both Genesis and Exodus are stories of identity. Take an ordinary man, Abraham, and watch him cultivate a profound relationship with God, and see how it changes him. And not just him, but his descendants, especially Jacob and Joseph.
Then take an entire people and watch them enter into a profound relationship with God, and see how it changes them. At the beginning of Exodus, the chosen people barely think of themselves as a group, let alone a people. By the end of Exodus, they have a set of laws that help them know how to act ethically towards each other and keep that all-important relationship with God going.
Christians in America are also undergoing a transformation, losing prominence and seeing our identity shift from being the normal, expected identity of any American to just being one subgroup among many, many subgroups. Because of this, we feel lost in the wilderness, and we often want to return to the fleshpots of Egypt. We keep asking God to help us maintain our power and privilege. But as with Abraham and Moses, God doesn’t seem inclined to answer our prayers in a way that we’d like.
Instead, God seems to want us to wander in the wilderness for a while, even if that means that we spend most of our time complaining. In the end, God might not care that much about our position in society or whether our churches are full on Sundays. Instead, God might answer our prayer by making us important in the way that we were always meant to be important. Not as people of power and privilege, but as people of charity, humility, and grace.
God may be vulnerable to our pleas, but we are more than vulnerable to God’s greater vision of what we should be.
The Rev. Karl Stevens is the Director of Children and Youth Formation at St. John’s, Worthington, and served as the coordinator of the Exodus Big Read. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.