Monday, July 6, 2009

The Prayer of Moses

Then the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites. And the Lord said to Moses, "How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they."

But Moses said to the Lord, "Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for in your might you brought up this people from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; for you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go in front of them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, 'It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.' And now, therefore, let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,

'The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation.'

Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now."

Then the Lord said, "I do forgive, just as you have asked...."

Numbers 14:10-20

For various reasons, I decided to read through the entirety of the book of Revelation yesterday. It is a rather awe-inspiring book: dragons and beasts and disturbing images of all sorts, all climaxing in a new heavens and a new earth, with a city the size of a small continent coming down from heaven to rule over the new earth.

But like so many people, I can't help but be disturbed by the images of judgment in a lake of fire, images of eternal torment for those who opposed Jesus. The wrath of God is supremely evident--at first I want to smile at the phrase, "wrath of the Lamb," but pretty soon you realize it's no joke. Who knew a lamb could be so vindictive?

I appreciate those theologians who find interpretations of this book that somehow don't make God look so full of wrath, but honestly such interpretations neuter the text. Revelation just has a lot of fury; in that way I think it stands out in significant ways from other New Testament books.

Still, it's just so disturbing to hear many Christians defend this wrath so blithely. The Bible says people who aren't Christians are going to hell, and that's that. This kind of attitude is, in my humble opinion, tragic.

To their credit, evangelicals say to pray for the souls of non-believers, but there's another resource in the Bible that I've turned to when I feel disturbed by all this talk of hell and damnation. That's the prayer of Moses, which I've copied above from the NRSV.

When God said He was just going to wipe out His people because of their insolence, Moses didn't think twice about interpretation. He didn't think, "Well, maybe God didn't mean it like that." And then again, he didn't turn and say to the Israelites, "Sorry, guys, but you earned it."

Moses chose to immediately pray to God--don't do it! And I love the reasoning he uses: God, think of your reputation! People think you were just unable to save. Think of your mercy, and think of your love.

Doesn't that make just as much sense now? Think of God's reputation--how many people reel in disgust at the idea of hell? Many good, sensitive people are inclined to say, "But can't God just win people over, so that He need not destroy them?" Think of His mercy, His love...

The great thing about the Bible is that its characters take God seriously without losing their own opinions. The Bible gives us resources for responding back to God, saying, "No, don't do that!" I don't think I need to interpret Revelation to death, until it no longer means what it says about hell. Why not take it seriously, and yet pray the prayer that Moses prayed, so that God would not do such a thing to precious human beings?

And the greatest thing about the prayer of Moses? Quite simply, God listened to him.


  1. You know, from what I've observed, it is always the science minded people that have the most difficult time with "eternal conscious punishment". Mainly because this theological interpretation seems to grate against rationalism.

    Do you have a particular thought about what the end will be like? I mean, where heaven and hell are concerned?

  2. I understand your point about rationalism, but for me the struggle is a little more complex. I know many scientists look down on the whole idea of eternal judgment as a primitive concept, and I try to resist dismissing it like that. I know what Revelation is getting at--these people have been killing the world, so they will experience the kind of torment that killing the world deserves. Rather than dismiss this idea, I wrestle with it in tears.

    I don't know what will happen in the end, and part of the point I tried to make here is that we should move away from theory and dogma toward a better relationship with God. Moses took God's threat seriously, but he didn't take it as inevitable. He spoke up. We Christians are often too fatalistic. We should learn from Moses.

  3. You are so right Jameson! I agree wholeheartedly.

    I have always been intrigued by passages such as the one you quoted from Numbers. Also when Abraham pleads with God for Sodom and Gomorrah, and when Jonah runs away because he knows that God will be merciful to the Ninevites and not destroy them, which will make Jonah look like a liar.

    People accuse God of being only wrathful in the Old Testament but he is also forgiving, and cares more about Israel's heart than their external obedience (Isaiah chapter 1).

    Christians do seem to defend God's wrath "blithely." I found myself doing it once and later was horrified by my behavior. It is sad. We so easily forget that loving God and being a Christian is a heart issue, not one of doctrine or external piousness. I like Matthew 25:34-46.

  4. This is really interesting (I suppose I will check the interesting box!) But I am curious what are your thoughts on the continuation of that chapter in Numbers.

    Looking at verses 21-24 we see God say the following...

    21 Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the LORD fills the whole earth, 22 not one of the men who saw my glory and the miraculous signs I performed in Egypt and in the desert but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times- 23 not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it. 24

    I don't really know that much about this, but it seems like Moses' prayer bought the people extra time. But if the people were still unbelieving, it seems like they will surely lose the forgiveness.


  5. Well, we evangelicals are often taught to think of every situation in terms of ultimate forgiveness or ultimate judgment (this makes the present theological conversation about justification by faith very confusing). But if you take the passage at face value, the promise not to destroy all the people of Israel was their forgiveness. That was the only threat that God had made, so that was the only threat to be taken away. Hell has so far not been mentioned at this point in the Bible. I suppose it's tempting to read into this passage from the perspective of a modern Christian and think, "Well, they'll still ultimately end up in hell if they don't believe," but I just don't get that from the text itself.

    However, the passage you cite is certainly the "by no means clearing the guilty" part of God. There is a real, tangible punishment for Israel's insolence here. I can't say I wrestle as much with the concept of finite punishment for finite crime. At this point in the Old Testament, God has mentioned nothing about eternal torment. What I struggle with is the idea of infinite punishment for finite crime. I can understand how the wicked deserve punishment--you spend your whole life cursing God, destroying His world, and you deserve torment. But an eternity? No matter how long you spent sinning against God during your lifetime, it wasn't an eternity.

    In any case, the principle I glean from Moses' prayer is that God does respond to prayer--he actually likes to hear our arguments. Do I claim any sort of absolute sway over the divine? Of course not. I just think this affects my relationship to God, and I'm going to try to see where it takes me.


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