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Israel Comes to Terms With God and With Itself

The previous article described how, through Israel’s experience of the exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C., it reconsidered its understanding of God. This article looks at the sort of questions about God that Israel’s post-exilic texts sought to answer. There, we find that Israel’s perception of their relationship with God had been deeply affected by the trauma of the Exile, the threat to Israel’s continued existence, the loss of the Temple, the Davidic dynasty and the destruction of Jerusalem.

The Book of Exodus is the product of many hands. The final version we have represents a compromise text between the different groups in Israel after the Exile. In it, we find an Israel that had moved on from the Deuteronomic understanding of conditional covenant, with its insistence that disobedience leads to destruction at the hands of Yahweh. The picture of Moses in Exodus 3:1–4:13 is very different from that in the book of Deuteronomy: here, he comes up with five excuses for not obeying the command of Yahweh to go to his people in Egypt, ending with the plea “send someone else.” Moses is not the perfect hero (compare Joshua).

In Exodus 15:24, Israel begins to complain, three days after being rescued from the Egyptians! (‘Three days’ is used in the Old Testament to simply denote a very short time — cf. Hos 6:2). From this point, all the way through the remainder of the Book of Exodus and the Book of Numbers, there is constant complaining and rebelling. In Deuteronomic thinking, Israel would be doomed from the beginning because of its unfaithfulness. Now, however, we find Yahweh constantly providing for Israel despite its constant unfaithfulness. We find an Israel with the understanding that God would provide for them regardless.

Exodus 16 is central to this image. It shows how Yahweh provides every day. The Israelites cannot save the manna for the next day, but must learn to trust that Yahweh will supply it day by day. The Sabbath takes on a new meaning here: previously it celebrated freedom from slavery, but now it becomes a reminder of the daily providence of Yahweh. Israel is instructed to keep a sample of the manna “for your descendants” (16:33), so that they too will remember this unconditional providence of God.

In Exod 19–24, Israel enters into a covenant with Yahweh that is quite intimate — in 24:9–11, Moses and the “elders of Israel” go up the mountain and see “the God of Israel beneath whose feet there was what looked like a sapphire pavement pure as the heavens themselves” (surely a beautiful description of the blue sky), “but he did no harm to them; they actually gazed on God and then ate and drank” (24:10–11). The Law is given in Exod 19–23, in the centre of this covenant text. The Law is thus said to be the central way that Yahweh provides for Israel.

The arrangement of the remainder of the Book of Exodus is also revealing. Exod 25–31 and Exod 35–40 contain detailed instructions for the building of the Temple and for its furnishings (they describe the Second Temple, rebuilt in 515 BC, rather than Solomon’s Temple.) At the centre of these chapters we have the Great Apostasy of Israel (Exod 32), the Dialogue between Moses and Yahweh (Exod 33) and the Covenant Renewed (Exod 34).

The story of the worshipping of the golden calf in Exod 32 has Moses arguing with Yahweh and even becoming the better of him (“Why should the Egyptians say ‘He brought them out with evil intent? … Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to whom you swore by your very self and made this promise … ” (32:11, 13)).

In Chapter 33, however, we find a dialogue between Yahweh and Moses which centres on whether Yahweh will still go with Israel. Yahweh says “Leave, move on from here … but I myself will not be going with you” (33:1, 3). Moses, in reply, tells him ‘if you’re not coming, how will other nations know that Israel enjoys your special favour’ (as you promised, remember), and Yahweh relents. But the language throughout this chapter is all about the presence of Yahweh, and how Israel will know he is present. After the trauma of the Exile, Israel had to answer the question about how God was with them. For the priestly group, who finally ordered this text, the answer was that his presence would be known through the Temple.

In Exod 33:18–23 we have the scene of Moses asking that Yahweh shows his glory (v.18), but Yahweh’s reply is that he will not show his ‘face,’ and Moses is told to hide in the rock while Yahweh passes by because “my face will not be seen.” This is in contrast to 24:11 where all the elders saw God. Now, after the Apostasy, they do not see God.

However, in Hebrew, ‘face’ and ‘presence’ are the same word (pane). The whole chapter has been about God’s presence in answer to the post-exilic question “Is God still with us? If so, how is he with us?” The answer of this text is that God is still with Israel, but he will not be seen. With this text situated in the centre of thirteen chapters of Yahweh giving instructions for the building of the Temple, the clear message is that Yahweh’s presence and glory will be known through the Temple and the worship there.

From an Israel that saw Yahweh in terms of a warrior and overlord as we find in the Deuteronomistic texts, we now find a Yahweh that can be argued with, bargained with, and even bettered in the argument. We find an Israel that has now come to accept that it has always been rebellious and probably always will be, but God will still be with them and will provide for them. He is always faithful despite their constant unfaithfulness. We can compare this understanding with the contemporary Genesis texts which have humanity shown to have a propensity to sin from Day One, and Yahweh coming to accept this propensity as being part of our nature (Gen 8:21). In a very real sense, Israel had come to know itself and to know God.

This idea of an Israel that can argue with God and bargain with him is also contained in the Genesis texts: Abraham bargains to save Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 18:16–33 — and bargaining ends with ten upright men, a minyan, the number that was required to establish a synagogue (synagogues became an important institution for Israel after the exile).

This self-understanding of Israel is also reflected in the story of Jacob wrestling with God in Gen 32:26–33. This story also speaks of seeing God, and Jacob proclaims that he did see him “face to face, and survived” (Gen 32:31). It is because of this struggle with God, according to the Genesis texts, that Israel got its name — “he who has shown strength against God.”

Israel struggled with God and survived. From this struggle, Israel came to know a God who is always faithful, and to know itself. Its relationship with God had become one of dialogue. Hosea would have been pleased — it is a real relationship when you are free to argue with the other. Israel had come of age.

But even then, Israel only partially grasped how big God is. The fullness of God’s providence, unconditional love and generosity would only be revealed when he sent his Son to give everything.

Psalms and readings from the Liturgy of the Hours, and Mass readings


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