Sunday, 15 April 2012

Exodus 32: Prayer as a means of shaping our future

This morning we began our new teaching series on prayer, reflecting on the astonishing story of Moses’ prayer to God in the aftermath of Israel’s building of the Golden Calf, a betrayal which brings God perilously close to getting rid of Israel, and starting again with a new people. Hopefully the talk will appear soon on YWBC’s audio page.

Reading Exodus 32 again over the past week, I’ve been struck again by how significant Moses’ prayers were. Filled with hurt and anger, God tells Moses to ‘let me alone,’ so he can come to terms with Israel’s idolatry and proceed with plans to get rid of them, starting afresh with a new people borne of Moses. But Moses doesn’t give God the space he’s looking for. Instead, he encourages God to think of his reputation (what would the Egyptians think if God brought the Israelites out of slavery only to annihilate them in the future?) and also the promises made to forefathers such as Abraham and Isaac.

This isn’t the only biblical story where God’s mind appears to be changed by human pleading. In Genesis 18 Abraham negotiates with God and persuades him not to destroy Sodom, and in 2 Kings 20 we read of Hezekiah’s life being prolonged for another 15 years because of his prayers.

The question is, how do we live differently in the light of such passages? In his excellent book, God of the Possible, Greg Boyd suggests: ‘Many Christians do not pray as passionately as they could because they don’t see how it could make any significant difference. They pray, but they often do so out of sheer obedience and without the sense of urgency that Scripture consistently attaches to prayer.’

Sometimes it feels as if we’re passively sitting, waiting, wondering when the renewal we all hope for is going to begin. But as James writes, ‘You do not have, because you do not ask’ (James 4:2). Shaping the future of our church begins with prayer, not presuming upon God’s blessing, but starting to show God how dissatisfied and demanding we are.

It would be good to hear the thoughts of others of others on this issue, and good to hear of anything you sense God saying as you pray.


  1. I have to admit that I struggled to focus on the theme of prayer during the reading from Exodus today. This was due to the force of God's anger and the possibility of the destruction of Israel. The worship of the golden calf was a terrible sin and there are enough modern day equivalents, but I guess I have a very New Testament view of God. Yes, the prayers of Moses encouraged God to reconsider and that was vital, but the slaughter and the plague are difficult to reconcile for me.
    Anyhow, I pray because I want to talk with God and I listen for an answer. Whether I'm praying for my own renewal, guidance or an intervention to bring peace to a place of war, I'm expecting something to happen. The answers often come through another person or something prompts me to think about the situation differently. I don't really know how to put it, but I'm looking forward to house group to get the opportunity to think about it more deeply.


  2. Hi Clare, thanks for your comment. I agree with everything you say – the punishment carried out by the Levites is shocking and horrific. It seems Moses feels the need to ‘purge’ the camp after the Calf has been built, but the level of violence seems gratuitous and impossible to defend.

    Thinking this over this morning, I remembered some words from Brian McLaren’s book, Generous Orthodoxy. He writes, ‘The Bible is not a look-it-up encyclopaedia of timeless moral truths, but the unfolding narrative of God at work in a violent, sinful world, calling people, beginning with Abraham, into a new way of life.’

    I realise this doesn’t provide the whole answer, but I find it to be of some help in trying to ‘square the circle.’ This bloody and dreadful incident comes early in the story. And the story carries on to the pivotal moment when Jesus comes, who is the ultimate revelation of God’s character. As Paul puts it, Jesus is the ‘end (or climax) of the law.’ Everything before him in the story is building towards his arrival, and needs to re-read in light of what he taught and did. And reading what the Levites did in Exodus 32, in the light of Jesus, seems to me to offer permission to be appalled at their violence and feel relief that God’s love and giving of himself has made possible another way of dealing with sin.

  3. I was thinking about Exodus 32 and particularly verse 14, which could be considered as the "key verse". The NRSV translates this verse as:

    "And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people"

    The NIV however translates this verse as:

    "Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened"

    It strikes me that the NIV's use of the words "relented" and "threatened" give much less of an impression of God having changed his mind, compared to the NRSV which uses the words "changed" and "planned". I'd be interested to know your thoughts on what I think is quite a significant difference in translation, especially if you're trying to understand whether God actually "changed" his mind or just "eased off" a bit.

    Also I had a quick look at the KJV and that translates it as:

    "And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people"

    This seems to go quite a bit further than the NRSV in suggesting that God was going to do evil.

    I do wonder about the different translations of the same verse and what the motivations behind the differences are. Are we always able to trust a translation into English or should we perhaps look more at the original to try and discern what was originally meant? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Carsten. This is one of those moments when I regret not taking up the optional Hebrew module at College(!), but I’ve spent a bit of time this evening looking at various lexicons and commentaries. The Hebrew word which the NRSV and NLT render as ‘changed his mind’ is niham. ‘Relented’ is the translation opted for the NIV and ESV scholars.

      In his book The God who Risks, John Sanders writes that, ‘English translations typically render the Hebrew word niham as grieve, relent, repent, be sorry or change one’s mind.’ It’s this word which is used in 1 Samuel 15:11 and 15:35 to describe God’s regret at the outcome of Saul’s reign. That chapter concludes with the statement: ‘And the LORD was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.’ That’s a verse that raises all manner of questions. When Saul was anointed, did God foresee the way in which he would fall away from him? It seems hard to understand God regretting an action he had pre-ordained.

      Niham is also used to give voice to human repentance. For example Job, humbled by the challenge of God at the end of the book, says, ‘I despise myself and repent (niham)in dust and ashes.’

      I wonder if one of the most helpful translations comes from Peterson in The Message: ‘And GOD did think twice. He decided not to do the evil he had threatened against his people.’

      I agree that ‘relented’ seems to describe the idea of change with less intensity, but it still suggests the notion of God easing off, having set his course on one action and then being reined in by Moses. But I also feel the idea of change comes through not just in that one word but in the course of the whole story. God voices his intention to consume Israel in 32:11, but at the end of the episode we read only of a ‘plague on the people,’ which is a terrible thing to be reckoned with but still falls short of the annihilation threatened earlier.

      I’m not an expert on translations, but I take your point that certain translations can sometimes betray a preference for one theological perspective over another. For example, the ESV translation committee was led by a Reformed Scholar, Jim Packer, and that version seems to have found a strong following among Conservative Evangelicals. The NRSV translation was sponsored by the National Council of Churches and seems to me to reflect a wider theological breadth, and has been authorised for use by all major Christian churches, including Roman Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox. The fact that we read the same accurate translation in Yardley Wood that is used by many other people in the worldwide church is an important strength for me personally.

    2. I find the above thread about translation very interesting but it does lead me to wonder whether we should consider the Bible and the way it is written before dissecting the precise meaning of the words. I believe that the Bible is inspired by God but was written by man. In light of this, is it possible that there is in fact an inevitable "humanisation" of God in the text? Are humans really capable of communicating God's actions and characteristics accurately without giving him a personality that reflects that of man?

      So, even if a translation is accurate, could it be that the original text is unable to portray the true nature of God (in the case of Exodus 32, whether He did actually change his mind) because of the limits of our understanding and/or language?

  4. In short, Emily, yes, I think you are right in suggesting that there is sometimes a degree of ‘humanisation’ at play. A good example of this would be Psalm 116, which we thought about a few weeks ago. When the Psalmist opens by saying that the LORD ‘inclined his ear to me,’ what does he mean? Is he actually suggesting that ‘God has ears’ just like people do, or isn’t he trying to give some meaningful expression to the idea that God wants to listen to our prayers?

    There’s a helpful discussion of this issue by Sam Balentine, an American Old Testament scholar, in a book called ‘Prayer in the Hebrew Bible.’ At one point Balentine writes about how these ‘metaphors portray God as consistently personal and related to humanity and the world – wherever God is being God, God is expected to be this way.’

    Interestingly, John Calvin explained away some of this metaphorical language with a concept he called ‘accommodation.’ Calvin’s argument was that it’s impossible for God to fully express himself to us because he’s so different, so ‘other.’ So he has to go for communicating by making use of language and images we could understand. In one famous statement he remarks: ‘For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness.’

    My one concern with Calvin’s argument is that I’ve seen it used too many times by people as a ‘trump card’ in theological discussion. ‘The text doesn’t really mean that, it’s just a metaphor. I understand that the really meaning is x, y or z.’ So I can’t help feeling that where we do see human metaphors, we need to be careful not to dismiss them as just ‘imagery.’ God does listen, God does see!

  5. I am impressed both by the sensitivity of your responses,Pastor Neill, but also of intelligent questioning of Claire, Carsten and Emily. I have Exodus 32 to preach on this weekend. If you had any more words of wisdom to add on the violence and relenting of God I'd love to hear them!

  6. Hi Duke,

    It’s good to hear from you. Thanks for taking the time to look at the blog. I have to say that the reflections we shared on Exodus 32 proved to be significant for us as a church. At the time the sermon was preached, we were desperately praying for the success of a new mission initiative that we’d invested a lot of time and money in. My sense is that this more open understanding of God’s nature was important in helping us grasp what was at stake when we prayed. And the project has thrived in the meantime!

    The writers who I’ve personally found most helpful on this issue are Greg Boyd and John Sanders, and I also got a lot from the commentaries on Exodus by Walter Brueggemann and Terence Fretheim in the New Interpreters Bible and Interpretation series.

    Since then, I’ve also been intrigued by Gil Bailie’s view of this passage in his book, Violence Unveiled. Bailie argues that all primitive societies have a need for ritual violence to re-establish order after a crisis, which is closely linked to our desire to find a scapegoat to take the blame for a community’s collective failure. He suggests that the 3,000 people killed after the Golden Calf incident died in a ‘violent melee’ and the incident was legitimised afterwards when Moses ‘proclaimed the violence that brought the riot to an end to be Yahweh’s violence,’ inaugurating the Levites into a priesthood role that would involve the continued maintenance of the cult of animal sacrifice. I realise that’s a controversial reading of the text, but it’s still one I find quite compelling.

    Hope this helps, will be praying for you and your church on Sunday, blessings, Trevor

  7. That is helpful - and insightful.

    Would you like my finished 3 pager on Ex 32? I have "consulted" Fretheim, Bruggemann, Bruckner and Dozeman.

    What is helping me is to frame the issues being raised not as primarily church or religious but as a process of national formation. The golden calf was little more than a rebel flag. Exploring the values of the rebels - lawless chaos - demonstrate (I hope) that the mob's actions would today be considered High Treason and ultimately self-defeating. Some action against the insurrection was necessary.

    However, that the Levites alone seem to be armed is an insurmountable problem for me. Nevertheless I stand with your God.