Wednesday, 16 January 2013

On God’s forgetting and remembering

Last Sunday we started our new sermon series on Exodus, reflecting briefly on the closing verses of chapter 2, which describe how the Hebrew slaves cry out to God about their suffering and oppression. God’s response to their groaning is described by the Exodus writer in the following way: ‘God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.’ As someone pointed out to me after the service, this statement is troubling, in so far as it suggests God has forgotten the plight of the slaves. It raises the very question they posed to me: ‘Can God forget?’

In part, making sense of what is said here depends on our understanding of the Hebrew word for remember, zākar, which doesn’t so much convey the idea of recalling something forgotten, but rather God deciding to be actively involved in a situation in light of previous commitments he has made. This explains the way the word is sometimes used in the Psalms. For example, in Psalm 25:6, when David asks God to ‘remember... your great mercy and love,’ as the NIV translates it, he’s not trying to jog God’s memory about one of his characteristics. Rather, he wants to see that mercy actively applied to his situation. For this particular verse, the NRSV translates zākar as ‘be mindful,’ which seems to me to be a rendering of the word which gets closer to its real meaning.

All of which is interesting, but only up to a point... we’re still left with the problem of God’s apparent inactivity, the fact that he comes across as sitting on his hands while his people are suffering.

I make no claim to have ‘solved’ this conundrum, but offer below a brief summary of where I’ve got to in my own thinking on this verse over the last few days.

One thought concerns the issue of whether or not God is ‘static’ or ‘unchanging’ with regard to his attitudes and resolve. There are some of God’s attributes which we understand to be unchanging. We know he is always loving, holy and faithful, for example. But does this mean he always feels an equal amount of determination to act in each and every situation? For example, in Exodus 5 we read of how Moses goes to Pharaoh, requesting the people of Israel be granted a three day leave of absence to celebrate a festival in the wilderness. This strategy appears to backfire, when Pharaoh cruelly demands that the slaves be required to gather their own straw for bricks. Pharaoh’s callous attitudes appears to provoke a greater sense of urgency in God to deal with him, implied in God’s words in Exodus 6:1: ‘Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.’

Could it be that God is inclined to a peaceable solution with Pharaoh, that the dreadful destruction of the plagues narrative is not his preferred option, but only something he is driven to by the continued intransigence of the Egyptian ruler? (I’m aware this statement raises the conundrum of Pharaoh’s ‘hardened heart,’ an issue I hope to address in a few weeks’ time). Such an idea seems, to me, to fit with the picture we have of God in the warnings to Israel concerning exile. Exile will be the inevitable result of the people’s continued rebellion, but it is not, in itself, inevitable. There is another option made available by God, the option of repentance. This openness of possibilities appears to be implied in Jeremiah 18:7-11: ‘At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.’ (Emphases in italics are mine.)

The end of Exodus 2 also raises the issue of how the specific ways in which God can intervene may sometimes be affected by circumstances. As I mentioned on Sunday, there seems to be no coincidence in the fact that the time when the slaves begin to groan is a moment of regime change in Egypt. As Greg Boyd points out in his excellent book God at War, scripture does not present us with a picture of a God who plans meticulously everything which happens to us, good or bad. God never wills evil, but always fights against it, and sometimes his battle is against strong forces which hold great power in certain times and places. The death of one Pharaoh, and his replacement with another, seems to present an opportune moment for change. I suggested on Sunday that this could be compared with the regime changes in South Africa and the USSR where the incoming governments of FW De Klerk and Mikhail Gorbachev presented the possibility of the end of Apartheid and Communism. After the service, someone pointed out to me that this doesn’t mean God wasn’t doing anything during the darkest moments of these regimes, which is an important point to bear in mind. People were praying, God was intervening in certain ‘micro’ cases, but the timing wasn’t right for the ultimate ‘macro’ downfall of these evil structures.

Finally, there’s no escaping the importance in this Exodus story of the role of the slaves themselves. The end of Exodus 2 describes their groaning rising up to God, and somehow mobilising him, causing him to become active in the circumstances of Israel. Could it be that there are moments when our own despair and lack of hope, our servile acceptance of circumstances or belief that things will never change, limit the extent to which God can work in our lives and our church? 


  1. Yes. Is it possible that this limiting is our normal experience of church, and since we have known no other we, like the Israelites, continue to muddle through? Often it seems that a worsening of circumstances or a sudden crisis are what causes God's people to start groaning with a reality which "mobilises God" to action instead of wearying him.
    Are we too comfortable with our mediocre spirituality, seeking to maintain the status quo we understand or even return to the "good old days" instead of being radically, sacrificially committed to God's mission? That's arguably why setting up the TLG centre moved us forward - we took a risk with God. The challenge is to keep moving forward and not to build a permanent camp on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea.

  2. Could it be that we have to be at certain closeness to God for Him to listen to our groaning?