Samuel Balentine on God, Moses, and Openness

In the Torah’s vision of Sinai’s covenant liturgy, this affirmation takes center stage. Moses neither yields to God’s instructions to remain silent nor accepts God’s decision to move into the future without these people. Instead, he dares to believe that at this critical juncture between the judgment announced and its actualization, faith requires that he challenge God with a “loyal opposition.” Moses will not give up on the people God has entrusted to his leadership, even though their sinfulness deserves divine judgement. Instead, he stands before God as an advocate for those who have clearly failed to live up to God’s expectations. He will not simply accept that God’s decision to judge the people is unalterable and impervious to challenge or change. Instead, he questionsGod, believing that in a genuine covenant relationship, even divine decisions can be reimagined, rethought, recalculated. He will not believe that the future of a people called by God is recalculated. He will not believe that the future of a people called by God is determined exclusively by human weakness and incapacity. Instead, he prays in the firm conviction that the future remains ever open to God’s relentless commitment to love the unlovable, to forgive theundeserving, and to create out of human failure new possibilities for realizing ultimate objectives. (146)

Theological articulations such as this have increased since the publication of Terence Fretheim’s Suffering of God, where this model of God was articulated so forcefully and persuasively. This quote is not altogether unique to most modern discussions of Exodus 32, I admit. What was new to me in reading Balentine here was the connection he made between this event in Exodus and that attribution of Psalm 90 to Moses.

At this critical juncture–when the Davidic monarchy seems to have failed, the steadfast love of God to have waned, and the future of Israel to hang in the balance [Book Three of the Psalter; cf. Ps 89.46, 49]–the Psalter’s Book IV (Psalms 90-106) summons the community of faith back to the memory of Moses. The superscription of Psalm 90 is the only one that bears the name of Moses, and seven of the eight references to Moses in the Psalms occur in Book IV. IT is this “Moses-book” that constitutes the “theological heart” of the Psalter. The pivotal memory of Psalm 90 is Moses’ intercession with God at Sinai (Exod. 32:11-14), its nucleus recalled in verse 13: “Turn O LORD! How long? Repent concerning your servants!” This plea–not the expressions of God’s consuming wrath thatpreceded it (Ps. 90:7, 9, 11)–provides the foundation for the petition in verse 14 that the future of this fragile people be secured by God’s relentless love (hesed). In the Psalter’s final ordering of the prayers of Israel, the memory of Moses’ daring petition at Sinai instructs the faithful to believe and to live as if the future does indeed belong to the Lord who “reigns” (cf. Pss. 93, 95-99), even in a sinful and conflicted world. (147)

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