13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 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 before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness. ’ 17 And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation. ’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”
20 Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.” (Numbers 14:13–20 ESV)
God is love. John writes this in his first letter, in his beautiful circular prose that makes me feel he’s losing his breath and possibly losing his balance, so giddy is he from the excitement over having encountered God the way he has.
Christians have believed this for a long, long time. And there’s no reason to doubt it. Because scripture says so. God is love.
And yet, there seems to be a disconnect, between the God of love and forgiveness, the God of redemption and surrender we meet in Christ, and the God who walks through the garden in the cool of the day, who expels the man and the woman from the garden, who drowns the earth in its sinfulness, who reigns terror and death upon Sodom and Gomorrah, who terrorizes Egypt with darkness, sickness, and death, and then who commands Israel to dispossess an entire people and take the land of Canaan from those who are already there.
The Old Testament shows us a God of wrath, a God who if simply looked at wrong inflicts sickness and death upon God’s people. A God who rides out to war to fight for Israel, defeating its enemies and brining them victory.
Doesn’t seem like Christ to me. Doesn’t seem like the cross. Not this God. Marcion must have been right — they cannot possibly be the same God.
But what Moses does here, in this passage that follows almost right on the heels of yesterday’s, is very similar to what Jesus does in chapter eight of John’s Gospel when he stands with and forgives the woman accused of adultery. He intercedes between the accused and her accusers, shaming those who judge, making a public case for and obtaining mercy.
Unlike Jesus, who deals with the religious leaders of his age, Moses got face-to-face with God here, because God has grown extremely exasperated with the Israelites, who all want to go back to Egypt, rejecting the saving work of God who not long ago yanked them out of Egypt. “I will strike them down and abandon them,” God says, “and start over and make a great nation from you, Moses.”
This is where Moses gets clever and shames The Lord. “What will people think when they see that you’ve blotted out and destroyed the people you only recently saved? What good is a God who would do that?” And besides, Moses adds, show the world that you are indeed a merciful God, a God who forgives.
And God … forgives. He is convinced, he is shamed into forgiveness because Moses talked him down from doing something rash and stupid. But it is still forgiveness.
Israel lives to see another day.
If you read the Bible carefully, something becomes readily apparent. Over time, as God reaches through the mess of the world to meet his people, God is changed. God demands less, expects less, and gives more. God holds less and less against faithless, wayward Israel, and promises to do more and more. God figures out what we simply are not capable of doing. God gives more of himself, inserts more of himself, promises more of himself, takes on more of the burdens of his people. Until God becomes one of his very own people. And assumes all of our sins and all of our burdens.
The creator is changed by his encounter with the creation, and with us, the creatures he fashioned from us breathed a bit of his spirit, his wind, his breath, into. Changed … for the better. Until he becomes a thing of mud himself.
But make no mistake, that incarnate God who proclaims forgiveness, who heals and casts out demons and feeds masses, who breaks bread and goes to his death on a cross, is the same God who breathed the universe into existence and had to be shamed into forgiving Israel because, well, what would people think of such a God? The God who seemed so wholly other that we could not even gaze upon him, not even behold his glory, now comes to us as a man, finite and fragile, bleeding and broken.
God is love. But not a sentimental love, the kind that cannot bear sorrow or suffering, that evaporates at the first sign of faithlessness. God’s love is a hard, unflinching love that finds us right where we are in a violent, brutal, cruel world. And does not let go.
Because God, who was changed in his encounter with us, knows that we can and will be changed. Utterly and completely. In our encounter with him.