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“This Is Who I Am”

Date: July 14, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

Exodus 33:12 – 34:9

Thursday night, after my Zoom class ended, I went downstairs and joined Mike, who was watching TV.  First he was watching something about the philosophy and practice of “eugenics” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was wildly popular in the United States until the Depression, and which underlay many of the monstrous deeds of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

After that he turned to a much lighter subject, an archaeological expedition of sorts that took place in southern California.[1]  This expedition happened at the dunes near the town of Guadalupe, the site on which Cecil B. DeMille had filmed his first version of The Ten Commandments, released in 1923.  There were rumors that, rather than hauling the enormous, extravagant set away like they were supposed to, DeMille’s crew simply dismantled it and buried it. 

It took more than 30 years to get the excavation underway, 30 years of financial troubles, bureaucratic nightmares, people being excited and then walking away when there was trouble (understandably so, because there were some pretty serious legal and professional consequences if they found themselves on the wrong side of laws and regulations).  The story of all that was interspersed with scenes from the film, interviews of folks who had been there at the time (many of whom had been children involved in or observing the filming) and DeMille’s surviving family members, along with plenty of trivia about the movie and DeMille’s career.[2]  It was awfully interesting, and I stayed up way too late watching it for someone who actually had to work the next day.

My first semester of seminary, as is normal for beginning seminarians, I took an Old Testament class.  The professor liked to compare texts we were studying to the “Cecil B. DeMille version.”  The differences, of course, mainly involve special effects and a heightened dramatic effect in the film versions.  Now and then we’d get an imaginary phone call between DeMille and a screenwriter, with the writer trying to explain a scene he wanted to do as true as possible to the original in the Bible, and DeMille talking him out of it, saying it wasn’t dramatic enough, or was too weird, or otherwise not really what a Hollywood blockbuster should include.

(Personally I think, and I think our professor also thought, that the story as we have it in the Book is dramatic enough; and furthermore, since Biblical illiteracy runs rampant in our country these days, I feel like we have a responsibility to re-create stories from the Bible as accurately as possible, lest people believe something is in the Bible that isn’t really there—like the notion, nurtured by Hollywood, that Bathsheba tempted David and was actually responsible for the incident we read about in 2 Samuel 11—12.)

It’s been quite awhile since I saw the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, and I’ve never seen the 1923 one.  But one thing I remember is that the episode involving Moses on the mountain and Aaron down in the valley building the Israelites a golden calf is filled with drama and special effects.  Again I think it’s quite dramatic on its own, with tablets being smashed and the idol being ground into powder and force-fed to the Israelites.

But what comes after that is the best part.

After the first tablets are destroyed, and God and Moses talk one another out of destroying the Israelites, Moses goes back up the mountain to get new copies of the Law.  And Moses says to God, Look, these people do sort of have a point.  You brought them out of slavery, but they still don’t know your name or very much about you at all.

Are you going to go with us wherever we go?  Even after what the people have done?  Because if you’re not, number one, we will die, and number two, what would the nations who marveled at your power before, when you delivered this people from slavery and then from Pharaoh’s army, think about you?

And the Lord says to Moses, you can assure them that I will be with them.  God says it’s because Moses has found favor in God’s sight, and because God knows Moses by name.

Then Moses says, okay, you know me; now let me know you:  show me your glory.  He wants to see all of God’s radiance and presence and power, a demonstration that would be so awe-inspiring and spectacular as to destroy any shadow of a doubt not just Moses but all the people of Israel might have.

Interestingly, though, God sidesteps Moses’ request.  In response to Moses asking to see God’s glory, God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you.”  It’s not the same thing, is it?  Moses asks for God’s glory, and God offers God’s goodness.

But what do you suppose a people who’ve just been caught sinning a very great sin really need to experience?  God’s awesome and terrible glory, a display of frightful power?  Or God’s awesome and wonderful goodness, a display of grace and mercy?

So the next morning, back goes Moses to the top of Mount Sinai, with two new stone tablets, and down comes God to stand with him.  God puts Moses in a cleft of the rock, and God’s hand covers Moses as God passes by, so Moses only sees God’s backside and hears God’s voice.[3]

Isn’t that so often how it is, when we discover we’ve been visited by God’s Presence?  We don’t necessarily know that’s what we’ve experienced until it’s over, and we might even find ourselves questioning whether that’s what really happened.  For heaven’s sake—literally—if God’s glory were shown, thoroughly and unmistakably, there wouldn’t be a single person on the planet who’d be an atheist, or even have doubts.

But one commentator on this text said that’s precisely why God said, “No one shall see me and live.”  Such clear and incontrovertible evidence of God’s existence would remove human freedom to believe or not believe—and human freedom to choose to turn or not turn toward God is, in this commentator’s view, the essence of human life.  Take away our freedom, and you take away our life.

“No one shall see God and live.”  If God’s glory were shown to us that clearly, there’d be no need to question, to think things through, to open our eyes and watch for signs of God, no need for a vast number of things that make us human…no need for faith.

And then comes God’s word—first the Name, considered by many people, including most if not all Jews and a great many Christians, including myself, too holy to speak, too powerful to be tossed around like any other word or even any other name.  Then God offers a little bit of commentary on the Name and the divine nature behind it:

…a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love to the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children
to the third and fourth generation.

In two verses of poetry, we have everything we need to know about God:  God’s justice, as well as God’s mercy, and God’s absolute commitment—even in the face of their sin—to the covenant God has made with the people of Israel.  And the formula we find here to describe God—merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness—is so important that it shows up all over the Old Testament.  It’s in several of the Psalms.

It even shows up in the book of Jonah:  it’s precisely the reason why Jonah doesn’t want to go preach to the city of Nineveh.[4]  If Nineveh hears Jonah’s warning, and they repent of their sin, Jonah knows God will forgive them.  But Nineveh is the enemy of Jonah and Jonah’s people, so Jonah doesn’t want them forgiven!

God is much too big for any human being to grasp fully.  God’s nature is much bigger and much more complex than any image we might have in our heads of what God is like.  But we have to have the images, or else we can’t think about God at all.

So what do we have to do?  We have to check whatever image of God we hold most dear against what God said in our text today about God’s self.

God as Father?  I think that one works just fine.

God as Mother?  A bit jarring to those of us who’ve been raised calling God Father, but not at all out of line with “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

“The Lord is my shepherd”?[5]  Definitely okay.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble”?[6]  Heavens, yes.

“God hates”…whoever?  Nope, that one’s no good.

And we Christians believe that there is one person who reveals most clearly what God is like:  Jesus Christ.  When we know Jesus, we know God.  And the reason for that is very obvious, says the writer of the Fourth Gospel.

“The Word,” says John, became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth.”[7]  Grace is the New Testament way of saying what the Old Testament calls “steadfast love,” in Hebrew hesed—God’s absolute and profound commitment to the covenant God has made with God’s people.  Truth is the way the New Testament says “faithfulness,” in Hebrew ’emet—God’s utter reliability and trustworthiness.  The reason why when we know Jesus we know God, according to the Fourth Gospel, is that Jesus is the embodiment of the essence of God’s nature—Jesus is God’s revelation in the flesh of what God revealed to Moses in words on Mount Sinai so many years before.

So Moses sees God’s backside and comes away knowing a little bit more about who God is:  a forgiving, merciful God, committed to this people that God has called from slavery into covenant.  And he bows down and prays this prayer to God:  We are a stiff-necked, stubborn people.  Without your grace and truth, we will surely die here in the wilderness.

And God says, “I promise”—and while human beings do break promises far more often than we’d like to admit, God’s promise means something.  “I will never fail you and I will never fail this people.”

[1] The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille, 2016, Prime Video.

[2] One of the most interesting was that H.B. Warner, who had starred as Jesus Christ in DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), wrote to DeMille from the nursing home where he lived to ask for a part in the 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments.  He appears in a short role as Amminadab, an old man who is carried out of Egypt as he recites Psalm 22 (which is the Psalm whose first verse Jesus is recorded in the Gospels as crying out from the cross).  Another is that the 1923 Red Sea was made out of gelatin.

[3] In 1 Kings 19, after receiving a death threat from Queen Jezebel, Elijah runs out into the wilderness and encounters God at this very same place.

[4] Jonah 4:2

[5] Psalm 23:1

[6] Psalm 46:1

[7] John 1:14