I’m reading through the Bible again this year, and I’m about done with the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of Moses). You know, after the 7th time through in my lifetime and after teaching this amazing book for 20+ years, I still find certain passages tough to chew. I’m not just talking about the many rules about hygiene (“if the sore is pussy or running, take the person outside of camp…”), I’m talking about the parts that reflect darkly on the character of God.
You’d think I’d be used to the “problem passages” by now. In fact, I’ve already taught on all these hard passages many times, and I’ve explained to others how to reconcile the harsh parts of the Old Testament, with the New. And mostly I’m settled about that, but this time, I realized I have a special problem with Moses and here’s why.
When there’s something difficult that God says in Scripture, often you can see the difficulty mitigated through the lenses of the culture in which God spoke and the language, personality and situation of the mouthpiece. In fact, the doctrine of how Christians believe God inspires people is all about understanding the synthesis between the Holy Spirit’s carrying the writer, without that writer being sort of ‘zombified” in the process.
But in the Mosaic law, more than other parts of the Bible, the “normal” process of inspiration is suspended. With Moses, it’s the most like dictation. To be clear, there is still the human agent, Moses, and others who compiled and edited the material. But in this part of the Bible, the text is clear that God spoke to Moses in a VERY unique way:
- Ex 33:11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. NIV
I don’t think I’m being heretical when I say that Moses seems to carry some unique Authority compared to other prophets because again, the text states:
- Num 12:6-8 When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord . NIV
Like I said, “unique”.
But see, that being the case, it makes the tough parts even tougher! – when God personally, verbally, without caveat or qualification, or the filter of the human agent, says something very hard to stomach. Like
- Numbers 25:4 The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord…”
When I recently struggled with this again, it was helpful to re-remember certain facts. For example, with the Prophets and Jesus himself, when they distilled all this Mosaic Law, they were powerfully captured by one thing: its emphasis on mercy. What? Also, by its sweeping concern for justice and humility and yes, love. Huh? Yes! This is what Moses boiled down to for men like Jeremiah, Micah and Jesus himself. (Jer 7:5,6; Micah 6:8, Matt 9:13).
So, what does that tell you? How is it, that Jewish men, born and bred into this (at times) “brutal” law, bathed in it from childhood, could come out as champions of human life, and freedom and measured governments rather than tyranny, and lovers of outsiders and defenders of the poor and oppressed? – without ever uttering a single word against Moses himself? Championing him, in fact. Clearly, if what I’m getting out of Moses is “brutal lack of mercy” and what those men are getting is “mercy, justice and walking humbly with God” – something is broken with how I’m reading him.
What it tells me is that the Law of Moses was, by comparison to the normal values of a brutal Ancient Near East culture, a magnum opus on human rights. By comparison to how cheap life was in that world, a world of vengeance killings and might making right and lawlessness, and sexual immorality and violence, Moses Law was a Magna Carta. A literal liberty bell of individual rights coupled with the rule of law, not men. A defense of small people against the hording of wealth and power. A love letter to outsiders and slaves and foreigners about their dignity and worth.
I can see this WHEN and only when I see it in this historical perspective. When I look at it from my myopic, historo-centric perspective, and arrogantly assume I’m living at the pinnacle of human moral development, I can’t see it. But through the lens of biblical history, it is easier to focus less on the few instances of the harsh application of the Law, and more on the many instances of these literally revolutionary ideas found in Moses: fairness, balanced justice, justice having color/social blindness, help for the poor and oppressed – yes, even concern for slaves and women, though to our modern ears these are only notable in not going
nearly far enough.
All this helps the tough parts go down – and literally changes the way I see it, puts different lenses on my reading eyes. I’m inspired, not embarrassed.
But I’m still not through the “face to face” thing. I know what I’m supposed to say. My defense of every part of the Old Testament picture of God that seems incongruent with the New is that they simply didn’t get the FULL picture. They got some, not all. Progressive Revelation. They couldn’t handle it all, we say; the fullness of God’s purposes couldn’t be known all at once, we say; God was turning the Titanic of human fallenness around and couldn’t do it in a day, we say.
Fine. Totally accept that. BUT, in Moses, we get direct, face to face, “THUS SAITH THE LORD” type of Revelation. So if God was “hiding” part of himself, or his plan, shouldn’t at least that have been stated directly somehow? Since Moses saw the Lord in an unclouded way, and these communications are supposed to be compatible with the teaching of Jesus, shouldn’t we at least get a hint from God to Moses that he didn’t have the full meal deal yet?
As I considered that, I suddenly remembered that in fact, the Law contains just such a hint! Much more than a hint, actually. Remember in Exodus 33, Moses requests to see God. And God agrees to show himself to Moses – but ONLY PARTLY!! So, in Moses’s experience of the Glory of the Almighty, God was saying something quite clearly, “Moses, you DON’T see it all. You can know me, and I’ve picked you and love you, and I speak to you, but I haven’t spoken ALL and you still don’t know ALL. I’m deliberately hiding some of myself from you.”
So even within Moses’ “face to face” relationship with the Lord, I’m to anticipate that MORE of God will be revealed someday.
Therefore, even if God does give direct, difficult to swallow commandments, like say to exterminate the tribes of Canaan, that same God can still be the Father of Jesus who says, “love your enemies”. There was some things God said and did without giving away all that he was.
And there is no fundamental incompatibility IF we realize the grace and justice that underlies all this revelation of the character of God. By Grace, God will give laws to stem the tide of human depravity. By Grace God will command and support the conquest of the land that Israel doesn’t currently possess, just because of his promises to the Patriarchs. And by grace, Jesus says to all outsiders, you shall have the Kingdom. Justice is in both pictures too, because sin is being judged in Israel and in Canaan, and those who refuse the loving Christ will naturally experience the opposite of his beauty in eternity. For there to be FUNDAMENTAL incompatibility between Moses and Jesus, we would have see no Grace in the Law and no Law in the Grace. As it is, we see both/and.
Speaking of which, one last thing… when God does pass by Moses, he speaks… and here is where God tantalizingly foreshadows the full revelation of his Character that awaits in the Christ:
- Ex 34:6-7 “The Lord, the Lord , the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. “
Wait – this is God? This is clearly not Mars, or Baal, or Thor. The I AM, the self-existent one, the LORD, is compassionate and gracious? This is his character, his NAME? When he “unmasks himself”, even partly, it’s very first thing out of his mouth? Slow to anger, abounding in love? Forgiving rebellion?
This is amazing!
What more would a God like this reveal in the fullness of time? More than Moses or any of his peers can handle. Not totally new, incompatible disclosures, but earth shaking, supplemental ones. Thus, I can agree, it was the very same God of Moses who stooped to reveal himself MOST fully, with unmasked clarity, in the Son. So the Son is superior to Moses in every way, but Moses, having tasted of the Compassionate and Gracious One, “rejoiced to see his Day.”