Arguing with God

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

There are a few of these “arguments with God” in the Bible. I have always found these stories fascinating. In the Hebrew Bible, the protagonist is a chosen friend of God, holy and righteous. When the LORD threatens destruction to human life, the protagonist protests and attempts to persuade God. The human protagonist in these stories temporarily appears to have a better grip on God’s essential character – righteous, generous, and merciful – than the LORD does!

These days, we think of a conversation with God in which the human tries to change God’s mind as at worst a descent into a pagan understanding of prayer and at best a delusion. Of course, God does not “forget” compassion and mercy as the narrative seems to imply. Yet these stories remain, somehow, compelling and true, and we read them in the liturgy.

In the Roman Catholic lectionary, year C appears to be the year of Divine Negotiation: the 16th Sunday in Ordinary time (July 21, 2013) hosts Genesis 18:20-32, the story of Abraham asking God not to destroy the innocent of Sodom together with the guilty. The 24th Sunday (Sept 15, 2013) proclaims Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14, in which Moses begs the LORD not to embarrass himself by destroying his people on account of their idolatry. The Revised Common Lectionary also includes these readings, although they are alternates from the prophetic texts suggested for these days. In addition, both lectionaries include Luke 18:1-8, the parable of the unjust judge, five weeks later (the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time or 22nd Sunday After Pentecost, October 20, 2013).

The story of the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28), read on August 14 this year according to both the Roman Catholic and the Revised Common Lectionary should also be understood within this Biblical tradition:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

When I’ve taught this passage to undergraduates, their first reaction is shock at Jesus’ apparent callousness and narrow-mindedness. Like God in the Exodus story, Jesus is portrayed here as echoing, presumably, a common view of justice and mercy among his contemporaries. The woman’s boldness not only challenges his assumptions but the reader’s. The final reversal is then an especially striking testimony that Jesus’ ministry would eventually save not only Jews but Gentiles as well; that God’s love extends not only to “those like us” but “those we do not like.”

Do you find this passage challenging? How would you interpret it in a homily, or how would you like to hear it interpreted?

20 comments

  1. “presumably, a common view of justice and mercy among his contemporaries”
    I fail to see your point. God’s justice and mercy are eternal, and do not change, being the same in the past, present, and future, and so it is up to us in this world of time and change to try and understand these.
    These Biblical events, it would seem, are trying to teach us the importance of faith in God, the priority of the first great commandment over the second, using the language and experience of man.

  2. The human Jesus had to learn [he grew in wisdom and age and grace]. He realized that the Canaanite woman was right and that the common view of justice and mercy among his contemporaries was wrong. He was humble enough to learn from a foreign woman!

  3. I LOVE these narratives, and I love preaching on them. Today, for example, with the narrative of the Canaanite woman, I talked about Jesus’ version of “charity begins at home” and how the woman debunks the notion. Of course the story raises the question of what Jesus is looking for in Tyre and Sidon to begin with? What did he go out to see? Fellow Jews? Not really likely. In the richest Gentile city in the area (and on the trading route from Baalbek, a center of Caananite religion), especially with the Canaanites as the great enemy of occupying the Land, Jesus has certainly gone looking for the encounter.

    Of course, the Father’s mercy and love never change. Through the Incarnation and Ascension, however, time/space/matter/changeability/stuff become part and parcel of the Trinity. As Jesus grows in wisdom and grace, learns, this must be part and parcel of the encounter with the Divine.

    Then there’s the point Lewis makes so well in The Horse and His Boy: all true devotion, whatever its nominal object, is motivated and directed to the one true God. So the Canaanite woman has been faithful all along, though perhaps “in disguise”.

    I’m sure there’s more, but that’s enough for morning Mass.

  4. I heard it beautifully interpreted this noon at Mass – the “nameless” Canaanite woman made herself heard to the Lord, despite his “dog” quip to her, and the Lord had the revelation of His ministry expanded by her faith.
    Of the 4 people involved, the daughter was upheld by a mother who loved her enough to bear the scorn of being called a dog, and was healed. The mother’s tenacity of faith was affirmed. Jesus came to a deeper awareness of The reaches of His ministry through this woman’s faith. The only ones who did not fare so well were the disciples, who wanted to send the woman away because she was bothering them!
    I thought this homily showed a wonderful depth of understanding of this sometimes troublesome story.

  5. I like these passages very much, especially the one with the Canaanite woman. God changes his mind! 🙂 Theologically not possible, I guess, but the idea gives me hope. I argue with God all the time, and while one part of me is cringing about giving God advice, most of me is more concerned with 1) being honest, and 2) having faith that God is better than we’ve been led to believe, that he’s just hoping that we’ll stand up for what’s right even in the face of scripture. I had a post about this a while ago – If Jesus can change, so can the church

  6. Particularly after Crystal’s comment, I find myself thinking about my own prayer life – especially my petitions, what I’m asking God for and why. Sometimes my conversation with God goes something like this …

    Me: God, will you do this? Please help me/someone else. I really want this.

    God: Why this? What is this about? Do you think this is what is best?

    The conversation is about helping me to dig deeper, to understand myself, to search my heart – sort of like conversations with my Mother and Father often seemed like diversions from their starting points, but in reality were helping me to grow, and sometimes to change my request.

    Perhaps that’s part of what Jesus is up to in this story.

  7. I think of these stories whenever someone proposes that we should show reverence by kneeling. Certainly Abraham was a gracious host, bu he also argued with the Angel of the Lord to attempt to save Sodom. I won’t deny anyone the right to worship as they feel best, but I think God prefers a worshiper willing to stand upright and face Her. 😉

  8. I think it is a real mistake to read every Scripture passage for some eternal theological meaning.

    Maybe the better question to ask, instead of whether the passages imply anything about the changeableness of Jesus/God is to ask what the Scriptural authors were trying to get across to the original audiences.

    Maybe the authors are trying to get their audiences to think more mercifully instead of legalistically?

    1. Maybe the better question to ask, instead of whether the passages imply anything about the changeableness of Jesus/God is to ask what the Scriptural authors were trying to get across to the original audiences.

      I agree that this is a good question to ask, but really only as a prelude to asking what God, as the ultimate author of Scripture, is trying to get across to us. But perhaps this goes without saying.

      1. While the Bible is the Word of God it is not the words of God. It’s more sensible, if difficult, to seek to determine what the human authors intended.

  9. This sort of reminds me of the Wedding at Cana dialogue between our Lord and his mother:

    “And the wine failing, the mother of Jesus saith to him: They have no wine. And Jesus saith to her: Woman, what is that to me and to thee? my hour is not yet come. His mother saith to the waiters: Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye” (Jn 2, 2-5).

    Maybe this is a childish analysis, but now I’m thinking… If our request is made in purity and sincerity of heart and it doesn’t run contrary to the goodness of God, perhaps our prayer can have an effect on the Divine will…maybe?

  10. Is it possible that, in some of these accounts (my favourite is Moses arguing God down to saving the people if only ten righteous could be found), it is not God, after all, who is being tried or whose mercy is in question; rather, it is Moses or the other persons discoursing with God, who are really the ones on trial. Ultimately, they would not in fact have been talking to God but a certain other creature if, perchance, they had said something on the order of ‘O God, your judgment is always just and it is fitting, then, for these people to perish’. It is the heart of God’s interlocutor which is being tried – and found to have the requisite mercy and compassion for his or her fellow humans. I have read Jewish theologians who stated that such stories showed how fickle God was! Like Miss Kauch, above, I think, rather, that God only talks to those with compassionate hearts who will stand up to Him to demand that He be His compassionate Self.
    This is as important in our time when we make moral judgments about others as it was in Moses’ time. We should always commend them (even insistently) to God’s mercy and compassion. Many have been the times at which I heard someone say of others that they are such and such, or they do such and such, and they are going you know where – it’s God’s law, the Church’s teaching and on and on. Such judgments are made on paper-thin ice. There is only One who is judge.
    And, Tom Poelker’s final point just above is spot on.

  11. I generally take it as axiomatic that God is eternal and unchanging, which I presume also means that God cannot “change his mind.” But I take it as also axiomatic that we have no adequate way of conceptualizing what it means when we say that God is “eternal” and “unchanging.” We certainly do not have a sufficiently adequate grasp on what it means for us to decide that we ought not to petition God in prayer for the things that we need and desire. We ought, rather, to trust that, like Canaanite woman, we ought to ask God for what we desire and let God worry about how this fits in with divine eternity and immutability.

    1. The God who does not change, is not the God of the Jewish Bible. See Jonah, and in particular Jonah 3.10.

      “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

      1. Interesting that everyone seems to want God and his church to change, presumably to suit them. Why is there no recognition that it is WE who have to change to be more in unison with God’s will?

      2. If only it were that simple, John Drake!
        If only we could settle an argument by slandering those who think differently!

        Could we please acknowledge that all sides are seeking the will of God? And that it is extraordinarily difficult for us (at all levels, including the hierarchy) to know the will of God? And that all sorts of people and entities (laity, clergy, religious, hierarchy, theologians, tradition itself) have gotten wrong what the will of God is down through the centuries?

        Then we maybe could have a serious, respectful conversation about what the will of God is today, and we could listen to all voices when we’re not in agreement about God’s will.

        Pax,
        awr

      3. Actually, John, I was being totally honest when I said I found this kind of passage fascinating but challenging. It is theologically challenging to reconcile it with God’s eternal and endless mercy – the comments here have raised some very interesting responses to that challenge. But I also find it personally challenging, because the boldness shown by both Moses and the Canaanite woman in these stories does not come naturally to me. The confidence with God (parrhesia, in Greek. Wikipedia’s “Parrhesia” article puts it well: “It implies not only freedom of speech, but the obligation to speak the truth for the common good, even at personal risk”) that is exemplified by these is treated in Acts as a proof of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration (Acts 4).

        To be forced to speak the truth to God, to be totally honest with myself in God’s sight – now that is a frightening thought. We are all different and have different challenges.

  12. Recommend: “Job: The First Dissident” by William Safire as a primer for establishing ongoing, argumentative give-and-take with God as a requirement for defining the chosen people. He was always a good read when he stayed away from political topics.

  13. I’m reminded of Berish in The Trial of God by Elie Wiesel:
    I live as a Jew, and it is as a Jew that I shall die – and it is as a Jew that, with my last breath, I shall shout my protest to God. And because the end is near, I shall shout louder! Because the end is near, I’ll tell Him that He’s more guilty than ever! (Page 156)

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