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?