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I’ve been listening to Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), an open course from Yale University taught by Dr. Christine Hayes. In her session covering the Exodus to Sinai, she makes an interesting statement regarding Numbers 14. Moses comes down from Mt. Sanai to find that the Israelites have built a golden calf. God is so irate that God threatens to destroy everyone and start over with Moses.
Note God’s offer to start all over again with Moses. This is a pattern with this God. You know, he creates, gets upset, a flood wipes them out. Says, “Let’s start again. Mmm, still not to good. Let’s choose one person–Abraham–see how that goes. Eh. Disappointed. Let’s go with Moses.” So this is a bit of a pattern. But Moses refuses to accept the offer. And instead he defends the Israelites, and he averts their destruction.
She highlights an interesting parallel between the stories of Noah, Abraham and Moses that I’ve never noticed before. When God becomes frustrated with humanity, God destroys or alienates all but a chosen hero (and his family, of course). Each time, God starts anew with humanity, making a covenant with God’s chosen one.
However, unlike Noah and Abraham, Moses rejects God’s offer. Moses argues back and convinces God not to destroy the Israelites. In doing so Moses also implicitly rejects the opportunity to become a patriarch. He had the opportunity to become the sole heir of the covenant offered to Abraham. He would have certainly received fame, glory and prestige for being the instigator of the Exodus, the sole progenitor of all subsequent Israelites, and the recipient of a new covenant with God. Rather he bypasses all of that, seemingly without aforethought. He responds with an act of compassion. He begs God, “In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now” (Numbers 14:19, NIV). Moses chooses compassion and the sanctity of human life over glory and honor. God relents and promises not to destroy the Israelites.
This isn’t the only time that someone argues with God in the Bible, nor is it the only way that Moses’ life parallels that of Abraham’s. In Genesis 18 Abraham also argues with God and begs God to show mercy to the inhabitants of Sodom. (Hayes also clears up a common misconception here. The sin of Sodom was not, as many have assumed recently, homosexuality. The Bible states in multiple locations that it was for their inhospitality and failure to protect vulnerable aliens that Sodom was destroyed). Here, God says that for their wickedness, God will destroy Sodom. Abraham implores God to spare the city if God can find 50 righteous men. God submits, and Abraham counteroffers with 45 righteous men. Abraham eventually whittles God down to 10 righteous men. Unfortunately, all of the men of Sodom seemed intent on gang-raping their vulnerable guests, and you know the rest of the story. Nevertheless, like Moses, Abraham successfully argued with God for compassion in favor of destruction.
There is one additional instance of someone arguing with God (or at least, the Son of God) found in the Bible. This one comes from the Christian scriptures. Matthew 15:21-28 gives us an account of a Canaanite woman who argues with Jesus. She starts imploring him to come heal her sick daughter, to which Jesus replies “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel… It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” The Canaanite woman replies, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus relents and heals her daughter. Through this action, he offers divine blessing to a non-Israelite. Previously, God’s blessing had been exclusively for God’s chosen ones, Israel. The rest of the world would be blessed through Israel, but had not independent access to divine blessing. This expansion of YHWH’s blessing was substantial and would manifest itself more substantially in the first century after the death of Jesus at the hands of Paul and others.
I believe these passages make masterful use of literary techniques and do fascinating job of showing the evolution of humanity’s conceptions of the Logos. The accounts of Noah, Abraham, Moses and the Canaanite woman illustrate the moral growth of humanity’s understanding of God. In the case of Noah, God destroys the whole earth without consideration. God’s chosen one Abraham manages to talk God down from destroying Sodom if a remnant of righteous can be found. Moses manages to fully dissuade God from destroying the Israelites, although he has to make a significant personal sacrifice. The Canaanite woman convinces Jesus to heal a non-covenanted individual, expanding God’s grace and compassion across the chasm of ethnic boundaries which so often divided the ancient world.