Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Friends with God? Moses and the Possibility of Covenantal Friendship

Friends with God? Moses and the Possibility of Covenantal Friendship

Jacqueline E Lapsley. Interpretation. Richmond: Apr 2004.Vol.58, Iss. 2; pg. 117, 13 pgs Copyright Interpretation Apr 2004

The friendship shared by Moses and God offers a more appropriate model of faithfulness than Israel's prescribed obedience. The intimacy of their relationship offers an alternative model for the church's relationship to God, a countercultural "covenantal friendship."
After accepting the invitation to write on "friendship and covenant," a Bible scholar friend asked me: "What are you going to say? Those ideas seem completely antithetical to me." At first glance, the evidence seems to support this assessment. Consensus affirms that the covenantal relationship between Israel and God in the Old Testament demands Israel's obedience to the covenantal stipulations or the law. For the last half-century, scholarship has viewed this relationship through the lens of ancient Near Eastern treaties, in which a sovereign enters into a highly structured relationship with a vassal. This would appear to be barren ground for exploring notions of divine-human friendship. It is difficult to imagine a definition of "friendship" elastic enough to describe the relationship between a vassal and his overlord without rendering the concept itself useless.
So is there anything positive to say about friendship in the context of Israel's covenantal relationship with God? Indeed, there is. I propose that the friendship between God and Moses offers a model of covenant faithfulness for the whole people of God.1 While outlining four important qualities of their friendship, I will give most attention to the last one, the honest expression of emotion, because it is a key element not only in the friendship between God and Moses, but also, as I will argue, in the covenantal friendship between the people and God.
Dictionary definitions are usually of limited use in this kind of exploration, but the following one highlights something quite helpful: "One joined to another in mutual benevolence and intimacy," excluding relatives or lovers.2 Intimacy-a core characteristic of friendship-was foundational to Moses' relationship with God. The same intimacy present in YHWH'S initiating encounter with Moses at the burning bush characterizes their relationship throughout Exodus and Numbers. To delve more deeply into the nature of Moses' relationship with God, I will focus on one significant passage, the conversation between Moses and God in Exod 33:7-11. This passage is useful for reflection on friendship and covenant for several reasons. First, it offers a unique window into a significant moment in Moses' covenantal mediation between God and the people. The passage falls within the golden calf episode and its aftermath and, as such, narrates a critical moment in Israel's history. More particularly, as Childs observes, w. 7-11 are a "pale shadow of Ex. 19" and therefore provide "another link to the renewal of the broken covenant which is consummated in ch. 34."3 second, these verses reveal much about the relationship between Moses and God by describing, for example, not one particular event but a recurring pattern of behavior over the long term ("Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it..."). Furthermore, as part of the encounter at the Tent of Meeting, the passage is characterized by Ellen Davis as "the most intimate exchange between [Moses and God] that we are privileged to witness."4 Finally, Exod 33:11 tells us explicitly that "the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend." Commentators frequently observe that the "face-to-face" quality of this instance of divine-human interaction suggests an intense intimacy, an unmediated immediacy with the deity unavailable to most other individuals and to Israel as a people.5 But few note the second part of the phrase, "as one speaks to a friend."
There is reason for this reticence. The Hebrew expression translated here "as one speaks to a friend" occurs fifteen times in the Old Testament, but this is the only occurrence that the NRSV, along with many other translations, chooses to render as "friend." For the most part, the expression 'if 'el-reehu-woodenly, "a man to his neighbor"-is appropriately translated in the NRSV "one to another" as in "they said to one another,"6 or in certain legal contexts (e.g., "when someone delivers to another.. .").7 The expression seems to denote reciprocity among equals,8 but without necessarily invoking amicable relations. It is thus not immediately evident that "friend" is a warranted translation. In fact, it might seem like special pleading to adopt "friend" here and nowhere else. Nonetheless, I want to argue that most English translations are justified in maintaining the tradition of the KJV, which offers: "as a man speaketh unto his friend."9 The argument that friendship is a meaningful category in this context relies less on the translations of this phrase elsewhere than on the fuller portrait of the relationship between Moses and God in Exodus and in the Pentateuch more broadly. Even a brief review of this portrait will suggest that Moses and God were indeed friends, and that their friendship has four significant features worthy of our attention.
But a further difficulty emerges: Moses is typically portrayed as exceptional, not a genuine model of what is possible for the people of Israel or for contemporary Christians. (Yet I will argue that friendship is a meaningful way of conceiving our own relationship to God.) Moses' relationship is summed up in Deut 34:10 by way of contrast to the rest of Israel: "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face." The intimacy between Moses and God was not available to others, not even to other prophets. Walter Brueggemann observes: "No general immediacy or directness is offered to Israelites. When these [personal] encounters occur, they are indeed freighted, dangerous, and special. Israel's sense of Yahweh's relatedness is that Yahweh is only guardedly and rarely available to individual persons."10 To be sure, Israel's relationship with God is distinctly corporate; further, the individualism of contemporary forms of Christian piety would have been inconceivable in ancient Israel. Yet in addition to narratives of individual encounter (especially in the Pentateuch), the Psalms testify to the potential for a poignant and sometimes anguished intimacy in the divine-human relationship. The claim I want to make, then, is a bold one: the friendship between Moses and God is a more appropriate model for faithful readers of scripture than ancient Israel's model of distant obedience.
But first let us return to the question of "friend" as translation in Exod 33:11 in order to clarify some central issues. The context in which this phrase, 'îs 'el-rë'ëhû, occurs in Exodus 33 is not a simply a description of two interlocutors having a casual conversation or commenting on events unfolding before them, as is frequently the case in the other examples of the phrase. Rather, the passage involves a twofold description of how "the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend...." The latter clause must be understood in light of the former, which carries considerable theological significance. In Genesis 32, God memorably speaks face to face with Jacob, which results in Jacob not only naming the site Peniel ("Face of God") but alerting us to the intensity and danger of the encounter by means of a contrast: "I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved" (v. 31 [Eng. v. 30] ). The implication here, of course, is that a face-to-face encounter with the deity by rights ought to kill you. This is supported by Gideon's encounter with the angel of YHWH, in which YHWH assures Gideon that he will not die, despite having come face to face with a divine figure (Judg 6:22-23). The phrase (or a variation) is also used to describe encounters between God and the people as a whole, once in the context of judgment and another in the context of law-giving.11
Two observations emerge. First, the expression "face to face" exclusively describes divine-human, not human-human, encounters. secondly, these encounters are intense, dramatic, and fraught with danger, and so can hardly be described as "friendly" in the usual sense. Yet a curious feature arises. If the first part of the phrase describes unusual, extraordinary divine-human encounters, the second half of the phrase evokes the ordinariness of everyday conversations between people. Yet these opposing types of encounter-linked by kaäser ("just as")-appear to describe the same kind of experience. "Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face" (extraordinary divine-human occurrence), just as one person speaks to a friend" (everyday occurrence between people).12 A highly unusual, dangerous experience has become a customary, everyday occurrence. What for Jacob and Gideon was a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-forgotten experience of intimacy, becomes a regular experience for Moses, akin to the types of interactions that people ordinarily have with one another. This begins to look more akin to something like friendship, but not just any friendship, divine friendship, the unique friendship that God offers to humanity. Unlike most of the other occurrences of 'îs 'el-rë'ëhû, the verb here is not plural but singular ("one speaks").13 God is the subject of the speaking and enters as subject into what is elsewhere a uniquely human experience. In juxtaposing, indeed equating ("just as"), two starkly different kinds of encounters, and in taking up the human position in the reciprocal relation evoked in the latter phrase, God befriends Moses. The peculiar combination of mysterium tremendum and everyday chat in this verse not only confirms an understanding of Moses as friend to God, but attests to a core theological paradox at the heart of divine friendship. For Christians, the trajectory of this friendship leads ultimately to the incarnation and to the cross.
At least four salient features of this divine friendship emerge from the interactions between Moses and God in Exodus (already assuming intimacy as constitutive of all of them): habit, reciprocity, self-assertion, and a special category, emotion. We will examine each of these in turn. Interpreters have long puzzled over the way w. 7-11 fit into the over all structure of ch. 33. As Brevard Childs notes, "This section which is basically unified has no obvious connection with either what precedes or follows."14 This section seems to interrupt God's refusal to accompany Israel on the journey (as a result of the golden calf debacle) related in w. 1-6, with that topic picked up again in v. 12. Yet the description of Moses' actions in w. 7-11 anticipates the dialogue between God and Moses in v. 12 by providing a foundation for understanding the nature of their relationship over the long term. The NRSV appropriately translates the frequentive verbs in the passage with "used to": "Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp...." (33:7). This sketch in w. 7-11 describes not a one-time event, but the repeated, habitual actions of Moses and God. So v. 11 serves as a kind of summary: "Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend." In sharp distinction to the other individuals who encountered God "face to face" only once, Moses had these face-to-face meetings routinely. Like human friendship, divine friendship is not about a once-in-a-lifetime encounter, or even about casual, occasional meetings. Rather, it entails a commitment to regular encounters that form habitual practice.
In other instances of 'is 'el-reehu, we observe that reciprocity is a feature of nearly all these encounters. As mentioned above, most employ a plural verb or subject, thus ensuring reciprocity as a grammatical feature of the phrase. In our passage, however, the verb is singular: "just as one speaks [yedabber] to a friend . . .," so the reciprocal nature of the interaction is less apparent. Again, the singular verb with the phrase 'is 'el-reehu; is rare and thereby sets aside this instance as something different and significant beyond the mere casual interchange that the phrase often evokes elsewhere. Nonetheless, the reciprocity attending the phrase elsewhere is not absent here: "as one speaks to a friend" implies that the friend will respond in turn-a mutuality assumed in the expression itself. Further evidence beyond grammar is at hand, however. A brief review of the way Moses and God have interacted throughout Exodus to this point vividly and poignantly attests to the reciprocal nature of their relationship.
In contrast to these regular "face-to-face" meetings in ch. 33, when Moses first encountered God at the burning bush, he hid his face, "for he was afraid to look at God" (Exod 3:6). Yet even this initial conversation is marked by an unusual degree of give-and-take for a divine-human tête-à-tête. Moses listens to God's long introduction explaining the situation of the Israelites in Egypt and how Moses will go to Pharaoh and lead the people out of Egypt (w. 6-10), but then he protests that he is the wrong person for the job. Even though God assures Moses of the divine presence in this endeavor, Moses demurs again, this time over the question of the divine name (v. 13). Twice more Moses throws up objections only to have them addressed by the deity (4:1, 10). Finally he gets to the real point and begs: "O my Lord, please send someone else" (4:13). By measure of their resistance and persistence, Moses' five protestations (see 6:12, 30 for two more) represent an extreme example of the prophetic call. Furthermore, Moses' "pushing the envelope" here resembles Abraham's insistent bargaining over the fate of Sodom (Gen 18:22-33). Abraham is no doubt called a friend of God on account of his reputation for faithful obedience (e.g., Gen 22), but surely also because of the intimacy and mutuality demonstrated in this animated exchange with God.15 Both Abraham and Moses raise questions with God, mount objections to the proffered divine plan, and pointedly continue the conversation even after an initial objection has been addressed. In both cases, friendship with God is about listening to the divine word, and responding to it, usually not with acquiescence, then listening again to the divine response, and so on in an honest exchange of views and concerns.
This intense form of reciprocity appears most vividly when the welfare of the people is at stake. The intimacy of Moses' relationship with God empowers him to represent God to the people, but it equally empowers him to represent the people to God. This is most apparent in the fallout from the golden calf episode. The divine impulse is to destroy the people, but there is an obstacle-Moses. Both the significance of Moses as an intercessor and the mutuality of the relationship between God and Moses are exhibited most startlingly in the divine directive to Moses: "Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them ..." (Exod 32:1O).16 But Moses will not acquiesce to this divine imperative. Instead, he begins to reason with God, asking a number of pointed questions about the effects of such actions on God's reputation among the Egyptians (w. 11-12) and recalling God promises that should not now be abridged (v. 13). The result is that "the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people" (v. 14). Asking pertinent questions that risk impertinence is a sign of genuine friendship. And even after Moses has seen the people's sin for himself and expressed a rage akin to God's (32:19), he still intercedes on their behalf and traipses back up the mountain to plead: "Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin-but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written" (32:31-32).17 As Terence Fretheim notes, "Moses offers up his place among God's elect for the sake of the people's future."18 Friendship with God is born out of a deep care for God's people, for if Moses had cared less, he would not have intervened in this way. It is not a personal, individual relationship to be enjoyed alone, for its own sake. Rather, it is this care for the whole people of God that forms the context for divine friendship, and it is this care that feeds the mutuality and reciprocity of that friendship.
Closely related to reciprocity, self-assertion is another feature of divine friendship. In his first encounter with God at the burning bush, Moses hid his face, the first and the last time he evidenced any self-effacing tendencies. Moses' forthright self-assertion is evident in most of his interactions with God, but it is especially characteristic of his conversation with God after the golden calf incident. Again, the passage (w. 7-11) that describes the habitual "friendly" conversations between God and Moses is strategically placed. The order of events in ch. 33 underscores the significance of God's friendship with Moses. God's harsh decision not to be present among the people on their journey to the promised land (33:1-6) is followed by a thumbnail sketch of the long-term nature of the friendship between Moses and God (w. 7-11). This passage explains how Moses can make the kinds of claims on God that he asserts in the verses that follow (w. 12-16): it is only on the basis of a longstanding intimate friendship with God that Moses can initiate an effort to change God's mind about not being present among the people.19 His argument is tightly woven and strategically articulated: "Moses said to the LORD, 'See, you have said to me, "Bring up this people"; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me'" (v. 12). Moses introduces the topic by pointing out that God had given him a task but failed to supply him with adequate resources to complete the task.20 Furthermore, Moses presumes on his friendship with God by asking to be "shown God's ways" (v. 13). Their prior experience of friendship is a firm foundation on which Moses can assert himself; he is not cowed by the inherent inequities of being friends with God. This is an effective, if circumlocutionary, way of asking God to reconsider the decision not to accompany the people on their journey. Moses does not hesitate to offer his own opinions ("Consider too that this nation is your people," v. 13b) or assert himself with God whenever the welfare of the people is at stake. As Ellen Davis remarks, "It must be for his frankness that Moses is so beloved of God."21 Moses' self-assertion is closely related to the reciprocity discussed above: this divine-human friendship is characterized by an honest exchange of views when everything depends on such self-assertion and mutuality.22 THE FEELING(S) OF FRIENDSHIP
The fourth and last feature of divine friendship-emotion-is rarely considered as constitutive of a faithful relationship with God. I suggest that appropriate feelings are part of both Moses' relationship with God and the covenantal stipulations, elaborated most fully in Deuteronomy, by which all the people must abide. It is, in fact, the active role of emotion in the relationship between Moses and God, as well as between the people and God, that decidedly moves the relationship beyond fealty, as usually defined by the suzerainty treaty model from the ancient Near East, toward the intimacy of friendship. Divine friendship does not mean that obedience is any less important, for this is not a friendship between equal parties. This is why the phrase 'is 'el-reehu in Exod 33:11 seems so shocking-the phrase contains the inherent idea of a basic equality among those referenced. The collocation of mysterium tremendum and everyday chat is the paradox at the heart of divine-human friendship. Another aspect of this same paradox can be named as well: although this is clearly a relationship between unequal partners, God enters into a friendship of such intense intimacy and care that only the language of equality can approximate the depth of its mutuality.
We can see this first of all in the way Moses expresses a full palette of emotions to God. In his plea for a revelation of the divine glory in 33:12-23, Moses discloses his passionate desire to know God in an "emotional tone of the highest intensity."23 But even back in his first conversation with God, Moses repeatedly expresses his self-deprecation, fear, and general anxiety ("Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?" "But suppose they do not believe me . . . ?"; 3:11; 4:1, etc.). Uncowed, Moses continues to tell YHWH what he feels, without mincing words. When the Israelites find themselves even more oppressed on account of Moses' acts to "liberate" them, Moses complains to YHWH: "O LORD, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people" (5:22-23).24 The anger, or perhaps even rage, in this complaint recalls the language of lament psalms, even though Moses' anger is expressed utterly without apology or qualification insofar as there is no movement from or toward praise.
On the other end of the spectrum, Moses' deep love of God is reflected not only in his carrying out of the divine imperatives but in his desire to know YHWH. In the passage immediately following the one discussed above, Moses makes a rather imperious demand of YHWH: "Show me your glory" (33:18). Davis argues persuasively that this stunning request comes not from "Moses the religious-political leader of Israel... but [from] Moses the mystic, the ardent lover of God."25 Moses is not fundamentally motivated by duty, but by love, and this is a crucial difference between him and the people he leads (more on this below). In sum, the divine friendship between Moses and YHWH embraces a wide array of emotions-everything from rage to love-and none is seen as inappropriate to, or testing the limits of, that friendship. Moses faithfully represents YHWH to the people; his actions are performed less out of duty than as an expression of love, of the peculiar variety of friendship that is offered by God. The variety and depth of Moses' "negative" emotions in no way diminish his allegiance, or indeed love, for YHWH. On the contrary, the full range of emotions is part of Moses' divine friendship with God, and in a way that should not be underestimated, they make that friendship possible.
God's position is equally complex. While God famously demonstrates steadfast love in delivering the Israelites (hesed; Exod 15:13; 20:6; 34:6-7; cf. Deut 7:7-9), YHWH also becomes enraged with the people at fairly regular intervals, and this rage can even extend to Moses. Consider the bizarre episode in Exod 4:24-26, in which YHWH tries to kill Moses. This episode is strange enough to have prompted an unusual number of critical efforts to understand it. Most recent interpretations discern an ancient ritual of blood manipulation in the background of this story, although the meaning of the story itself remains enigmatic (Why is YHWH trying to kill Moses?).26 In the context of what has just transpired in chs. 3 and 4, it is not entirely absurd to suggest that God wants to kill Moses because he is failing as a potential leader of the people. In short, YHWH may be expressing a suppressed rage provoked by Moses' endless self-deprecation at the burning bush immediately preceding the attempted killing.27 After Moses' fifth attempt to get out of the job ("O my LORD, please send someone else," 4:13), "the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses ..." (4:14). Only ten verses later, "the LORD met [Moses] and tried to kill him" (4:24). Attempted murder is not part of the typical prophetic call narrative, of course, but this is the first time in the biblical narrative that YHWH has encountered such extreme resistance in one called to serve-Abraham, for example, was considerably more compliant. After Moses, YHWH seems to have developed a divine resignation toward resistance as a normal prophetic reaction. But in this early episode, it may be that Moses has provoked YHWH to kill him.28
This is less surprising when we consider the situation from the divine perspective: God has chosen Moses to lead God's people out of bondage, and he is not meeting expectations. His peculiar upbringing has uniquely prepared him for the task ahead-he is Hebrew but also Egyptian. he is a slave, but he travels in circles of supreme power. One senses that this was all part of the divine plan-to form Moses in this unique way to fit him for a unique task. But then he turns out to lack self-confidence and ask a lot of whimpering questions. With this in mind, God's attempt to kill him is more intelligible, though the episode's terror remains undiminished. It is as though God wants to abort this plan and develop a new one, perhaps with someone more confident and less demanding. Such violence in the context of friendship is, of course, chilling. But it is worth recalling that, at this point, Moses and YHWH are only at the beginning of their friendship; indeed they are not even friends yet. The friendship is forged in what follows in the book of Exodus, in the confrontation with Pharaoh, in the exodus itself, in the wilderness, and at Sinai-these form the anvil of the divine friendship forged between YHWH and Moses.
To highlight further the importance of emotion to divine friendship, it is worth leaving the particularity of Moses and God for a moment and enlarging our scope to consider how Deuteronomy envisions the emotional bond between the people and God. In Deut 7:7-8, Moses explicitly states that God's love for Israel (and thus acts of deliverance) is not based on rational considerations ("not because you were more numerous than any other people"), but has a completely irrational foundation: "It was because the LORD loved you [me'ahabat] and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors... ."29 The love is primary, while the oath to the ancestors is important but secondary. Repeated exhortations for Israel to love YHWH (and the stranger) shape the structure of Deut 10:12-11:1. While obedience to the commandments is a central manifestation of that love, Israel is also to mirror the kind of love that propels God toward Israel, and that is at root an inexplicable emotion. Everything on earth and in heaven belongs to God, "yet the LORD set his heart in love on your ancestors alone..." (Deut 10:15). Obedience is obligatory to the covenantal life and entails its own beauty, but only when the Israelites deepen and nurture their emotional bond of love do they reflect back to God the kind of love they have received. Indeed, I suspect that Deuteronomy does not distinguish between feeling and action as we do "naturally." In short, feelings of love are not something appropriate only to the relationship between Moses and God; they also play a crucial role in the covenantal relationship between the people and YHWH.
We should nonetheless be clear that, with both Moses and the people, God is the superior partner in this divine friendship. Yet some of the most significant and enduring friendships among people exist not among people who are similar in age, social location, status, or access to power, but among "unequal" partners. Many friendships form between disparate persons: between a younger, less experienced person and one who is older and wiser, between someone who is cognitively challenged and one who is not, between the powerful and the powerless, and so on. Certainly the character of these friendships is affected by these inequalities, and so in Israel's case. Israel owes its allegiance and its obedience to God, without question. But without intimacy and the feelings born of intimacy, the relationship between God and the people flounders. Obedience and feeling are interdependent; obedience follows feeling and feeling follows obedience in an endless circuit of faithfulness. It takes a friendship to make that faithfulness a reality over the long term.
I have argued that Moses and God exhibit-enjoy would be a better word-a divine friendship characterized by habit, reciprocity, self-assertion, and the widest possible array of honest emotional expression, all of which are rooted in an abiding mutual love. But how does this apply to us? I am making the claim that the friendship between Moses and God is a model for covenantal faithfulness, and so a model for us as we strive to read scripture faithfully. Yet I also mentioned the potential objection that Moses is unique-his experience, and so his friendship with God, are not meant to be emulated by us. And that is true, if by emulating Moses we mean that we should expect God to offer us individual personal encounters on a par with Moses. Brueggemann is right that such encounters are offered only to a few persons in the Old Testament. They are not the customary means of YHWH'S self-revelation. Nonetheless, the friendship between Moses and God is one the church must take seriously as a model for itself. This kind of divine friendship is not between any single individual and God; it is a "covenantal friendship" that God offers to the whole people.
The church has long identified with Israel in the Old Testament. But in this case, I think it would be more profitable to identify with Moses, again not as individuals but in our corporate life lived before God. No one disputes that the people in Exodus hardly represent the ideal model of faithfulness. Interpreters account for the failings of the people in various ways. Michael Walzer makes the cogent argument that their prior servitude inhibits the people from immediately being capable of faithfulness; they must grow into the responsibilities inherent in freedom.30 It is significant that Moses did not participate in his people's servitude-his habit of mind was formed in freedom-and as such he is capable of entering into and sustaining a friendship with God over the long term. In the episode of the golden calf, the people's theology of fear leads them to make an inert god they can get close to without fear when Moses does not immediately descend from the mountain. But Moses' friendship with God sustains him and his faith, even in the midst of severe testing, when he is caught between God's demands and the people's anger and faithlessness. The people, by contrast, view God as frightening and distant, with the result that their faithlessness begins immediately. Their lack of self-assertion renders their relationship with God a one-dimensional "faith" constituted by obedience alone. This "faith" cannot sustain them over the long term. In sum, while we are informed that "never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face" (Deut 34:10), this singularity may not be because God willed it so but because no one else demonstrated the same kind of habitual interaction, reciprocity, and self-assertion necessary to maintain a divine friendship over the long term (although Elijah comes close). For the church to read Exodus as scripture today, then, there is more reason to identify with Moses than with the people, and more reason to see in his friendship with God a path of faithfulness than in the slavish (dis)obedience of the people.
While individual friendships with God are not illegitimate or unsupported in the biblical witness (e.g., the Psalms), the book of Exodus offers a distinctly corporate understanding of friendship with God.31 No pietistic individualism undergirds the friendship offered here (this is no "Jesus and me" or even "YHWH and me" theology). Rather, Exodus holds up for Israel and for the church a vision of a sustaining and sustainable friendship-one strong enough to hold Moses and God together during the tumultuous years of bondage, deliverance, the wilderness, and arrival in the land. This contrasts sharply with a tendency of the contemporary church to mirror Israel's posture toward God in Exodus: we do not trust our covenantal friendship with God. The church sometimes cowers before God, afraid to admit our fear, disappointment, and anger, afraid to speak the truth or reveal how we experience (or do not experience) God in the world. I suspect that this problem is related to the way friendship is shaped by a business ethos in American society. Good business, for example, means "winning friends," according to Dale Carnegie whose number one principle for "winning friends" is "don't criticize, condemn or complain."32 The friendship between Moses and God offers the church a model for covenantal faithfulness that is thus distinctly countercultural; it pushes the boundaries of what we are comfortable calling "friendship."33
A lack of genuine friendship led Israel to abandon God in favor of other, more tangible gods, and so it is for us in the church, though we usually abandon God in more genteel ways, semi-embarrassed that things have just not worked out.34 The friendship between Moses and God rejects this posture and creates the possibility of a covenantal friendship in which questioning, cajoling, and demanding, sometimes in anger, are part of a normal, corporate friendship with God that makes covenant faithfulness possible. To reiterate, the expression of Moses' "negative" emotions toward God make their friendship possible. An honest emotional life is one of the core features missing from the relationship between YHWH and the people, and that emptiness leads them inevitably to disobedience. We would do well to adopt a more Moses-like attitude toward God, rather than the sometimes timid, resentful, or apathetic "respect" for God that characterizes Israel in Exodus and too often characterizes the church today.
Obedience without the sustenance of habitual communication, reciprocity, self-assertion, and a deep and broad emotional life leave Israel, and ultimately the church, perpetually disobedient to a covenant that does not reach their innermost being. Only a covenantal friendship with God could sustain them, and us.
[Sidebar] God enters into a friendship of such intense intimacy and care that only the language of equality can approximate the depth of its mutuality.
[Sidebar] The collocation of myster/um tremendum and everyday chat is the paradox at the heart of divine-human friendship.
[Sidebar] An honest emotional life is one of the core features missing from the relationship between YHWH and the people, and that emptiness leads them inevitably to disobedience.
[Footnote] 1 On the idea of covenant in Exodus, see D. E. Gowan, Theology in Exodus: Biblical Theology in the Form of a Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994) 173-78. 2 Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971) 545. 3 B. S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, OTL (Louisville: Westminster, 1974) 593. He notes the structural parallels between 33:7-11 and the initial ascent at Sinai. 4 E. E Davis, Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Boston: Cowley, 2001) 155. 5 T. E. Fretheim, Exodus, IBC (Louisville: John Knox, 1991) 296. Moberly sees 33:lla as "the turning point" of chs. 32-34, marking the transition from judgment to mercy (R.W.L. Moberly, At the Mountain of God: Story and Theology in Exodus 32-34, JSOTSup 22 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1983) 63-67). see Deut 5:4; 34:10; Jacob in Gen 32:30; Gideon in judg 6:22; and Ezek 20:35 in the context of divine judgment. 6 Gen 11:3; judg 6:29, 10:18; 1 Sam 10:11; 2 Kgs 7:3, 7:9; Jer 22:8, 46:16; Jonah 1:7; cf. Gen 43:33; Isa 13:8; 36:16. 7 Exod 22:10; cf. 22:7. The root of the translation difficulty lies in the word red itself having a wide range of meaning, denoting everything from "another person" to "neighbor" to "friend." 8 All of the examples above involve equal parties, and it appears to be an assumed element of the expression. More on the implications of this below. 9 Among the major translations, the most recent one from the Jewish Publication Society and the New American Bible stand out as exceptions; they opt for "as one man speaks to another." Curiously, the NAB translates part of the next verse "You are my intimate friend" (Exod 33:12). 10 W. Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997) 571. 11 Ezek 20:35: "I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face." A slightly different form of the phrase (with preposition b instead of 'el) appears in Deut 5:4, where Moses begins his recitation of events: "The LORD spoke with you face to face [panîm bepanîm] at the mountain, out of the fire." In this latter case, Moses immediately clarifies that while YHWH spoke to the people "face to face," he was nonetheless mediating the encounter (Deut 5:5). 12 NRSV, slightly modified. 13 The two exceptions are in the legal material of Exod 22: 7, 10: "When someone delivers to a neighbor...." 14 Childs, Exodus, 589-90. Recent interpreters who attend to the narrative structure are less inclined to see the verses as disjunctive. see M. R. Hauge, The Descent from the Mountain: Narrative Patterns in Exodus 19-40, JSOTSup 323 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001) 73-74; 159; G. Barbiero, "Ex. XXXIII 7-11: Eine synchrone Lekture," VT 50 (2000) 152-66. 15 Abraham is also described as a "friend [from 'ahab] of God" (Isa 41:8; 2 Chr 20:7; James 2:23). For this essay, I chose Moses because he displays an unusual tenacity and emotional depth in his friendship with God that endures through four biblical books, as well as for his pivotal role in the Sinai covenant. On Abraham, see B. W. Anderson, "Abraham, the Friend of God," foi 42 (1988) 353-66. 16 Emphasis added. 17 Emphasis added. Jeremy Schipper observes, in personal communication, that the people want to make a new god, and God, in angry response, wants to make a new people (from Moses' progeny [32:10]). Only Moses prevents this from happening. 18 Fretheim, Exodus, 290. Donald Gowan sees this as a form of solidarity-Moses will be blotted out with the people, not instead of them (Theology in Exodus, 227). 19 On challenging God as a form of faithfulness, see G. W. Coats, "The King's Loyal Opposition: Obedience and Authority in Exodus 32-34," in Canon and Authority, ed. G. W. Coats and B. O. Long (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977) 107. 20 This recalls a similar scene in Exodus 4, where God proposes Aaron as a companion in order to assuage Moses' anxiety about the entire undertaking (4:14-16). 21 Davis, Getting Involved With God, 154. 22 William Irwin sees Moses and God speaking at cross purposes in this dialogue, which gives it "an ironic playfulness" fitting to this "friendly exchange" (W. H. Irwin, "The Course of the Dialogue between Moses and Yhwh in Exodus 33:12-17," CBQ 59 (1997) 633. 23 Childs, Exodus, 594. 24 Emphasis added. 25 Davis, Getting Involved With God, 157, contra Gowan, Theology in Exodus, 232-33. 26 For the history of scholarship on these verses, see W. Propp, Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1999) 233-38. Propp understands this attempt on Moses' life as an act of divine justice for the manslaughter that Moses commits in Exodus 2. 27 For a discussion of this vein of interpretation, see I. Pardes, Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992) 80-81. 28 The episode is more complex than this, of course, as Fretheim rightly observes: "This multivalent vignette is thus a sign of what is at stake in all of that which is to follow" (Exodus, 81). 29 I have discussed at length the meaning of love in Deuteronomy 7 and 10 in J. Lapsley "Feeling Our Way: Love for God in Deuteronomy," CBQ 65 (2003) 350-69. 30 M. Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic, 1985). 31 While I have thus far emphasized the initiative Moses has shown in building and sustaining his habit of friendship with God through his self-assertion and his part in the reciprocal nature of the relationship, it is nonetheless crucial to note here that it is God who offers friendship to Moses, and ultimately to the people, though they are unable to respond to it on account of their servitude. From the very beginning, God describes his relationship to Israel as an enduring, habitual one based on a personal, intimate relationship with individuals ("I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob....") that is now extended to the whole people. As Gowan puts it: "God graciously willed to establish an intimate relationship with them at the beginning of their existence as a people; indeed, they insist, it was that relationship that made them a people" (Gowan, Theology in Exodus, 168). This is not a distant, abstract god, but one who engages the hearts of individuals and finally Israel itself. 32 D. Carnegie, Pathways to Success: The Groundbreaking Best Sellers: "How to Win Friends & Influence People" and "How to Stop Worrying & Start Living": Complete in One Volume (Hauppauge, N.Y.: Dale Carnegie & Associates, 1981, 1984) 3-16. 33 D. Louw argues for a metaphoric model of "God as friend" because it links intimacy and co-suffering with strength and steadfastness (D. J. Louw, '"God as Friend": Metaphoric Theology in Pastoral Care," Pastoral Psychology 46 [1998] 233-42). 34 See E. Davis on how attentive reading of the Psalms might address the lack of honesty in Christian prayer (Getting Involved With God, 7-41).
[Author Affiliation] JACQUELINE E. LAPSLEY Assistant Professor of Old Testament Princeton Theological Seminary


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