Then YHWH said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”
When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. For YHWH had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you.'” – Exodus 33:1-5a, NRSV
Really? That’s the take-away? Let’s review:
Item: Leave here, with all the people you led out of Egypt. (Remember the captivity? Remember the rescuer?)
Item: I solemnly promised your treasured ancestors to give a homeland to all their descendants.
Item: I am sending a heavenly messenger to remove from that land everyone who would be in your way.
Item: The land, by the way, is exceptionally fertile for both agriculture and livestock.
Final item: You’ve been so annoying that I’m not going along, lest my anger spill over and wipe you out.
And the one holy pronouncement we repeated was the last: “You have infuriated me.”
The remembrance of deliverance: forgotten. The promise of a new land: forgotten. The vision of bounty: forgotten. What clung and stung was the line that reflected poorly on us.
Really? That’s our take-away?
Don’t read this passage to feel good about humanity. Read it to remember: God’s promises are bountiful, even when our intransigence has earned God’s anger. Read it to remember: one criticism feels heavier than a hundred verses of praise. Read it to remember: it is possible to survive the pique of the ones we most love, to live another day to tell the tale, and live better.
God, we have often followed our ways more than yours, and your wrath is righteous. Yet even in your disappointment, you keep your promises of abundant grace. Today give us courage enough to please you by practicing forgiveness, generosity, and praise (and wisdom enough not to imitate you by removing people from the land). Amen.
John A. Nelson is Pastor and Teacher of Church on the Hill, UCC, in Lenox, Massachusetts.