Presence and Distance


I find Chapter 3 of the Bible’s book of Exodus crucial to our knowledge of God and our faith-thinking.  In various ways, Moses learns that he cannot approach too close to God, cannot get any hold on God, cannot control or manipulate God in any way.  “Come no closer!” God tells the man.  “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5 NRSV) Then God immediately self-identifies with Moses in relational terms, the terms of who God is to this man who must keep a respectful distance: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (3:6 NRSV) When Moses asks God’s name – a name to give the people of Israel to whom God is sending him back – the answer he receives keeps him at that respectful distance even while promising God’s presence with him as he fulfills the mission God is giving him.  The traditional translation of the name is, as the NRSV renders it, “I AM WHO I AM.”  This translation maintains God’s independence but lacks affirmation of the promise.  I prefer Martin Buber’s rendering of the name as, “I Will Be (with you) Who I Will Be (with you).”  Moses cannot appropriate God or conjure God’s presence by calling upon the divine name, but he must learn to trust God’s presence as he goes forth to serve as he has been called to do.

The history of religions, including Christianity, is filled with attempts to get a handle on God for human purposes.  That’s magic.  Make the proper sacrifice or say the prescribed words the correct way (perhaps with the requisite emotion), and God will do as you wish – forgiving you, blessing you, or prospering you according to what you desire.  No!  God is sovereign and free.  God cannot be conjured, and God’s hand cannot be forced in any way, by any sacrifice, ritual, formulated confession, sacrament, or prescribed born-again experience.

But God’s sovereignty is only half the truth, and I believe it is actually the lesser half, though still half.  What I’ve just said may not make mathematical sense (in math, halves are by definition equal), but it does make relational sense.  For a couple who love each other, “I love you,” is always the greater half of the truth, but respect must always be the other half or the love is spoiled.  The two become one, but they must remain two distinct, independent, and free persons if the love is to be renewed continually in a true partnership.

I would not call myself or even the church God’s “partner,” because the relationship is not between peers, although I would suggest that God respects us as human beings more than we respect ourselves or each other and does call us into a sort of unequal partnership (See John 15:15).  Even so, I consider the analogy of human love helpful precisely because respect is so crucial to it.  The God to whom the Bible bears witness with many voices is not to be confined, used, stereotyped, labeled, defined, presumed upon, taken for granted, or dictated to.  Not even by Christians quoting scripture is God to be managed, regulated, or restricted.  It is not for us to say what God may or must do.

One more point, and then we stop for now because reflection on Exodus 3 could go on and on (as it should, but not all in one blog post).  Even while establishing the respectful distance Moses must observe and refusing to be bound in any way to the man’s will, wish, or whim, God understands the human need for divine presence and support, especially when faced with a dangerous and overwhelming mission.  Moses must return to Egypt from which he has fled for his life and there make demands on the pharaoh who is certain not to like what he hears.  “Who am I,” Moses asks, “that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (3:11 NRSV) Uh, God, bringing the Israelites out of their slavery sounds great and all, but, uh, surely you’ve got the wrong guy here.  I have no standing with the king of Egypt.  Why would he listen to me (and not just toss me into a prison cell or worse)?  In response, God makes the all-important promise, the one that matters: “I will be with you,” (3:12a NRSV) and knowing human weakness, adds a sign by which Moses will know that Israel’s deliverance was, indeed, the work of God.

We do well to see and understand that the promise of God’s presence and support is bound up with the mission on which God is sending Moses.  It is no “showers of blessings” promise for someone who just wants success and security in life now and heaven to come afterward.  But it is a promise.

The Bible’s truth of God for us is relational, but what we find here is not just a personal relationship with God for Moses to enjoy and feel good about.  To be chosen is to be called out from among the many for the purpose of service to the many.  Moses is chosen and called because of God’s compassion for the enslaved people and God’s wish, not only to liberate them, but to adopt them and carry the relationship forward in covenant through the generations to come.  Israel was chosen to be God’s covenant people, not for Israel’s sake only, but so the covenant people could become a light to the nations.  The church is called into being – into relationship and service – for the sake of the world, not just for its own sake.

9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.  10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”  (Exodus 3:9-10 NRSV)