Let's not kid ourselves. God is a bit baffling and even troubling in this week's story. '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,' God says to Moses in Exodus 32:10, and we are reminded of God's anger with humanity in the story of Noah and the ark. Our worst fears of God are realized in this verse. The God that was presented to some of us as children, stern and watchful, quick to anger and vengeance, is on full display. And it is frightening. As we saw on Sunday and will revisit again later this week, Moses talks God out of this rage. But as the story goes on, God returns to anger again. And God's lack of consistency in troubling too.
In order to make some sense of this moment, without completely ignoring or dismissing it, let's take a little trip to another story where God's passion is stirred by Israel's lack of fidelity. In the opening verses of the prophet Hosea we read, 'the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” Now, I know, that still sounds pretty angry. You have to read the whole story to get how this is a shift in how God is thought about and presented. Hosea takes an unfaithful wife as a symbol of the infidelity of Israel to God. In other words, God is a heartbroken spouse. In both Exodus and Hosea, God is passionate. In Exodus, this passion is orge (rage or anger). But in Hosea, it is pathos (grief). God is a despairing spouse, heart-broken at the dissolution of a relationship, at the shattering of intimate trust.
In each case, Israel's testimony about itself is refreshingly honest. They have broken trust with God and in so doing, have inspired God to a powerful, passionate emotion. This is no God that is passive, resolute, or distant. This is not a God that waits passively simply do Israel's bidding. This is a God emotionally invested in a relationship, who loves deeply and passionately. This is the God we need to proclaim in a culture in which increasingly God is dismissed. Even more, it is the God we need to proclaim in the Church, where too often God is thought of and treated as a grandfather, waiting patiently for a phone call from his distracted and busy grandchildren, that is, not as a priority or of value, except when we need a loan.
It is, no doubt, painful and dangerous to think only of God in angry, wrathful, vengeful terms. It is, I would suggest, equally dangerous to ignore these stories of God's passionate engagement with humans, because then we are left as functional atheists. We make a God of our own choosing, a God who expects little and demands little. And a God who expects little and demands little has no power to liberate us from enslavement, rescue us from stormy seas, reshape us as a potter does to a shattered vessel. We do definitely need to interpret the stories of God's anger carefully so that we are not inspired to act violently in God's name. We also need to tell these stories to be reminded that we matter a great deal to God, a God who will not be remanded to the corner of our lives.