By Wesley Hill
Growing up in church, I would sometimes encounter preachers trying to help us get a fresh angle of vision on Jesus’ famous parable in Luke 15 by saying, “This parable really shouldn’t be called ‘the parable of the Prodigal Son.’ It’s actually ‘the parable of the Forgiving Father.’”
I thought about that line again when reading the portion of Exodus assigned for this week for the Good Book Club.
It starts off with the triumphant songs of Moses and Miriam (15:1-21), celebrating God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel from the tyranny of Pharaoh in Egypt. But from there, the reading takes a darker turn. The people begin to “murmur” (15:24, KJV) against or “complain” (NRSV) to Moses, first because of thirst (15:22-24), then hunger (16:1-3), then thirst again (17:1-3). Summarizing this dismal litany of stories is ostensibly easy: this is a portion of Exodus about the fickleness, ingratitude, and myopia of the Israelites. Having just been rescued from slavery in a dazzling display of divine power, Israel wakes up the next morning as if nothing much had happened. And, in fact, the way these are recycled and reappropriated in the book of Numbers (chs. 11 and 20) makes just that point: that God’s people are about as reliable as a mood swing.
Another reading of these stories is possible, though.
In his book Theology in Exodus, Donald Gowan tries to imagine the narrative unfolding not so much from the Israelites’ point of view as from God’s. Like those preachers in my childhood, Gowan flips the script: “the theme of these stories is not ‘murmuring in the wilderness’ but ‘care in the wilderness’” — not the people’s failure but God’s fidelity. Gowan points out that it isn’t until chapter 32, when Israel makes a golden calf to be their substitute deity, that Exodus foregrounds the theme of divine judgment. Up to that point, God is simply focused on the people’s survival in the desert, leading them like a shepherd through a minefield of dangers and setbacks.
Reading these stories well, then, isn’t about giving in to what therapists call negative self-talk. (Or, if you’re the preacher, seizing an opportunity for moral hectoring.) It also isn’t about pinpointing the unbelief of Israel, which often goes hand in hand with self-congratulation and invidious comparison on the part of the Church, as if our “new obedience” (as it’s sometimes called) prompted by Jesus’ Spirit is the bright counterpoint to the dark bleakness of Israel’s rebellion.
These stories are instead about establishing, at the outset of Israel’s journey toward the Promised Land, God’s promise to be not only rescuer but also attendant, not only deliverer but also provider. And in that way, they lay the groundwork for the much darker moment that comes later (ch. 32) when God’s patience has reached its end and he implores Moses to stand back and let him consume his wayward people (32:9-10). But rather than follow through on that wrathful outburst, in response to Moses’ intercession, God ends up giving, in creed-like form, the most beautiful evocation in the entire Old Testament of his commitment to providing not just bread in the wilderness but persevering covenant love: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation” (34:6-7).
God’s care for God’s people is the main thing we see in our reading today. No matter how faltering the people’s response may be, it’s God’s care that remains constant.