A promise or a threat?
told by Deborah
While shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep, Moses led them through the wilderness to Horeb, the mountain of God. And there the angel of God appeared to him in a fiery blaze from within the dry brush.
Moses saw that it was on fire but didn’t burn up. He said, “That’s amazing! I’ve got to go over there and take a closer look at that, and see why the brush doesn’t burn up.”
When God saw that he had gone out of his way to see it, God called to him out of the brush, “Moses, Moses!”
And he answered, “Here I am.”
God said, “Don’t come any closer! Take your shoes off, because you’re standing on holy ground.” God went on, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
And Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
Yikes. Moses and the burning bush: that’s an unpleasant tale to tell during this Summer of Conflagration, when vast swaths of our forests and open spaces are aflame or have burned. Reading the passage I say to myself: Moses certainly should notice a fire on the hillside “and go out of his way to see it” — and put it out before it spreads.
For those of us living in the dry western United States, fire in an open space is a bad thing. A very bad thing.
What are we to make of an image of God that provokes alarm and even outright fear? Isn’t God our Friend, our Comforter, our Shelter in times of trouble? Who is this who announces Godself with flames — and later, as we know, with pillars of smoke and fire? Anyone who has seen those kinds of pillars rising on a hillside or from within a forest knows they are terrible to behold: signs of fierce destruction and great danger.
Yet for the Israelites in the time of Moses, columns of smoke and flames served as evidence of divine guidance and protection as they trekked across the wilderness, and fire was understood as God’s primary manifestation — even though this ferocious power could break the boundaries and turn against them (see Numbers chapters 11 and 16).
For the people of Israel, “to walk in the Way of the Lord” was like keeping a pet tiger: at any time it might get loose and devour those around it. It was impossible to control.
And that’s scary. It is an alarming concept for most of us; it isn’t the way we are used to thinking about God. It is a vision of the Almighty as dangerous, wild, and free. Unmanageable. Impatient. Impetuous.
The God of flame and smoke cannot be controlled or contained. It engulfs and overwhelms. This extraordinary power can strike without warning; illuminating, igniting, inspiring — wherever — and whomever — It will.
The fiery aspect of God helps us to understand “the fear of the Lord” as a term for worship. It describes the human experience of the Utterly-Other: of divine majesty; a recognition of the awesome power of God that eclipses all that mere mortals can achieve or imagine; a terror-provoking encounter with the Ultimate that transforms into “a peace that surpasses all understanding.”
This “fear” is not servile cringing, but awe-beyond-astonishment: what philosopher Rudolf Otto described as an encounter with an “awe-inspiring mystery.” It is fascination, enchantment: we are overwhelmed, gloriously aware; caught up in the Presence of something far greater than ourselves.
It was the experience of the fiery aspect of the Divine that sparked Moses’ curiosity (“I need to see what that is,”) and set him off on a journey that changed his life and the lives of literally hundreds of millions of people who followed. The encounter both terrified and energized him: here was a God of great strength and long history, one that could be relied upon; a Power that warmed and illuminated…. but could also overwhelm — and even destroy.
For the rest of his life Moses would struggle with the enthralling Presence that spoke to him from within the flames. It was a rocky relationship filled with disagreements and disappointments and difficulties — and sometimes Moses’ temper got the best of him. In the end, the great Task was left to be finished by another.
Moses’ story isn’t one of “happily ever after”: it is complex, complicated, uncomfortable. It holds no promises that a life of faith will be one of simplicity and ease. Instead, it tells of a God who surprises, shocks, and alarms those who are called to serve.
It is the story of an utterly unpredictable God.
So what does it mean to us? How does this testimony about an unpredictable God of fire and smoke relate to our experience and belief in One who is gracious and merciful, loving and compassionate?
Or does the question itself reveal our temptation to confine God; to narrow the Divine’s capabilities and characteristics to a few familiar and comforting aspects? It has become a cultural pattern to view the world in the least generous way, as one thing or the other: it is either/or, this/that, black/white — and never both/and. The God of fire and smoke destroys these false limitations and breaks down arbitrary divisions: this God transforms a stuttering shepherd into an inspiring leader; turns a sea into dry land; creates a single people from a collection of runaway slaves.
When God showed the fullness of Godself to Moses, it was all goodness. And the revelation was accompanied by an assertion of autonomy: God will do as God chooses, not in obedience to any demands we may make or regulations we set forth. God cannot be controlled or contained:
Moses said, “Please, I beg You, show me Your glory!" And God said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim My Name to you; and I will be gracious to whomever I will be gracious, and I will show compassion on whomever I will show compassion.”
~ Exodus 33:18-19
The God of fire and smoke, the God of the Exodus, is also the God of Extraordinary Grace and Abundant Compassion whose power can transform lives and change the world. God is not either/or, but All in All.
May we have the courage to, like Moses, “turn aside” (from our assumptions) and see the awesome, extraordinary, glorious power and grace of our God.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Where do you experience the power of God?