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When Theology Overrides Story

Jody and I were reading the Lectionary passages for next Sunday this afternoon, and I was reminded about how our theology can keep us from reading Bible stories. I think it’s also easy to let our theology trump the theology of a Bible writer, but stories don’t have a one-to-one relationship to theology in the first place.

The story in this case comes from Exodus 32:1-14, in which Moses is on the mountain talking to God and the Israelites decide he won’t becoming back. (The story is repeated in the reading from Psalm 106.) So they make and worship the golden calf. God becomes angry with Israel, but Moses steps in and persuades him not to destroy the Israelites, even though the alternative is that God will make a great nation of his descendants instead.

There are two points here that bother different people. Is this picture of God true and/or helpful? Do we serve a God who becomes angry at people and determines to wipe them out? There are, of course, many other stories that raise the same questions as well. On the other hand we are presented with a God who can be persuaded to change his mind. Moses calms God down, so to speak.

If you’re of some sort of Calvinist persuasion, you’ll likely be OK with the angry God who wants to destroy the Israelites. God’s anger against sin is a key part of that theology. But what about God changing his mind? It’s very likely that this will be dismissed as somewhat of a ploy, perhaps a test of Moses. Will he stand for the people he leads? And of course God knows the results of that test. But actually calming God down or making God actually change his mind is inadmissible.

On the other hand, if you’re like me, and tend to favor something along the line of openness theology, the latter point is easy to accept. God repents regularly in scripture. So this experience tends to mesh with my own theology that has God interacting with human beings in deciding their destiny.

Yet many people who share that theology are very uncomfortable with God becoming angry with his people. So in this case one accepts the changeability of God, but not the anger. The anger is dismissed as coming from an excessively primitive view of God.

I would suggest that in both cases theology prevents an authentic reading of the story. We need to let the story speak first. There is a sense of tension here. God has brought his people out of Egypt, only to have them credit that to an entity they themselves have created. God is, in the terms of the story, rightfully angry. There is the real risk, from the storyteller’s point of view, of the people being destroyed. In fact, it might well be quite reasonable for God to do that.

There is also a real test of the character of Moses. If our theology didn’t interfere, we’d feel the tension better as Moses has a choice to make. Will he be the leader who identifies with, and serves the best interests of those he leads? If he does so, will God change his mind?

How we work the story into our theology is another matter, but must come later. Let the story speak first.


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