Sunday, February 12, 2012

The holy fear of Moses

With a morning cup of coffee and some free time my husband and I began a conversation about fear and Moses. One can trace three kinds of fear in the life of Moses. The first instance is wise fear, the second fear occurs because of lack of confidence in God’s will—the kind that might lead to disobedience. But the third fear I name holy fear; it belongs to a good and compassionate shepherd and is a picture of all good shepherds of God’s sheep. It is how Moses becomes a prototype for the One truly good Shepherd. Such fear must be held dear by those who lead the Church.

In chapter two of Exodus, Moses kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew; one of his own people. The next day, while trying to settle a fight between two Hebrews, he discovers that although he has buried the Egyptian it is still known that he killed him and he is afraid. When Pharaoh tries to kill him Moses flees to a different land. This is wise fear. It preserves his life.

In chapter three through four Moses is called by God to go back to Egypt as his spokesman; he is to lead the Israelites out of slavery. But Moses is afraid. God has given him a job to do and he feels he isn’t qualified for the calling. He is “slow of speech.” R. Alan Cole, in his commentary points out that the text does not refute this, it may have been correct. However, the problem was Moses’ lack of faith. God tells Moses:
Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say.” (11b-12)
Moses still complains and God gives him Aaron to speak for him. And Moses goes despite his complaining.

But the third fear that belongs to Moses is his fear for the holy name of God and his fear for the people of Israel. All of this is covered in Exodus 32-34. Moses, as he is receiving the Law from God on Mount Sinai is told that the Israelites are involved in idolatry, worshipping the golden calf. Because of the idolatry they were involved in gross idolatrous sexuality. As Cole puts it:

Sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. Eat and drink could be innocent enough, after a ‘peace offering’, but the verb translated play suggests sex-play in Hebrew and therefore we are probably to understand drunken orgies. These, in a Baalized context, would have a religious, not an immoral, significance to the worshipper: but not so in YHWH’s sight. In the context of the worship of YHWH, who, by the ‘ten words’ [Ten Commandments], had expressed His very nature in terms of moral requirements, it was intolerable.
What follows is God’s anger. The text states that he desired to destroy the people and seemingly rejects them by calling them Moses’ people rather than his own. Cole calls this an “‘anthropopathism’, describing God’s feelings in human terms, as being more comprehensible to us’ and this chapter is filled with such content. But in this situation Moses becomes a true shepherd. He pleads with God not to destroy his people for the sake of the holiness of the Lord’s own name. Moses reminds God that the Egyptians will say that God simply brought the people out in the wilderness to kill them.
Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘with evil intent he brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’?
Moses was fearful for the honor of God. God had offered to make Moses a great nation. What a great temptation. But Moses reminds God of all of his promises to the ancient patriarchs. This is holy fear, fearing for the honor of God; putting aside any temptation for self-honor for the greater glory of God.

But to go further the Lord tells Moses that as the Israelites travel on their way he will not go with them. The Lord will send an angel with them but he will not go with them “for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way.” Once again Moses pleads with God because of his fear for the people:
If your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. For then how can it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not by your going with us, so that we, I and your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?
Notice, in this case how Moses merges his own identity with the people he is leading. It is always I and your people. Notice also how he reminds the lord that they are all, Moses and the people, God’s. They all belong to him. Moses clearly understands that the one mark that distinguishes the Israelites from all other peoples is the presence of the Lord in their midst and he intercedes for both himself and the people. Of course God goes with them.

This is the good shepherd who fears for God’s honor and fears for the spiritual wellbeing of his people. If some feel it is dishonorable to call those unfaithful who care little for either the honor and glory of God or the sinful wandering sheep—never mind, pay them no heed—plead for the wellbeing and repentance of sinners. Uphold the glory of Christ who laid it aside for a short while dying so that broken sheep could be healed. The presence of the Lord is a gift to his people and it is a distinguishing mark that they belong to Christ.