What’s the value of a story?
At one time or another, we look to narratives to provide all of these things. For entertainment, we might read a story like one of Brian Jacques’s Redwall books. I have one on my nightstand right now because sometimes I need to read about swashbuckling anthropomorphic rodents to ease my mind at the end of a long day. For an instructional metaphor, you might turn to something like Aesop’s Fables. “The Birds, the Beasts, and the Bat” uses a story to teach the reader against deceitful and unfaithful ways. “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. fits the bill of applied philosophy nicely.
What of true stories? Narratives and tales trafficking in the depth of the human condition? Do we not find these stories the most compelling of all?
In Exodus 34, we find such a story.
The people of Israel, still camping at the base of Mt. Sinai, still have their deliberate failure to keep God’s prohibition of worshiping idols fresh in their minds. As in Eden, the simple rule proves hard to keep.
God restores the Ten Commandments, newly writing them out on tablets Moses cuts from stone. During the following meeting with God, Moses receives a reminder of many of God’s instructions the text of Exodus covered already. Much of the text is a reminder. However, before restating conditions of the covenant, God provides a reminder of who he is.
Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD,
the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in
lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives
iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the
guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the
grandchildren to the third and fourth generations
The revelation of his glory to Moses as he passed by him reminded Moses of his absolute goodness. Will he hold people responsible for their sins? Absolutely. No one will be able to blame his father or his father’s father for his own transgression. However, these qualities: compassion, graciousness, slowness to anger, abundance of lovingkindness, and forgiveness remain.
God says of himself: I am slow to anger. He says these words after the idolatry, the theological and spiritual harlotry with the false calf god. He proclaims these things after their deliberate sin. For the first time in Scripture, God describes himself as slow to anger in the wake of one of the most spiritually embarrassing moments this culture would ever encounter.
How real does the grace of God in this text appear? God’s slowness to anger does not constitute conjecture, theory, or abstraction. If God speaks these words before the golden dust of the idol passed through the digestive tracts of the people, when the consequence of sin sits at its most raw, he states nothing less than hard fact.
What sin festers in your conscience like an infected wound? What sin do you shudder to let escape your lips in confession to God? Has God not declared himself compassionate, gracious, and slow to anger in the the face of one of history’s most flagrant displays of idolatry?
Return to him, rely on his own declaration of his grace to his people, and receive forgiveness in Christ.