The Numbers:13 Project
But Moses said to the LORD, “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, Numbers 14:13
Mostly, I try to stay away from theological musings in these columns. I am not systematic in my thoughts about God and even if I were, I am guessing that most of the people who read these words do not really care what I believe.
This column is a little different, and I excuse it because it really addresses what I believe about the Bible more than about the presumed source of Scripture. See, very early in the Bible (like, Genesis 1), the conceit of the entire Five Books of Moses (and maybe more) is declared without hesitation. It is this: human beings were created in the image of God. We have a tendency to understand that assertion as evidence of the dignity of every person, regardless of age, ability, accomplishment or any other hierarchy we can apply. Many is the time I have reassured those in distress that they are created in God’s image and therefore cannot despair of their ultimate worth. Many is the time I have reflected on my own shortcomings, never doubting the love I believe washes over each of us but wondering if I have the capability to live up to that image.
So important is this notion that it is invoked in all sorts of Jewish teachings. Rabbis, philosophers, advocates and even non-believers (ironically) insist that the notion of tzelem Elohim (the image of God), sometimes reverentially pronounced tzelem Elokim, so as to not accidentally misuse one of the names ascribed to God, rests at the center of our insistence on justice, compassion, generosity, righteousness and dozens of other admirable attributes.
Forgive a little bit of chutzpah (hubris) here. So convinced are we of the perfection of the Almighty, and so convinced are we that we can identify the nature of that perfection that we do not consider a provocative question. What if at least one purpose of the Biblical narrative is to teach us enough about the image in which we are created to navigate this world?
This verse is not the first clue to a complicated God, but it is a doozy. Moses is about to suggest to God that if the Egyptians hear that God destroyed the Israelites and started a new nation from Moses (as God has just threatened to do), that they will believe God is powerless to complete the promised arrival in the Promised Land. And God gives in. (Forgive me truncating the story – it is worth the read.)
Listen, my friends. If you think about what we “officially” believe about God, why would God care one whit about the opinions of the Egyptians? To the Sovereign of the Universe, Creator of All, the One Who Spoke and the World Became, the snark of a pagan nation, recently suffering from the drowning of their entire army after the deaths of their first-born, ought to be of little concern. What kind of argument is Moses making? Let him plead for the children of beloved Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! Let him remind God – as he eventually does – of the attributes of compassion, grace and forgiveness! But instead he leads with “what will the neighbors think?”
If you have a stake in an avuncular God, part Santa, part Atticus Finch, part Oprah, then maybe you will explain away this encounter as a shortcoming of Moses in his estimation of the divine ethos. Or perhaps you will ascribe to God the wisdom to set up this entire scenario as part of a long-term plan.
Please consider another possibility. Whether or not you are a believer (and I am indeed a believer), the image of God in which we are created is the source of our humanity, warts and all. The Bible instructs us in the dynamics of a complex and often perplexing Creator. There is no feeling we feel, no action we enact, no thought we think that does not find its seed in the soil that enabled it to blossom.
I am not suggesting to you that anything you consider is acceptable because, after all, God did it first. Heaven forfend! (One of my favorite phrases, by the way.) To use this example, we absolutely should care what the Egyptians would think (or the people next door or your frenemy) because God did. It is part of our DNA (divine natural attributes) to behave in all the ways God behaves in the record of our relationship. But it is also worth remembering that this is one anecdote among hundreds or more in the long and compelling saga of our attempt to understand the nature of the image in which we were created.
We were not created to fall short. We were not set up for failure. We were not tasked with an existence impossible to live – to aspire to perfection that we presume as our ideal.
But I do believe we were created to experience our existence in all its complexity, just like the image in which we were created. The specimens of humanity among us who pursue the perfection of some subset of attributes – those who only seek power and fame, or who only perform the commandments, or who only cling to the land – are not understand the book they are reading.
I won’t do much more of this. But as I write this, it is almost the Fourth of July, the day on which the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed. You may remember that it is justified by a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Holy words, those.