Wendy is a big fan of the British TV series “Downton Abbey.” I’ve seen a few episodes, but I never got “into it” the way she has. I do know the basic premise, however: The connected, yet separate, lives of the aristocratic residents and lower class employees of Downton Abbey. I’ve been told (though I never watched it myself) that it’s similar to and old series called “Upstairs, Downstairs.” The well-to-do upstairs residents vs the downstairs workers.
The characters in “Downton Abbey” may live in the same house, but they still live in different worlds. They clearly interact, but those interactions are tightly controlled and structured.
At the beginning of this week’s chapter, God tells Moses of Israel that:
Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation
So God was calling Israel to be that connection between God and the rest of creation. The first instruction that God gives is for the people to consecrate themselves, purifying themselves for their new relationship. Unfortunately, Israel baulked. When it came down to it. Israel didn’t want to get too close to God. Rather, they insisted that Moses speak to God on their behalf, in essence acting as a “priest for the priests.” So Moses went up the mountain, while God came down to the mountain, so that they could talk, while the people remained below, afraid to experience the glory of God.
Of course, the “meat” of this week’s reading is the 10 commandments.
My feeling is that the rules of the 10 commandments, as well as all of the other laws that weren’t included in this reading, were needed because the people decided that they were too afraid to be in that direct relationship that God desired. In the New Testament, Paul declares that a Christian is not bound by the law, and the law brings death, not life. Not that the 10 commandments are bad, or a mistake. Rather, the law was a “stopgap” measure to act as a surrogate for a direct relationship with God.
So, any thoughts? Am I completely out in left field with this?
High above Texas in June 1996, Air Force One hit some unexpected turbulence and the president and other passengers of the specially equipped 747 felt like they were free falling for a few seconds. Food, computers, and people were flying through the air. When the plane settled again into a relatively stable position, then President Bill Clinton said, “that sure was a character-builder.”
I remember that story, because I found myself quoting the President when stuff happened in our lives that were tough … especially to my elementary aged daughter as she faced new challenges in life: moving to a new state, living through the death of a grandparent, her Cairne Terrier puppy found dead on the side of our driveway after having been hit by a car, falling off some playground equipment and chipping a tooth, walking to and from school … all of these were “character-building” experiences. Building character is, after all, the ultimate goal of affective parenting. I mean, the kind of character building that breeds strength and trust and confidence in a child, and continues to breed wisdom and integrity throughout adulthood. Experiences that are the most difficult and painful, and that show off our limitations build the greatest character. Leo Buscaglia said, “We seem to gain wisdom more readily through our failures than through our successes.”
I was struck by the words of Moses to the people in the beginning of Chapter 5, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” This is a prophetic statement: People of Israel, we will have character building times ahead … No need to be afraid, because god is doing this to shape you into better God-fearing followers of the Lord. Not exactly comforting words … but true nonetheless.
We’ve seen God “testing his people” before. Though, to me, it seems like such a cruel and insecure thing to do … like a wife “testing” how much she is loved by her husband … It can be manipulative and self serving. I don’t like this testing nature of God. God seems adolescent. God is “jealous”. God is angry and hurt.
This week, though, I’m most struck by the mutuality of the testing. It’s like the battle of the wills between a parent and a toddler. My friend’s two year old is in the process of welcoming a new baby sister into the family; she is very unsure about this relationship … Is it trustworthy? Is the baby going to be here forever? Do mom and dad still love me? Are the rules still the same?
And, at the same time, the postpartum mom is also struggling … The stress and strain of a strong willed child can drive anyone crazy. Add the tantrums of a toddler, sleepdeprivity, hormonal ups and downs, etc. These are trying times, we say, or character building experiences, or defining moments in the life and identity of a new family unit. And eventually we adapt as better parents, more mature and disciplined children.
God and Moses and the People of Israel are having some trying times since they left Egypt. God decides it’s time to talk to the people. Moses talks with God. God gives some guidance, a covenant of behavior, so to speak … if we all agree, we’ll get along so much better … God sees the actions, doubts, demands, anger, hurt and feelings of abandonment of the people and gets so angry he wants to destroy every last one of them … begin the covenant all over again, this time through Moses. (By the way, do you see the allusions to the flood … Forty days and nights … The destruction of the people?) but Moses sits down and reasons with God … Don’t kill them! Remember Abraham? Isaac? Jacob? You made a promise!
God relents. And Moses starts the trek down the mountain. He hears the partying below … It sounds like my house sometimes did when we were away and the college-aged friends were house-sitting. That’s not the sounds of war or trouble … No, it’s Guitar-Hero on full volume, or the screaming of pool volleyball, or the drunken singing of “Hotel California!” And, now, Moses is the one filled with anger! Was it shame? Was it also abandonment? Certainly it was the realization that his brother Aaron was unable to lead these people.
Moses doesn’t “pardon” the party-ers; There are consequences … but not an annihilation. 3,000 were killed that day … Blood was shed, words were shared … Now god steps in … I have a new covenant … A new beginning … A new normal. It was a character building experience. But we’ve gained some wisdom now … some understanding … The Law.