Are you familiar with the saying, “Your arm’s too short to box with God”? I guess I first heard that phrase sometime in the 1970s or 1980s but I wasn’t sure of its origin. When I looked into it, I was a bit surprised to learn that it came from a sermon, entitled The Prodigal Son, by civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson. It was published in 1927 in his book of sermons, entitled God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Regardless of where it came from, its core message always seemed apparent to me … It’s ridiculous to disagree with God; you should just accept His will and get on with life. As a result of a Bible teaching I got to take in recently, from Exodus 32 and Exodus 33, I now see that my thinking this way has been off-the-mark and that it’s been very limiting to me in truly getting to know God.
GOD AND MOSES
The Bible teaching I mentioned was from Pastor Dave Rolph, of Calvary Chapel Pacific Hills. His lesson on Exodus 32-33 is from a series he is doing on Bible stories. This one is called The Heart of Moses. The story starts when Moses is up on Mt.Sinai receiving the law from God while Aaron and the people are below worshipping a golden calf they’ve made. When that happens, God switches from giving the law to Moses, to telling him he has a problem. The rest of the story covers what happened from that point forward and it focuses on the related interaction between God and Moses.
This interchange begins with God telling Moses, “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. … I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.” In other words, God has had it with the people turning from Him to other gods so He plans to wipe them out and start all over with Moses and his descendants.
But, Moses pleads with God, saying: “Lord, why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” Basically, Moses is saying, “What do you mean ‘my people’? These are your people.” He adds to that by raising the question, “What’s this going to make you look like to the Egyptians?” This point is emphasized when he goes on to say, “Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, ‘He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’?” With that, he then says, “Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people.” And he underscores all this by saying, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”In other words, “What about the promises You made of a messianic line from Abraham through the tribe of Judah (not the tribe of Levi, Moses’ tribe)?” As a result of Moses’ pleading, we’re told in Exodus 32:14, “So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.” That is to say, God changed His mind.
Next, though, we see Moses’ wrath stirred up when he heads down the mountain and he sees how, as God told him, the people have “corrupted themselves. … They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it …” With that, as Pastor Dave said, “Moses spikes the original edition of The Ten Commandments. Then, he smashes the golden calf, grinds it up and makes the people mix it with water and drink it. Following that, he draws a line in the sand and says, ‘Who’s on God’s side? Step on this side of the line.’ When only some of the Levites did so, Moses says, ‘You guys, get your swords and start killing people.’ He probably was designating the people who had been performing the pagan ritual with the golden calf but he said, ‘Kill them, I don’t care if they’re your relatives, kill them.’ Later in the story, it talks about God plaguing the people so the people who died may have been killed from a combination of the Levites swords and God plaguing them at the same time. It’s like Moses is mugging the people and God jumps in and is helping out. Following that blood-bath, however, Moses again turns to God to plead for the people. He says, ‘Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! Yet now, if You will forgive their sin—but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written.’ Incredibly, Moses has gone from ‘Don’t kill them’ to ‘Kill them all!’ to ‘If You’re going to kill them, kill me too.’ God concludes this part of the conversation by saying, ‘I’m only going to kill those who are guilty, I’m not going to kill everybody else.’”
SPEAKING AS FRIENDS
After the people had been dealt with for having “corrupted themselves”, God commands them to leave Sinai. As this happens, we get a rare glimpse of the personal relationship that Moses had with God when we’re told: “Moses took his tent and pitched it outside the camp … and called it the tabernacle of meeting. …And it came to pass, when Moses entered the tabernacle, that the pillar of cloud descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the Lord talked with Moses. …face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” We’re, also, given two more examples of these face-to-face conversations, when it seems that Moses convinces God to remain present with them, as they go to the Promised Land and to show Himself to Moses.
CHANGING MY VIEW
It’s not hard to find those who will debate the varying points of theology in the accounts of Exodus 32-33. One position is that God always knew how things were going to turn out, regardless of how He presented things to Moses. Since a part of that would indicate God was misleading Moses, that’s pretty difficult theology to buy into. Another position is that taking this at face value isn’t appropriate because, in addition to indicating an unstable leader in Moses, it indicates an unstable God. Looking back, it was probably this sort of theology that led me to my “Your arm’s too short to box with God” view meaning “It’s ridiculous to disagree with God; you should just accept His will and get on with life.” But, Pastor Dave’s wasn’t teaching theology. He was teaching what the Word of God says. The changed view I got from that came from understanding that Moses recognized, unlike an idol, God is not one-dimensional. He is incredibly deep and multidimensional. Not realizing this greatly inhibits having a relationship with God. Instead of trying to define God and figuring Him out by putting Him in a box, Moses went for a relationship with Him. This resulted in him finding his common connections with God and becoming comfortable with Him. With my changed view, I recognized that my unwillingness to “get in the ring” with God has limited my truly getting to know and be comfortable with the only One with whom that really matters.
A DEEPENED UNDERSTANDING
Although it’s only been about a week since I received this Bible lesson, I’ve found it to be quite helpful. It hasn’t resulted in any experiences that are as dramatic as those Moses went through. But it has diminished an obstacle to my truly knowing God … an obstacle that I’ve yearned to have removed for a long time. It’s helped me to not just be aware of God being with me when I’m in church or in the Word or in prayer or in worship and then just walk away into life on my own. Along with this, it’s deepened my understanding of why God created us in the first place. One of the best summaries I’ve heard on that topic was in a speech by atheist-turned-Christian author and apologist, Lee Strobel, when he said:
“God has existed from eternity past as the Father, Son and Spirit, together in a relationship of perfect love. So love is the highest value in the universe. And when God decided to create human beings, he wanted us to experience love.”
BOXING WITH GOD
Experiencing love, of course, requires having a relationship. In order to have a loving relationship with God, first, I must truly get to know Him. We both still know that my arm’s too short to pose Him any threat but even if it takes me getting in the ring to box with God, He’s OK with that. He just wants me to be able to get to know Him and to love Him because He first loved me.