Watershed Formation Studies

Chapter 5 - Community (Part Two): Sinai

In chapter 4, we learned how God heard the people’s desperate cries and did not forget the covenant. The slaves on the shores of the Red Sea received a miraculous deliverance from their Egyptian oppressors as God parted the waters.

In chapter 5, God takes those slaves and transforms their identity to create a nation: the children of Israel, the people of God.

Instead of being grateful for the mighty acts of God in Egypt, the people began to complain in the wilderness. God remained faithful, and established a covenant treaty at Mount Sinai, which we know as the Ten Commandments, or Torah.

The giving of Torah was how God transformed the people from powerless slaves into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. More than a set of rules, they were practices that God gave the people to shape their new life of freedom together. God’s Torah is all about grace for God’s people, to help them live life as God intended.

But God’s unconditional, hesed love would be needed again. As the people waited impatiently for Moses to return from the mountain, they made a golden calf idol. God raged with anger, but Moses begged God to forgive them and give them another chance. God remained faithful to the covenant, even as God’s people did not.

Receiving forgiveness, they built a tabernacle where God came to dwell as the people continued their pilgrimage in the desert. But it wasn’t the last time they would doubt the care God had for them. Their doubt would have disastrous consequences.

Questions for Discussion

1) What puzzles you about the Mount Sinai story?
2) How would Torah impact former slaves?
3) What was the meaning of Moses' intercession?
4) What kind of God blesses and curses?
5) Why are prophets written into the text?

Mount Sinai

Just looking at the strange events that took place at Mount Sinai, are there any pieces or threads that strike you, that you find either evocative or puzzling?

Linda Tiessen-Wiebe: These stories talk about the change of identity for a people. This is quite a shift in consciousness, from being objects of other people's whims and desires to being co-participants with a Creator God in covenant. And for God this is another kick at the can of covenant. The development here is to shift from covenant with all humanity to covenant with a specific people for the sake of all humanity. So it makes sense there would be examples of awesome power and then the "Ten Words" and commentary. To make distinct to the people that God is powerful enough to depend on, and to impress upon them how they now need to live, how they need to shift their self-identity, to become "holy" in the sense of being set apart.

Seeing the character of God in these stories, I can't help but feel sorry for God! God has tried so many ways of establishing relationship with humans: partners in the garden, the "reboot" with the flood and Noah, a promise of a people. And the efforts reflected in the side stories: protecting Cain from himself, scattering the people at Babel, providing for Ishmael. How hard it is to establish a freely chosen relationship between Creator and creatures.

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Verda Heinrichs: My depth of understanding of these stories often feels like it hasn’t evolved past a children’s story level so I have appreciated reading them and seeing them again (albeit in a broad-strokes way). A few things stood out for me — like the call of God to these people who had just been delivered from slavery to a vocation of priesthood (bizarre!) and Moses’ multiple intercessions — including asking God to be present among them after God had basically brushed his hands free of them (“Find your own way to the promised land!”).

I found myself wondering, what does it mean to pray for forgiveness for the sins of others and what does it mean that God’s mind is changed? Surely, it is a story of a relationship with a God who has a purpose, a loving vision for his creation and the pain of working that out in a muddled history.

I also found it helpful to hear how the structure of the story followed the current cultural practices of treaty-making between greater-lesser countries. Even the language of the blessings and curses is more palatable when you have that in mind.

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Lyle Penner: One thing that struck me was how the storyteller reflects that the Israelites' worldview was formed by their former identity as slaves in Egypt. No doubt they would be forever tempted to adopt Egyptian-like practices — perhaps being oppressors or building golden calves and the like. This new Mosaic covenant was a kind of revolution for them, a generous and bountiful yet limited relationship.

The thought that Sabbath rest was introduced as a way to combat the master-slave mindset the people would have been brought up with is evocative. Instead of forced labor, now they could trust and worship G-d and rest! Even the land would be given rest. Instead of scarce rations in Egypt, likely fought over, now there is daily manna — enough for the journey for the day. Of course the covenant wasn’t kept well….but the vision is a kind of generative harmony, with boundaries that kept their worst impulses from ruling the day. What’s puzzling is of course: how can freed, uneducated slaves become mediating priests? Not easily I would imagine! Only through grace — and being dependent on the Story that was revealed and formed during that early time.

For us the same could be asked: how can we moralistic, ‘religious’ people raised by cultural compulsions that worship fear, pride and ego-reliance become love children, people of the Word, who desire to mend the world? Not easily. But with dependence on a Christ Story, with good teaching and heart-felt intentions to follow the Way - there’s hope of something happening beyond mere episodic wanderings.

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Lydia Penner: This is a good question, and good to remember this history of covenant/ forgiveness/covenant renewed, every time we have been a slave and been restored by love (which actually happens every day). It reminds me of the song we sing, “Praise to the Lord” (Psalm 113):
There is none like the Lord, in the heavens or on earth,
Who lifts the weak out of dust, placing them among princes.
It is a pretty amazing story and reminds me also of the passage from Sunday morning’s passage, where Jesus encourages us to forgive 70 X 7, like God has.

This mercy reminds me also of a line from my favorite Bruce Cockburn song “All the Diamonds," “Dying trees still grow greener when you pray.” Like the Israelites who are worshipping the golden calf even before Moses returned with the Torah, we are dying trees because of our radical self-sabotaging ways. It is illogical for the Israelites, or us, to grow greener when we are in fact dying, but God’s covenant creates miracles. The story reminds us of God’s improbable miracles and grace towards us, hesed love indeed.

As I’ve been on medical leave from work, every once in a while someone will say, “Good for you for taking the time off to get better, cause if we don’t have our health, we have nothing.” I’ve realized I disagree with this sentiment. It’s truer to say, “When we don’t have God, we have nothing. (And none of us are without God.)” When I’m impatient to get better physically, I remember I can be just as miserable when sick or when physically better. Much better to remember that like Julian of Norwich said, God is with us both in “weal or woe.” Nothing can cut us off from our priest status.

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What do you imagine hearing/submitting to the Torah would have done for the people who had just come from slavery? How would you describe the place of the Torah/Bible in the continuing formation of Watershed?

Bev Patterson: In a sense, how the question is formed answers the question. I think receiving the Torah functioned as an identity marker - they were being made new. Slavery makes radical assumptions: you have no home nor do you deserve a home of your own. Your vocation is determined by the Empire, you are dispensable in all ways, you are seen just as a function and of course there is the issue of ownership, both in terms of the slaves' time and skill and personhood.

But along comes Torah which was God attempting to turn these assumptions upside down. You would think the healing balm for enslavement would be complete freedom where you are completely autonomous, answerable to no one. But in fact the Torah was a deeper freedom, or perhaps it would express the truth of their situation more clearly to say that God gave them the gift of covenant. Underlying their release and liberation was an intimate binding relationship that was promised to last a life time instead of just until their functionality came to an end.

They now had their home with God despite their desert walls. Now their vocation and calling came via listening and deep devotion and risk-taking, trusting God. Now their worth was wrapped up in God's love and faithfulness which promised to last into future generations. They/we are no longer owned but loved and gathered up into a family.

On this new found freedom, ownership is no longer a descriptor - the people of Israel are no longer owned nor do they get to trade places and take on ownership status. Time, skill, personhood is crafted under a new paradigm. God is our father who gives gifts for us/them to use wisely. Time is a gift, skill is a gift, our very essence is a gift based on the template of "the image of God". We are now God's but we are free to love creation and share in loving creation. That is our new mandate.

We, at Watershed, are also invited to enter the liberation of discipleship/covenant. We get scared, we get worried, we think we might lose our "precious" but that probably means we are still in "Egypt". White knuckling it never works, scheming our own means of escape doesn't work and pretending is useless, but the story of the Bible has never disappointed us, no matter where you happen to dip your attention into — old or new, gospels or letters, prophets or poetry or the wealth of wisdom writings. When we gather around our fires, weekly and daily, together or alone we are transported to the Real, places where we learn to live God's dream for us. Honesty, love, truth, forgiveness, service and devotion become our new Freedom.

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Linda Tiessen-Wiebe: So as part of the transformation from slaves to partners with God, the people needed a "detox". They needed to have their consciousness reshaped, their identities reformed. To submit to Torah is the Way that God is offering to the people. Because God values humanity and desires that we relate out of freedom to God, hIn chapter 2, we heard the story of catastrophe; the consequences reaped from the eternal tendency humans have to mess things up. With Adam and Eve exiled from the garden, every imaginable relationship is disrupted.

In chapter 3, with God’s people still exiled from their homeland, the old man wonders if God has forgotten them. The people’s songs are about the covenant God made with Abraham after the catastrophe, but their present experience feels like God’s absence. And so, for the evening’s fireside, he decides it might be timely to retell the story of when God made a covenant with his people.

To save humanity from themselves and mend the broken cosmos, God continued the work of creation in a new way, by choosing one family from all the families of the earth, the family of Abraham (first called Abram).

Like most stories in the Bible, Abraham’s is filled with many paradoxical and unlikely turns. And, like Jesus’ disciples were asked to do, God asked Abram to leave his sources of security - his homeland, his relatives and his father’s house. Abram was highly doubtful when God told him he would be shielded and greatly rewarded by God, with descendants as plentiful as the stars in the sky, yet God was true to His Word.

Like the
people in exile, Abraham was asked to surrender his life to the God who promises, trusting God to provide all his needs. God asks this of all his people. This story of God is, after all, the story of us, over and over again.

Questions for Discussion
1) What kind of God would ask a son to be killed?

2) What do you think of God's blessing promises?

3) What does barrenness add to the story?

4) Should Abram have argued with God?

Consider the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac. What do we make of a God who would ask his follower to kill his son in a test?

Bev Patterson: Taken literally it needs to be seen in tribal terms, at best. Within the story, we sometimes don’t feel the impact of how much terror and darkness this chapter really holds for Abraham, Isaac, Sarah and ultimately God. The paces Abraham is put through seem cruel and when I sit with it as something that could have actually happened, I feel embarrassed for God on the one hand and on the other, I think of Abraham’s delusional religious understanding. Is this part of their ancient consciousness?

And yet, I rarely think this way. For better or worse I really don’t have the visceral feeling that other people have experienced or talked about - honestly I haven’t felt that internal disgust at God being an abusive Father God who uses bully-like tactics even though cognitively I understand why someone would go there.

My next question then is - Is there something wrong with me? Do I let God off the hook just because this story is part of my scriptural heritage? Are we actually called to wrestle with this passage at an ontological level - is it there to disturb us? Is that the boon of the story, much like Job’s journey into existential angst? Should we be shaking our fist at God? Does he ask too much of us, or trick us into proving our love for him?

I must admit, delving into these ancient stories again, at this point in history with the conflict in the Middle East, I do begin to feel uncomfortable at all the flagrant military actions on the part of Israel and seeing the dispossession of other tribes as a right that comes with their unique relationship with God. What to do? Jeremiah and the other prophets certainly had a point when they called them back to the vocational blessing that comes from being chosen - “Be a light to the nations” and treat those you occupy with justice and righteousness.

But back to Abraham. If we were to replace Isaac with “career”, our love of stuff, our need for ego-advancement, status and appearance, our obsession with security, our happiness projects, family as religion, or children as possessions — then of course I think we would see this story as a tale of liberation and we would profess to want to be as Abraham - willing and faithful to the end; wanting nothing more than to give up our most prized and precious possessions for our love and relationship with God. I hope I would have the trust and faith to follow through and respond to God’s desire for me to value nothing more than my covenant with God and the true essential self that I discover when I follow the path of discipleship.

In a modern reading of the story, the idols that we are called to sacrifice, those symbols of what is most meaningful for us, is likened to letting go of a child. It is that hard and life-altering. The prospect of letting go, once and for all, often feels heart-wrenchin
g and cruel
nd we can’t quite believe that God will come through and offer us a better way, a more fulfilling life, or a love more passionate and pure. Will he really provide? That is the heart of the matter.

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Linda Tiess
en-Wiebe: While pondering this text, I kept thinking of God's sadness or longing for some reason. Maybe because he's already made several promises to Abraham and Abraham is slow to learn. Somehow God desires to have an intimate relationship with Abraham and is willing to bless him beyond limitations. But Abraham laughs it off. True, what would you think if you saw nothing of the promise. But it seems that what God wants is for Abraham to trust him, in spite of the apparent lack of evidence. The text does say God tests Abraham.

I wondered what it meant that the people of God thought they had the answer and then went into exile and experienced a testing. How did they experience having their own future put on the altar? One verse struck me: when Isaac asks where the sacrificial lamb is, Abraham says, "God will provide the lamb." Is Abraham learning that God can be trusted, even when it doesn't look like it? Beyond our understanding? The longing for
God is for humanity
to freely choose to trust God, that God's goodness is the basis of reality. Is the test not the command to sacrifice a child, but rather to not lose trust in God's goodness in do not know how it is
all going to work out and I have a fair amount of anxiety about it but I am putting my trust in the fact that God will be with me in this new venture. Hopefully the new incarnation of the work will be able to serve the Kingdom in a bigger way. But who knows, maybe like Abraham it will not look like much in the end, but be a seed for something else in the future.

At the end of his life, Abraham doesn’t appear to be a huge success; he has one son and owns only a small plot of land in Canaan. So why is Abraham esteemed as the father of Israel’s and, according to the Apostle Paul, our Christian faith?

Marilyn Heidebrecht: Yes, the wild call of YHWH on Abram's life seems reckless or else deeply radical. I like how the story pointed out the parallel between Abram's relinquishment of his father and his past; and his relinquishment of Isaac his son and future.

It makes sense in a prophetic context. How can a finite thing stand in for the Infinite in our lives? It seems that the weaning of Abram from his early milieu would have needed to be offset by a later weaning.

How ironic to be weaned from one's own child! But isn't this what happens to everyone? We must choose to step out of our parent's lives, hopefully in response to a call. And we must relinquish our children and outcomes as well. What was Abram's deepest vocation? Perhaps to be nourished by God, and to live out of that relationship. Perhaps a small plot of land in Canaan and one son could have left Abram disappointed if he had been trapped in an "under the sun" perspective.

Maybe God had to wean Abram from his circumstance — even his blessing — so that he would be free to receive a portion from "above the sun" — and live in faith. Maybe he was called to a quality of relationship rather than a quantity of anticipated outcomes.

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One of God’s promises to Abram is that he will be the father of a great nation, greater in number than the stars in the sky - and yet Sarah is barren well into her old age. Barrenness is a theme that runs through the stories in the first testament. “Barrenness symbolizes the powerlessness of humanity, yet in our limitedness God acts to give life.” What does Sarah’s and Abraham’s barrenness add to this story? Do you see a theme of barrenness in your own or Watershed’s life?

Bev Patterson: I have always loved this tension, and it’s one of the “through-lines” of our faith — to be barren, (especially in a culture that puts a huge stock in bearing a lineage) and yet to be given a promise of life that goes beyond your own very small episodic 70-ish years. It is hope and faith-engendering and you end up rooting for these people — we are one of them.

You also end up with a sense of awe and gratitude for such a God. Here is a God who has crafted us in his own image, an image that is all about creativity and bringing forth life and yet, despite all our barren and futile attempts at coming through we are loved and we are given a story to be part of. God includes us in his life.

I think God is saddened by us, sometimes disappointed in his creation, angered by our choices and our rebelliousness, but he never seems to punish or judge us because of our barrenness. All he asks is that we wait and trust and believe HE is real. Could it be that God has go
ne ahead
and set up a very upside-down situation in that, when we are most empty, without much to offer of our own making, when we are in a place of wandering without much of a homestead that we are most accompanied and often used for God’s loving purposes? Is this what it means to be in covenant and part of the blanket of stars which was Abraham’s dream for spiritual significance? In our imagination, the small attempts at following God’s call (i.
e. staying true to God’s vision of Watershed, supporting each other in small ways, encouraging the walk of faith in each other despite times of being dis-heartened or the discouragement we feel when nothing comes to fruition, responding in faith and in “BIG-TENT” ways, welcoming people to our small gathering, including them in the story we’ve grown to love with a spirit of freedom, etc etc.) seem so small and insignificant, but maybe in God’s imagination all that little stuff, the stuff in the brackets, is like the mustard seed that helps to grow the kingdom.

We might be barren and we rarely see the big picture and without God, this barrenness is death, but in God’s dream that spans across the ages, life always comes from a ground that appears seedless. Maybe, that is why, (see Question #2) Paul the apostle has the clarity and the wisdom to see how Abraham could father such abundance - Abraham was at a loss as to how to create life on his own but that seems to be the best ground that faith and trust and loving relationship with such a Holy God can grow from. Much better than a Father who is hell-bent on achievement and worldly success, pushing his children at all costs for his own agenda. After all, it is Abraham who leaves the place of tower building and Babel.

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God Provides
“God has already tested Abraham once, with the call to go, the call to leave his past behind -- asking the son to relinquish his father. And Abraham proved faithful. But now God is calling him to give up his future -- asking the father to relinquish the son. Thus God tested Abraham, and Abraham proved faithful. Yet the place of his testing is not called ‘Abraham will be faithful.’ No, it is called ‘God will provide.’ For this story ultimately is about the faithfulness of God. The God who makes covenant with Abraham can be trusted, even if God cannot be understood at times. For God both tests and provides.”

What does this story tell you about God? In a literary sense, if Abraham would have argued with God or refused the test, what implications would that have had for the story?

Linda Tiessen-Wiebe: It's hard not to rewrite these stories in our heads. And the most obvious change would be having Abraham argue with God, challenging God's archaic ways. This would be more palatable for us and I think we would cheer Abe for his integrity. It might inspire us to stand up to corrupt authority in our lives. The story would become a classic hero story. It might be other things as well but it would no longer be "God will provide". It might be "I will prevail". It might start to sound a lot like the stories we tell ourselves, where we are the hero somehow and reality is to be stood against.

I don't quite know what to make of a God who tests us. Read a certain way that can seem to encourage a performance-based approach to spirituality. But if I see "testing" the same way as we've talked about "judgement," a testing that purifies, restores, and opens up a different way; where failing tests leads to gratitude for mercy and passing a test is because suffering has created a heart more open to people and God. And while it's great to be the hero of your own story, what do you do when you encounter your own profound self-interestedness? We’re not exactly reliable heroes! If God provides, especially when I fail or am barren, this seems like a better story to lean into.

Lorna Derksen: Do you think it's important that we choose to identify the source of the tests in our life as God? As opposed to being random events that every life encounters? I was just thinking about my skiing accident (where I broke my leg) and how I was never inclined to see it as from God. Would there have been a point in attributing it to God? It did end up being a test of sorts; in a sense it continues to be a test of patience and trust as complete healing still seems a ways away. And it was an occasion for witnessing the provision of God.

The old man or narrator in the chapter seems to suggest the importance of acknowledging that we are being tested by God. Or is it more along the lines that Reality, as infused by God, tests us always. It's inherent in being alive. And we are invited to be faithful.

It's funny because as much as I chafe at the idea of identifying something as a test from God, there is something engaging and energizing about being given a test, and needing to rise to the occasion. Maybe not if the test is killing your son though. :-(

Just one more thing — what makes so many of the Hebrew scripture stories appealing is that they show flawed people stumbling their way toward faith. If Abe had argued or not taken the test, I imagine the story of God's provision would have found its way to the lblogEntryTopper
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