Joseph and Moses (IV):
The greatest challenge Moses had to address was not the stubborn recalcitrance of Pharoah, but rather the rebelliousness of his own people, especially their great apostasy recounted in chapters 32-34 of Exodus. In the absence of Moses, Israel makes and worships a golden image of a young bull (usually rendered “calf” in English, which is misleading), thus re-imagining the Creator in the likeness of natural virility, strength, and fertility.
It is a covenant-breaking act, and the Lord proposes to have done with Israel. Moses reins in the people with a harsh chastisement, but restoring them to God’s favor requires an extraordinary intercession on their behalf. It is the high point of Moses’ work as a mediator, not simply to speak for God and carry out the instructions he received (as he did in confronting Pharoah and receiving the Law), but now to speak for Israel. Through this intercession, the mercy of God is revealed, in addition to his justice:
The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. (34:6, 7)
As that revelation of his Name hints, there is a tension there between his justice and his mercy; and that in turn points to a tension in the old covenant, in which the favor of God is both conditional on Israel’s fidelity to its covenant obligations, its obedience to the law, and also unconditional and free. That is a tension which the Mosaic covenant cannot ultimately hold together. The covenant provides means for the people to be forgiven and restored; but what happens if they don’t repent? What happens when the repentance elicited by some remedial chastisement is so superficial that it disappears as soon as the pressure lifts? What happens if there is no fundamental inward change of heart? A grace that never elicits repentance and obedience must turn to judgment. That is the witness of Jeremiah, who stands at the long end of the history shaped by Moses. He faces the finality of a covenant broken beyond repair, as is evident in the Lord’s shocking refusal to hear their prayers, or even the prophet’s intercessions on their behalf: “pray not thou for this people, neither lift up a cry or prayer for them: for I will not hear them in the time that they cry unto me for their trouble” (11:14).
Jeremiah stands at the point where Israel’s opportunity for repentance and restoration have vanished, in a society that has passed the point of no return, and faces judgment: the loss of kingship, temple, city, land – nothing less than the undoing of the exodus and all its fruits. Yet to Jeremiah is also given to declare the hope that lies on the far side of wrath: nothing less than (23:5-8) a new king from David’s line (the Messiah), a new exodus (the return from exile), and a new and better covenant made by God, for sins, forgiven, and the law written inwardly in their hearts (31:31-34). It is the inauguration of this new covenant (or “testament”) by his death, that Jesus announces at the last supper: “this is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins”. In his death, he fulfills in our place not only the active obedience required in the law but also its penalties for disobedience. He fulfills the condition required for God’s unconditional grace toward sinners who put their trust in Christ; and thus obtaining the Spirit whereby sinful hearts may be renewed.
As Moses was greater than Joseph, so much greater yet is Christ, the mediator of the new covenant “that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance”. What was shadowed forth in the exodus, the covenant, and the tabernacle of Moses, now attains eternal reality in Christ himself. He is the true tabernacle, the locus of God’s presence among his people; and by our membership in his Body, his Spirit dwells in us, as in a living Temple. “The word was made flesh and dwelt [literally, “tabernacled”] among us”. “In him ye also are builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22). In his own death and resurrection does he accomplish the “exodus” (Luke 9:31), whereby believers also may pass over from wrath to favor, from sin to righteousness, and from death to life: “every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming”, when “God shall be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:23, 28)
You may read Parts 1, 2 & 3 of this essay below:
The public domain painting is entitled “Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob” by Diego Velazquez . This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, March 14, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.