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Where is God Now?
13 But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?"
14 God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"
15 God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.
Where Is God Now?
Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Romania. He lived in a Jewish village. The first years of World War II left his village relatively untouched and the Wiesel family believed that they were safe from the persecutions suffered by Jews in Germany and Poland.
Then, in 1944, the Nazis arrived. Most of the people in the village were deported to concentration camps in Poland. Fifteen-year-old Elie was separated from his mother and sister immediately on arrival in Auschwitz. He never saw them again. He managed to remain with his father for the next year as they were worked almost to death, starved, beaten, and shuttled from camp to camp on foot, or in open cattle cars, in driving snow, without food, proper shoes, or clothing. In the last months of the war, Wiesel's father died. After the war, the teenaged Wiesel found a home in France, where he learned for the first time that his two older sisters had survived the war.
For ten years, he observed a self-imposed vow of silence and wrote nothing about the concentration camps. In 1955, he set down his memories in Yiddish, in a 900-page work entitled Un die Welt Hot Geshvign (And the World Kept Silent). Later, Wiesel compressed the work into a much smaller version, which he titled Night,
In his book Night, Wiesel describes hangings. These were a regular feature of concentration camp life. For the theft of a piece of bread, for talking back to a guard, for slacking off at work, for practically anything, the Nazis had one punishment—hanging.
But Wiesel describes one group of hangings that was particularly awful. Three gallows had been erected—three hangman’s nooses over three chairs. Two adults and a child were to be hanged. The child was a young boy with a refined and beautiful face. Thousands of prisoners were lined up to watch the hanging. All eyes were on the child. Wiesel says the child “was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips.”
“’Long live liberty!’ cried the two adults. But the child was silent.”
Someone in the ranks behind Wiesel asked, “Where is God? Where is he?”
Then the chairs were kicked over. The two adults died immediately, their necks broken by the snap of the noose. But the SS hangmen botched the job on the child and he hung there for half an hour struggling against slow strangulation. The prisoners had to march past him and look at him. Wiesel said that when he marched past, the boy was still alive, though just barely.
And he heard the same man ask, “Where is God now?”
Wiesel wrote, “And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows” (Bantam Books, 1982. pp 61-62).
Wiesel’s words are subject to a couple of interpretations. When he says God is hanging on that gallows with that child, he probably means he has lost his faith in God. He had believed in a God that could prevent all suffering. Yet that God had not prevented the untold suffering and dying that was part of his experience in the camps. So God was either a monster who did not care about human suffering, or God could not prevent all suffering. If God saw that child die on a Nazi gallows, and could have done something and did nothing, then God is evil. That is the problem that Wiesel is wrestling with.
But there is another interpretation of Wiesel’s words. The words are to be taken literally. God was literally on that Gallows with that child. God was at the end of that rope. God shared the suffering of the boy and also the suffering of the prisoners. God grieved over the inhumanity of the guards. That is where God is; That is who God is.
Where Was God in the Exodus?
Chapter 3 of the book of the Exodus is know as the call of Moses. Moses had abandoned his position in the court of Pharaoh, and fled Egypt. He was making a living as a shepherd in the wilderness of Sinai. One day, he saw a bush burning on a mountainside. He watched it for sometime and noticed that the bush was not burned up. It just kept on burning. Finally, he went to investigate this strange phenomenon, and God spoke to him from the burning bush. God ordered Moses to go back to Egypt and free the Israelites from slavery. But Moses was reluctant to accept this job. He said, in v11, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" . Moses said, I am just an ordinary guy. I do not have any magical powers. I do not have fame nor fortune. I am not the man you want. I do not have the qualifications you are seeking. Moses apparently had a low self-image. Fortunately, God can fix that. God replies, "I will be with you.” God says, I will qualify you for the job, you do not have to worry about that. God says, my presence with you will qualify you for the job.”
A lot of us are like Moses. Poor little me! I cannot do anything. God certainly would never notice me. But we do not work for God on our own strength, God works through us to empower us for his work.
Then we come to the objection in v13. Moses said, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?"
The question shows how much the Israelites have degenerated from the true worship of God. Perhaps they still remember something of the old stories of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but in Egypt they have encountered other Gods—Ra, Set, Osiris, Anubis, a hundred others, and they have worshipped at Egyptian altars. So when Moses claims he comes from God, they will ask Which God? What is his name?
God’s reply in v14 is mysterious and difficult of translation. The NRSV has it as “I am who I am.” The KJV reads “I am that I am.” The Septuagint reads “I am he who exists.” Certainly, the cryptic statement points to God’s existence.
Perhaps God is simply saying that I am the only God who exists. All other so-called Gods are just vain idols, I actually am. I have existence. I am real.
God is saying that I am the divine reality that is wherever you are. At the moment of the burning bush in Exodus 3, God said to Moses, I am. That is, I am with you right here, right now. I am real and you are in my presence.
Earlier in the chapter, God had emphasized this present divine reality by saying to Moses as he approached the burning bush, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (v5). God said, you Moses are in the presence of the divine.
God emphasizes that this is the way he has always been. In v15, God identifies himself as “the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God is saying, I was with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I was a living presence to them. I walked with them and guided their lives, and I will do the same for you.
Thus, God says to Moses in v14, the message you are to carry to the Israelites is “I AM has sent me to you." In other words, God’s promise to the Israelites, when Moses delivers this message, is that God will be right there with them at that moment.
Notice that their outward situation is not immediately changed. They are still slaves in Egypt and will be for some time. We can imagine the Israelites responding to Moses, saying, why does not God free us from slavery instantaneously. Why do you not snap your fingers Moses and we are instantly transported to the Promised Land and we are not only free but we have farms and houses and vineyards so that we live happily ever after.
But God does not work that way. God works by a process, a process that often seems slow to us. Moses goes to Pharoah and demands that he let the people go, but Pharaoh does not let the people go. Only after ten disastrous plagues is Pharaoh finally convinced to let the Israelites go, and then he changes his mind and sends his army after them.
We have this dramatic scene where Pharaoh’s army is closing in on the Israelites and it looks like they are all going to be massacred, but the waters roll back and they escape, and the water comes back again, and drowns the Egyptian army.
This is only the beginning of the Exodus. They march down to Mount Sinai, and there they receive the Law. After some months camped by the Mounatin, they begin to march toward the promised land, but they fail God and fail in their attempt to conquer Canaan. That generation, the first generation of the Exodus, is condemned to wander in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula for forty years. It is only later that the second generation, under their great general Joshua, will cross the Jordan River and actually begin the conquest of the Promised Land.
This short summary then shows that the Exodus was a long process. It took an entire generation to get from slavery in Egypt to the entry into Canaan, and the conquest of Canaan took far longer than that, and even though it was all God’s plan and God was with them all the way, the Israelites had their part to play, and many of them did not play it very well.
Had we been able to appear to the Israelites as they marched in the wilderness, and do on the scene interviews with cameras and sound equipment and had we asked them, “Are you better off now than when you were slaves in Egypt?” they would have replied, “No, we are not. We are wandering in a desert. There is not much water. We can’t grow anything. We were better off in Egypt.” Had we asked them, “Is God with you?” they would perhaps have replied, “there is not much evidence that he is. After all, we are wandering in a desert.”
This gives us some clues then as to how God acts in the world. God does not immediately change situations. God works through people, people like Moses and Joshua and thousands and millions of others who are less famous, God works to bring about his purpose. If we are in the midst of God’s working, we might not see much evidence of God, but God is working nevertheless.
Let us reflect again on the hanging of that child in a Nazi concentration camp. The question was asked, “Where is God now?” God was there and God was faithful to that child. God had initiated a process that would bring the whole Nazi system crashing down. When that child was hanged, Adolf Hitler had less than a year to live. The whole evil regime that sanctioned the murder of some 13 million people in concentration camps would be utterly destroyed by allied armies in 1945. God was working.
Now you might raise an objection. You might say that it is true that the Nazis were eventually destroyed, but that did not help that child. The boy still died on an SS gallows.
For guidance here, let us go back to the Exodus again. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for 400 years. During that time untold numbers of Israelites were worked to death. At some point during that period, Pharaoh became concerned about the expanding population of the Hebrews and started putting male Hebrew babies to death. We do not know how many babies were murdered.
When the Israelites were finally rescued by God, using Moses as his instrument, someone could have said, what about all the babies that have already died? This does not save them. What about centuries of hardship and suffering, this does not change that. And they obviously would have been correct in what they said. The only reply is that God was working even then to rectify that injustice. God was with them and God was working to change that evil system.
Now how does this apply to us? There is much evil in the world much injustice, much unfairness. The world is not what God wants it to be. God does not approve of unjust social structures. God does not approve of poverty and violence and hunger. These are evils against which God works and against which God calls us to work. God does not wave a magic wand and end all suffering. God uses people and processes to work toward the end of suffering. God uses us.
Chapter 3 of the Exodus is the call of Moses. We also have a call from God. We are called to do God’s work of love wherever we are. We are to stand for the truth and to work for what is good.
Now you might say, why should I do that. Does God really care what I think or do? God cares more than anyone. God loves you. Because God loves you he wants you to act for him everyday in every way. God is always faithful in his love, and God wants you to be faithful in love. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 5/17/05