At the end of Exodus 2, we read that after a long time, Pharaoh died. Israel groaned under bondage. They cried out and their cry came up to God in heaven. God heard their groaning and remembered his covenant.
Most of us are going to take a phrase like “God remembered” as a sort of idiom for “after a long time of inaction, God did something.” Few of us would entertain the thought that God forgot.
My guess is it is what some people call phenomenological language. We speak of the sun rising. We know, now, that this is not truly the case. From the universal view, we would say the earth rotates. Likewise, God may not forget and remember things, but it sure seems to us mortals down here that it happens that way. That, perhaps, is why Moses invented the lament, complaining to God . . .. with permission.
Why is God silent during suffering? We’ve no idea really how long the Israelites suffered in the silence of God’s absence. Not only are the numbers in Exodus and other relevant Hebrew Bible texts questionable with regard to their literalism, and hard to reconcile, but even if we try to take them at face value, they do not say where the relationship with Pharaoh got bad and enslavement began.
But how long would it take to wonder if God was there. Maybe the bondage was nowhere near 400 years. Maybe it was forty. I’d be wondering where God was long before the years of slavery became even four, much less forty. How about you?
Then, at the end of chapter 5, Moses does something revolutionary. We might say this is one of the overlooked inventions of history. He laments to God. He complains, and apparently, with permission.
Do you, in your prayers, say things to God like, “O Lord, why have you done evil to your people?” Moses did.
Why did you ever send me, Moses wonders. Ever since I came here to speak in your name you have done nothing but evil, God. You have not delivered your people at all.
It would be interesting if Exodus 6:1, the very next verse read, and the smoke continues to rise this day from the spot where Moses spoke.
Of course, it doesn’t say that. And we have the beginning of a long tradition, first instanced by Moses, of lament in Israel.
Lament is in the Psalms. You know, the ones that don’t tend to show up on posters or in email slideshows. Lament is in Lamentations, one of the greatest works of poetry in history (it’s an acrostic too, you know). And Jeremiah and other prophets make use of lament.
Lament is a reaction to suffering. It is complaining to God. And God allows it. He doesn’t say it is inaccurate.
Theologically, how are we to take this? Why doesn’t God say, “Listen, puny mortals, I have my reasons and you’d just better be content while your suffering goes on”?
I have a theory. Here is where we depart from straight biblical exposition and historical considerations into the theology of Derek Leman (not mine only, but drawn from a million sources over time).
I’d say that some things God just can’t explain to us in a way that would be rationally, emotionally, or in any complete sense, satisfying. Suffering is the biggest one.
I do think God has an answer. I think it is an answer that draws derision from skeptics everywhere. As soon as I write about it, some will click their mouses away from this post in sneering disgust. Naivete. Religious imbecilism. Some people will believe anything. I can hear it now.
After one day in the World to Come, I think we will look at suffering differently. Maybe one hour. And we’ll understand why God did not smite Moses on the spot.
God’s silence and inaction has no excuse until we see the better thing that will come.
For now, we see that God remembers as if he forgets. It is just like the way we see the sun rising until mathematicians could model planetary motion and we could imagine the more universal view of things. Then, when spacecraft saw the actual sun rising over the sphere of earth from a position of orbit, and the mathematical model could be empirically verified, what satisfaction it was.
I believe all counterfactuals (alternate realities) exist in God’s mind. An infinite number of universes exist with every permutation of choice, suffering, bliss, and so on. In this one, the one we assume is the real one (for sanity’s sake, I’d urge you to grant that we are not just in the matrix, but in the real universe that God has chosen to exist in “reality” and not simply in his mind) God remembers after long periods of inaction.
Of course, I don’t mean that God is absent and that his Presence is not real. I think he is here and suffers with us in the times of relative inaction.
But one hour or one day into the World to Come and perhaps we will be able to model the reality of the multi-verse. Perhaps we will understand that this reality, the one God has chosen, is the best possible world.
That’s what I think. But meanwhile, I will lament like Moses and the Psalms. I won’t be afraid to blame God. It is a biblical tradition, as surely as anything else we call biblical. Moses was a genius who understood piety doesn’t always look pious. He invented the complaint to the omnipotent God (I’m pretty sure all the pagan laments I’ve read in my Pritchard volume end in groveling, unlike Moses’ purely bitter one).
And lament is good for the soul while we wait for God to remember.