“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go, leave this place, you, and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, “To your descendants, I will give it.” I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.’” (Exodus 33:1-3, NRSV)
Sometimes the Bible gives us mixed messages about God that we must reconcile through careful scripture study. Exodus 33 is one example that paints two contrasting pictures of God. First, we see God’s gracious nature through the promise he made to Abraham to provide a productive and fertile homeland for his descendants. Moses leads the Israelites on their continuing journey to this Promised Land, and God says an angel will go before them to drive out the inhabitants who live there. Then we see a contrasting picture of God. God says he won’t travel with the Israelites on their journey because their stubbornness will frustrate him, and his anger will “consume” them.
So, is God gracious, or is God angry and impatient? Some will tell you God is both. They argue that God’s righteousness is so pure that God can’t even look upon sin. They say that sin makes God angry, and if it is unatoned, God keeps his distance from the sinner. The solution, they say, is Jesus bearing our sins on the cross, thus atoning for our wrongs and replacing our sinfulness with his righteousness. God only accepts us because he sees Jesus’ righteousness in place of our sinfulness.
Steve McVey writes:
The idea that God the Father can’t look upon sin is simply wrong. It leads to an insulting conclusion about Jesus, who is God the Son. He lived in this world in the very midst of sin, and he not only looked upon it but even rushed toward people trapped in sin! He saw sin as a fatal disease that needed a cure, not a legal violation that needed punishment.
The writer of Exodus fell into a common trap created by the shame and unworthiness we all feel from time to time. He interpreted the distance the Israelites felt from God as God’s doing when it’s we who distance ourselves from God. It’s easier for some people to believe in an angry God than for them to believe in a God who loves us unconditionally. Our loving God became flesh and blood in the person of Jesus, so we could see him as he is—a loving and gracious God who will never leave us. Jesus is the image of his Father!