I just finished reading an article entitled “Friends with God? Moses and the Possibility of Covenanted Friendship,” by Dr. Jacqueline E. Lapsley. She serves as associate professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Though the entire article was very good, I sat up in my chair toward the end when she enunciated a perspective that I have never heard articulated – ever – by a non-Adventist (and, in fact, most Adventists do not seem to understand it either). A Presbyterian, Lapsley puts her finger on the undercurrents of what was happening with the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai, especially noting the antecedents and aftermath. Instead of summarising what she wrote, I thought I would just share this very poignant and perceptive paragraph (which is long, but stick with it):
Michael Walzer makes the cogent argument that [Israel’s] prior servitude inhibits the people from immediately being capable of faithfulness; they must grow into the responsibilities inherent in freedom. It is significant that Moses did not participate in his people’s servitude—his habit of mind was formed in freedom—and as such he is capable of entering into and sustaining a friendship with God over the long term. In the episode of the golden calf, the people’s theology of fear leads them to make an inert god they can get close to without fear when Moses does not immediately descend from the mountain. But Moses’ friendship with God sustains him and his faith, even in the midst of severe testing, when he is caught between God’s demands and the people’s anger and faithlessness. The people, by contrast, view God as frightening and distant, with the result that their faithlessness begins immediately. Their lack of self-assertion renders their relationship with God a one-dimensional “faith” constituted by obedience alone. This “faith” cannot sustain them over the long term. In sum, while we are informed that “never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deut 34:10), this singularity may not be because God willed it so but because no one else demonstrated the same kind of habitual interaction, reciprocity, and self-assertion necessary to maintain a divine friendship over the long term (although Elijah comes close). For the church to read Exodus as scripture today, then, there is more reason to identify with Moses than with the people, and more reason to see in his friendship with God a path of faithfulness than in the slavish (dis)obedience of the people.
What caught my eye is that Lapsley recognizes that 1) because of their prior slavery, Israel seemed unable to relate to God appropriately. 2) This resulted in a “theology of fear” (I love that term) which led to the golden calf incident, as well as 3) Israel’s inability to experience a faithful obedience toward God, instead living out an “obedience” that was based on fear (what I would call an “old covenant” experience).
As I said, I have never read any author outside of Seventh-day Adventism who has betrayed a familiarity with this concept, so it’s refreshing to see it articulated.
And, truthfully, we as Adventists need to plumb this concept for all it’s worth as well.