by Ralph W. Klein
Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor Emeritus of Old Testament
Sermon by Ralph W. Klein at the inauguration of the Ralph W. and Marilyn R. Klein chair of Old Testament. Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. September 15, 2010
Our OT reading today talks about one of the many temptations Moses faced during his long life. In this case God was so angry with the Israelites over the Golden Calf incident that God decided to make an end of them and start all over with a new people built out of Moses. If that plan had worked, we would be talking today about the bene uvanoth Moseh—the sons and daughters of Moses—and not about the Israelites. While later tradition has credited Moses with the authorship of the Pentateuch and of being the greatest of all prophets, the temptation faced by Moses to be literally the ancestor of God’s people must have been very great. The greatest temptation of religious leaders, including pastors and seminary professors, is to think that they are indispensible. Even Elijah thought he was the last faithful Israelite.
Moses resisted that temptation, a temptation that came from God himself and engaged instead in a desperate, three-part prayer, throwing back into God’s face a series of words and actions.
- The Lord had accused Moses—your people whom you brought out of Egypt have acted perversely. No, Moses said, God they are your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand. Tyrants don’t yield easily, and only God’s use of violent force had been enough to separate Israel from the Pharaoh of Egypt. So the first argument of Moses is an appeal to God’s self interest. Don’t you recognize your own people? Don’t you remember how it took ten harsh plagues to force Pharaoh to say, Get out of here?
- The second part of the prayer is to ask God what would the neighbors think. What would the Egyptians think about the God who had so clearly bested them? He went to all that effort only to destroy the people he had liberated. It is highest treason to do the right thing for the wrong reason. The adherents of the Egyptian Tea Party would call into question God’s moral compass. They would conclude that the whole Exodus was only a cynical ploy. God flip flopped and destroyed the very people whom he had saved. Change your mind, Moses prayed.
- The third part of the argument reminds God of God’s promises. Don’t you remember what you promised to Sarah and Abraham, to Rebekah and Isaac, to Leah, Rachel, and Jacob. You promised to multiply their descendants like the stars and you promised their descendants that they would have a place, the land, to call their own.
Arguing with God can have two purposes. The first is that we are trying to convince ourselves, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that God is good all the time. That all the time God is good. But the argument in this OT lesson is really with God, and Moses wins that argument hands down. Change your mind, Moses cried. And change his mind God did.
Translators over the years have tried to tone that down. 400 years ago the KJV translators said the Lord repented of the evil which he had considered. The NIV says the Lord relented. Even the JPS said that the Lord renounced the punishment he had planned. I think the NRSV has it just right: The Lord changed his mind.
Jews and Christians have this in common that our God can change his or her mind. After the flood God parked a rainbow in the sky to remind him never to forget his people. But Jeremiah, caught in the cruel dilemma of the doctrine of retribution said that our only hope for a new covenant was to have a forgetful God. I have often found it quite helpful to sing with the Taize community: Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. But the next time we sing that hymn during the Lord’s supper, we should probably add a second verse: Jesus, forget my sins, when you come into your kingdom.
We Jews and Christians hold this in common, that our God can change his mind, often, usually, almost always, for our benefit. Luther talked about the happy exchange of our sins for God’s righteousness. The hymn writer sang: “Change and decay in all around I see, O thou who changest not, abide with me.” But as we face fresh challenges and new temptations, should we not also sing: Change and decay in all around I see, O thou who changest too, abide with me.
Moses was a better interpreter of the times than God was, at least temporarily, and he forced God to change his mind. We are met here today to install our sister Esther in a brand new chair in the interpretation of the Old Testament. To see Esther in this position fills Marilyn and me with unparalleled joy. Her many scholarly, personal, and Christian gifts have already singled her out as a stellar member of the faculty. In her dissertation at the University of Chicago she drew on the rich resources of early Judaism to give new meaning to Genesis 38. She has been a leader in the Society of Biblical Literature in the section devoted to the Psalter. She has been a creative and very caring leader in our doctoral program. She, Bruce, and their beloved Kaia have weathered the challenges of last Spring and remained faithful.
I think how much exegesis has changed in the forty-four years since I left Harvard. Almost all my professors had been students of W. F. Albright and his views were viewed as the correct consensus on almost every imaginable issue. But scholarship has moved on because of new discoveries and also because of new methods. Back then we praised the objectivity of historical criticism and were naïve about that objectivity. So in the last 44 years exegesis from particular social locations has come to the fore: feminist, Hispanic, native American, African American, third world, post colonial and other voices have claimed their rightful voices. Social science and narratological approaches have greatly enriched our study of the Old Testament; even the term Hebrew Bible was rarely used forty years ago. The other day Marilyn and I were wondering what if the holder of this chair fifty years from now would stand for things we would not now hold dear. But then we checked ourselves and said that that threat is really our hope for the future. So fifty years from now the occupant of this chair will be different from, me, different from Esther, and altogether like us: an eager learner at the banquet of the Scriptures.
All of you in the audience today—staff, students, faculty colleagues, friends, and relatives—are interpreters of the Bible. At your best you have learned to interpret the Bible from its burning center, its story of a God who promises and who changes his mind, who seeks justice and empowers her people to pursue it. In 1960 our colleague Frederick Danker published a three hundred page book, that sold then for $3.75, and was entitled Multipurpose Tools for Bible Study. Fred talked about how to use concordances, lexicons, grammars, Bible Dictionaries, and the like and at the end he listed the best available commentary for each book in the Old and New Testament. But the most striking thing to me about that book is its dedication: To the best commentary on Proverbs 31:10-31. Proverbs 31 is a passage about an idealized, virtuous woman. As I have studied that passage with students over the years they have praised it and sharply criticized it. That woman whose candle never goes out is a soccer mom on steroids. But Fred Danker knew that the best commentary on that passage was not to be found in the seminary library, but was his wife Lois, mother of their children, loving spouse, enterprising publisher, and a worker at a halfway house for female prisoners. Her life embodied and demonstrated what a virtuous woman in the second half of the 20th century would look like. She was the best commentary he knew on Proverbs 31. I look out on a group of students who desire to be able ministers of the Old and New Testaments. That will become a reality in part from what you achieve in the curriculum of this place. But it will come in greater part on how your lives and ministries are commentaries on the Scriptures.
When Marilyn and I decided to take out a life insurance policy that will fund this chair we hoped to further the legacy of biblical interpretation at LSTC, but now I want to say something very personal about that legacy. My five grandsons are in the audience today and I’m going to ask them to stand and remain standing for the rest of the sermon when I mention their names. Their names are Patrick 12, Daniel 8, Luke 9, Seth 9, and Jonah 9. I promise you guys this won’t take long so please bear with me as you remain standing.
I have a dream about the year 2060, 50 years from now. Esther will be long since retired, and you guys will be 58, 59, and 62 years old. Chances are you yourselves will be parents, even grandparents. And the occupant of the Klein chair in Old Testament will be someone unknown to the scholarly world now. Chances are she or he now is a kid, just like you, in 3rd, 4th, or 7th grade, taking music lessons, playing soccer and baseball, maybe even wearing braces. But 50 years from now she or he will be the Klein professor of OT. My dream is this: I dream that you will call up that person and invite her or him out to lunch. (You guys are paying). In my dream that lunch has a three part agenda. I hope you will encourage him or her and tell that person some stories about Nana and Papa. But then I dream you will say that when Papa preached on September 15, 2010, he told all of us about a God whose chief characteristic is to change his mind, often, usually, almost always for our benefit. And then I hope you’ll say to the Klein professor of Old Testament: We hope you still teach about a God who changes his mind.