Not Offerings, not Sacrifices, but Relationships
One of the most contentious questions, and one of the most important ones, concerns the issue of what God seeks from us, and how we should be related to him. Does He seek those who will adhere to a sort of a religious structure, keeping a set of customs that have been deemed, rightly or not, in some manner holy? Or, does He seek those who have a heart that is His: They long to know God, even as they imperfectly put that into practice in daily life? What sort of relationship with God is a "normal" one, and is it the same as the "usual" one? Is the typical, "Christian" lifestyle and practice in fact the kind that God seeks? Or is there something else, something more?
It is clear from Scripture-especially the Old Testament-that what God seeks is an intimate, loving relationship with his people. However, knowing that is often not much help. First, we often seek is rules and an "arm's-length" safety, not true relationship. And then, even when we really want a relationship with him, what will it look like? What are we really seeking? It is the nature of man-as history so abundantly demonstrates-to want clearly outlined structure and rules by which to govern relationships. We are much more comfortable with clear definition and tangible evidence than with abstracts and hard-to-define ideas. There is a story of a small child running to her parents for protection during an especially noisy night-time thunderstorm. They assured her that it was perfectly safe for her to return to her bed, saying, "Jesus is always there with you." The little girl replied, "I know Jesus is there, but I want to have someone with skin on!"
Virtually every ancient culture had some physical manifestation of whatever they chose to designate as "god." They worshipped statues, rocks, bugs, the sun, and a mind-numbing array of other physical items. It is our nature to want evidence and reassurance that we can see. We are not secure with something that "just is," something that has no form or tangible manifestation.
Israel: beloved of God
After God redeemed Israel from Egypt-with the most awesome display of divine power in history-it would seem that the people would certainly have known to trust and worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who rescued them. Yet, short months later, as Moses was at a mountain-top meeting with God, many in Israel demanded some tangible manifestation of a god for them to worship, and they began a wild pagan orgy, celebrating a dead hunk of metal-a golden calf (Exodus 32).
We shake our heads in disbelief, as Israel again and again failed to realize their redeemer-God, and fell into disobedience and sin. However, we generally do little better in knowing and obeying God, and their experience is recorded for us as a warning, lest we, too, follow our natural bent toward the tangible (I Corinthians 10). What does God want from us? What did God want from Israel?
Not rules, but pleasing a Person
It is clear, both now and then, that God does not want a people who simply adhere to a set of rules, maintaining some sort of a religious structure, no matter how well intended. He wants our hearts-which will bring forth appropriate actions-and not actions that do not come a heart that desires to know and serve Him.
The prophet Hosea said it very well: "For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings" (6:6 NASB). This verse has also been paraphrased in this manner: "I don't want your offerings, and I don't want your sacrifices; I want you to know me and to love me" (The Living Bible). God is redundantly clear about his desires. J. Dwight Pentecost wrote, "Christian living is not keeping a set of rules; it is pleasing a Person." God wants to be known and loved by his people. But what does that look like? How will we know it when we see it "with skin on"? Is living in the presence of God, knowing and pleasing him, living a "goody-two-shoes," boring, do-nothing sort of life? Should our life be guided by, "I don't drink, smoke, cuss, or chew, or go with girls who do"? Or should we be looking for "a miracle a day"? Should we expect non-stop manifestations of God's power? We will let several examples in Scripture answer for us. Not surprisingly, for the earliest example we have to go back to the beginning, to the garden. We will look at a time and place where God's intent in this matter was clearly demonstrated by actions.
Life in the garden
God created man and woman-Adam and Eve-to live in a certain manner, to be related in a certain way, to Him, to each other, and to the rest of creation. The plan worked…for a while. We don't know how long it took before Adam rebelled and ended what seems to us a very good thing. We generally assume that he fell very soon after being created, but we only know that, sometime after he was created, he fell. We know that, at some point, Adam bought the idea that God wasn't really all that good: There might be something that God was holding back, something good that Adam might want. Trust ceased, and predictably, when trust ceased, the relationship changed.
Before it did, however, there were some things happening that are important for us.
First, it seems that God and Adam walked together in the garden in the cool of the evening (Genesis 3:8). Apparently there was a time, when the day's work was done (yes, Adam did have a job), when Adam and God met to walk and talk. This suggests a kind of relationship that is deeper, more intimate, and on the level of a friendship.
- Right and Wrong
Second, Adam and Eve did not know good from evil (Genesis 2:16, 17; 3:5). They didn't think in those terms. For them, "good" was obeying God, and "evil" was disobeying God. That was the end of it. Therefore, there was no concept of morality, no set of rules outlining permissible and impermissible actions. Considering conditions in the garden, it would not be wrong to say that, in God's original plan for his people, there was no intention for a concept of morality. There was no understanding of law and rules, but only living in a relationship with Him, living what the Hebrew Scriptures would call "before the face of God." What pleased Him was, by definition, good. What did not, was not.
Rules are cool
We are most comfortable with a set of rules, since with them the world and our place in it is clearly defined, and we can know what the expectations are. Personal relationships are different, because they nearly always have an element of ambiguity. We are additionally put off by the idea of such a relationship with someone who is essentially unknown to us. We, like Adam, have bought into the idea that God is perhaps not as good or as loving as we would like, and so we are not going to entirely let our guard down. We have a concept of God that is not based in Scripture, and that does not include the passionate love he has for us.
God is essentially unknown to us, but He is unknown to us by our choice, not his. If the prophets tell us anything, it is that God longs to restore the relationship of intimacy, of knowing, that existed in the garden before Adam messed it up. God seeks those whose heart is fully his, that He may reveal himself to them. Let's look at some more examples from Scripture, cases of people who had fascinating relationships with God, people who can teach us something.
Abraham: 'real people'
Abraham is fascinating and valuable to us for a variety of reasons, two of which we will discuss here. First, he seems to have made a lot of mistakes. Second, he was close friends with God.
- Trust and obey
When initially reading the Genesis account of Abraham, it seems amazing that he apparently left his homeland, his extended family, and his culture and began moving, heading southwest, looking for a destination that he would know only when God revealed it to him. Even more, it seems that he traveled for some time, perhaps months, with no further word from God. Apparently, God said, "Go until I tell you to stop." And Abraham did that, with no more instructions. God seems to enjoy periods of silence. It is certainly possible that God spoke to Abraham more than is mentioned in Scripture, but if He did, it was not significant enough to be included in the account. This sort of faith seems almost beyond comprehension to most of us.
- 'Sister Act I & II'
It becomes even more amazing when, going into Egypt-was this God's will? It wasn't the promised land, and events there seem pretty negative-Abraham asks his wife-who shared the promise and vision that God gave to her husband-to lie about her relationship with him. How could he do such a thing? How could she agree to be placed in such a place of compromise? I believe that, comparing the account of this event (Genesis 12:14-20) with the second such event (Genesis 20:2-18), a good case can be made that Sara was actually sexually violated in the house of Pharaoh. So, here is one of the most significant men in scripture, uniquely called of God, a man of-perhaps later-great faith (don't forget the near-sacrifice of Isaac), willing to let his wife be taken into an oriental harem, to be used by the king as he wished. What a paradox. Yet, God maintained the relationship and continued to lead and bless Abraham.
- Lunch with God
Reading further, we better see the nature of the relationship as Abraham is presented as an intimate friend of God (Genesis 18). Abraham is camped under an oak tree in the hills a few miles south of Jerusalem, sitting in the doorway of his tent during the hot part of the day. As he looked up, there came three men, walking near him. He jumped up and ran to meet them, as his role as a good host required, and asked them to stay for lunch. Some commentators write that Abraham had lunch with angels, and that's partly true. However, Scripture clearly indicates that one of the "angels" was God: He is referred to by the four-letter name of God-God's "first name," sort of-indicating that there was no doubt about who Abraham's guest was. After this amazing lunch, Abraham and his guests walk over to the edge of the steep descent into the Arabah, the site of the Dead Sea and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is a spectacular overlook, with a very steep drop of more than 4,000 feet. As they stood looking, God said to the angels, "Should I tell Abe, here, what I am about to do?"
- A favor between friends
There follows an amazing conversation, as Abraham "bargains" with God for the lives of any righteous men in the cities. Many take this as a demonstration of a sense of justice in Abraham. However, there is something else, less obvious and perhaps more important, going on. Abraham's real concern for is Lot, who lives in a city that is about to become history. However, Lot is never mentioned. Abraham never asks for Lot's safety, and God never says He will spare Lot. In fact, it is difficult to see Lot as a righteous man, fitting into Abraham's plea. Peter (II Peter 2:7,8) refers to him as righteous, but could this be a conclusion drawn from the Genesis account? Abraham asked that the righteous be spared, Lot was spared, therefore Lot was righteous. Yet, in the end, God goes to some trouble to see that Lot is brought to safety.
This account is a wonderful example of someone who seems to live on a level of freedom, intimacy and understanding with God that should cause us to marvel. It shows me that God welcomes those who would know Him, and be intimate with Him. It also shows that being a friend of God is no casual matter, and that God often tests those who would know Him.
Jacob is another story. Jacob is a man in need of some PR. To many Christians, Jacob is synonymous with deception and greed. He is Jacob, the supplanter, the schemer. But God saw him in a different light. God said He loved Jacob (Malachi 1:2). Jacob's relationship with God is difficult to analyze. It doesn't seem that he was a friend in the manner of Abraham, yet he certainly had experiences with God that were not common.
Perhaps the most amazing incident in Jacob's difficult and very interesting life took place at the crossing of the Jabbok, where he wrestled all night with an "angel," as the commentators say. However, despite the commentators, it is clear that Jacob recognized that his opponent was God himself (Genesis 32). The most striking aspect of this event, in my view, is Jacob's audacity when struggling with God, and then refusing to let go without a blessing, contrary to God's clear request. It seems inconceivable that we would be engaged with God, and be clearly told by God to let Him go, and not comply immediately. After all, if God simply stops supporting us for a moment, we cease to exist. And Jacob had already been greatly blessed by God, and was a rich man. He seems a little greedy, perhaps. However, in some manner, he was unsatisfied, and there is no hint of criticism of his actions by God. In fact, the opposite is true. The story is fascinating:
After sending his family and others on ahead, Jacob remained alone for the night, camped by the crossing. At some point, a "man" came into the camp, and he and Jacob began to wrestle: certainly not the experience of most campers. The match continued until dawn, when the "man" told Jacob to release him-it seems like Jacob was a pretty good wrestler-and Jacob refused. "I will not release you until you bless me," he said. The match ended with Jacob having a new name, a permanent limp, and a blessing. Afterward, he named the place Peniel-the Face of God-saying he had seen God face to face. This account is another illustration-from a different perspective-of the place of tenacity, of pure chutzpah, in our relationship with God. God does not befriend those who take that friendship lightly, or for whom it is not a deep longing.
Moses shows something still different. He was uniquely called by God to be His agent in redeeming and shaping a people chosen for God's own possession. Perhaps more than any man-even more than Abraham-Moses stands alone in history. Moses seems an unlikely candidate: He spent the first 40 years of his life in the court of Pharaoh, in luxury and privilege. However, though immersed in the consummately pagan Egyptian culture, he retained his identity as an Israelite, even to the point of killing an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite worker. This act, perhaps impulsive, perhaps an expression of a sense of justice, marked a major change in Moses' life.
The next 40 years were spent in the desert, herding sheep. It is hard to imagine a more total contrast, and yet even this time was spent in preparation for the task God had in mind for him. Interestingly, even through this period Moses retained his sense of identity with Israel, as evidenced by his naming his son Gershom: A Stranger There.
The story of Moses is a fascinating one-perhaps even more than those of Abraham or Jacob-because Moses certainly had an intimate relationship with God, but one that is difficult to characterize with one word or phrase. It was a very complex one, almost like a marriage. Even more than Abraham, we can see in the account of Moses a relationship that included some very good times, and some very difficult times. There are scenes where God became angry with Moses, and others where Moses was upset with God. Let's look at some: On the desert, at the burning bush, is where it began: God spoke to Moses, telling him that He had chosen him for a great work. To Moses, this must have sounded like suicide: He had already been run out of Egypt once (Exodus 3).
Moses began arguing with God, bringing up his lack of speaking ability. Perhaps, as the ancient Rabbis wrote, Moses had some sort of speech impediment, or perhaps 40 years of talking to sheep had taken its toll. In any case, Moses had a problem. God met him halfway, and appointed Moses' brother Aaron to speak for him: the first Press Secretary. Moses also questioned his authority to speak: Would the Israelites accept him? God had an answer for that, too, of course. Moses continued objecting until God cleared his throat and said, "Look, Moses, you're not getting the idea here. I want you to do this, and I am becoming impatient" (Baden's Paraphrased Version). At this point, recognizing the superior logic of God's argument, Moses decided God's way was the better way.
Some time later, as Moses is back in Egypt, we read the amazing account of the confrontations with Pharaoh, the plagues and then the actual Exodus. As the Exodus begins, Moses and over a million of his closest friends-not counting animals-is backed up against the Sea of Reeds, with the cream of the Egyptian army bearing down on them. Moses begins to exhort the people, telling them to stand and see what God would do for them that day. God's response is interesting, and a lot more pragmatic: "Moses, why are you standing there crying to me? Shut up and get moving!" (Exodus 14:15)
Still later, there is a pair of incidents, each involving a rock and water. In the first, (Exodus 17:1-6) God told Moses to strike a rock, and water would pour forth to meet the needs of the people. Moses struck, and voilá: water. Pretty impressive. Then, some time later, there is a similar incident (Numbers 20:8-13), but this time Moses is told to speak to the rock. However, Moses once again struck the rock, disregarding God's explicit instructions. In his defense, this was a trying time for him: He had spent years putting up with the griping and complaining of the people, and on top of that, his sister had just died, which no doubt added to his distress. He was down to his last nerve, and the people had just got on it. Still disobedience is disobedience. He was kept from entering the Land.
That seems pretty severe a penalty under the circumstances, but it really wasn't.
In the Sinai, there is little rain, and when it does rain, it often does so with enthusiasm: It pours. The water runs over the rocks, through the cracks, and collects in large natural cisterns under the surface. These have a "drain" on the downstream end, but as the water runs out and rapidly evaporates, mineral deposits build up, forming a crust that plugs up the opening. The Bedouin-and Moses, who herded sheep there-recognize these places, strike them with a rock to break the crust, and voila, water from a rock. No longer very impressive. So the second time, when we can perhaps assume that everyone knew how to do this, God told Moses to speak to the rock. Nobody can speak to a rock and make water come forth. This would be a clear manifestation of the power of God, and Moses, by striking the rock, took the glory and credit that was rightfully God's. Hence, the severe penalty.
Another incident occurred while Moses was on Mt. Sinai. The sound of a really wild party came up from below, and God said to Moses, "Those people you brought from Egypt are at it again!" And Moses replied, "No the people you brought from Egypt are at it again." ("They're not my kids, they're yours!") (Exodus 32) A pretty amazing exchange, considering the identity of the two speakers. Moses was called to a unique task, but there is much in his relationship with God that is important for us. He was certainly not some sort of mealy-mouthed "saint" who had no mind of his own, no personality, and who lived an utterly colorless, boring life, as many imagine someone living a biblical life must do.
He was a man who underwent radical changes in life, changes that were not of his own choosing. He was apparently not an articulate man, or a charismatic speaker. He was not a man who sought out the limelight or who wanted to be a super hero. When God first called him, at the burning bush, he clearly did not want to go, and raised many objections. Instant obedience was not the result of this clear word from God. He seems to have had no further aspirations beyond what he was then doing.
Yet, once he said yes to God, and agreed to do as God directed, there was no swerving and no hesitation. One characteristic of the biblical accounts of Israel under Moses' leadership is some variation of the phrase, over and over, "as God spoke, so Moses did." God said it, Moses did it. End of story. He was also a man in whose relationship with God we can see expressions of impatience, and even anger toward God and toward the people that God had set him to lead. He was not irreverent, and Moses, perhaps better than any man who has lived, knew the majesty of God. However, he was honest in his relationship with God. This sort of honesty comes out of a confidence in his relationship, a deep knowing of who he was in God.
In the "Christian world," there is in a significant number of people a hunger to know God and to be related to him. We struggle with that longing, searching for something to fill the emptiness in our souls, and we often give up, deciding that whatever it is, we don't know how to get it. Equally common among Christians is a concept of God as a sort of grandfatherly, white-haired old gentleman, sitting in his rocking chair waiting to show his disapproval of us when we do something wrong. We dread the expected clearing of his throat or the tap of his cane on the floor. Both of these are unbiblical and sad. It is clear that God longs for us to truly know him. He doesn't want to be a mystery to us. Throughout the Old Testament, God takes pains over and over to reveal to us what He is like, and how we can live in fellowship with him. In the examples we have discussed above-Abraham, Jacob, and Moses-we can see that God uses and blesses people who are imperfect, who become angry with him, and who, like us, seem to have an uncanny aptitude for mistakes. He also, however, uses and blesses those whose heart is fastened on him, despite their mistakes.
They show us that He doesn't zap us with lightning when we have trouble believing, when we ask questions, even when we grab onto him, refusing to let go without a blessing-Jacob's "holy chutzpah."
In short, God seeks real people, who long to know him, and he responds to their longing by revealing himself-his person-to them and entering into a friendship that surpasses any other.
Abraham, Jacob and Moses-none of them "perfect" men-were "real people," like all the rest of us. However, there was a steadfastness in all three, a determination to continue in the path they had chosen. There is questioning and wondering, but no turning back. Finally, there was a wonderful openness and honesty in their conversation with God. There is nothing "holy" about the exchanges between Moses and God, or between Jacob and his wrestling partner. And both Abraham and Sarah laughed out loud when God spoke to them about the coming birth of their promised son. They were fallible, they were faithful, and they were, above all, honest before God. And God loved it.