In a clear but wavering voice a young woman began with the words, "God, I hated you after the rape! How could you let this happen to me?" The congregation abruptly fell silent. No more rustling of papers or shifting in the seats. "And I hated the people in this church who tried to comfort me. I didn’t want comfort. I wanted revenge. I wanted to hurt back. I thank you, God, that you didn’t give up on me, and neither did some of these people. You kept after me, and I come back to you now and ask that you heal the scars in my soul."
Of all the prayers I have heard in church, that one most resembles the style of prayers I find replete in the Bible, especially those from God’s favorites such as Abraham and Moses.
Abraham, a man rightly celebrated for his faith, heard from God in visions, in one-on-one conversations, and even in a personal visit to his tent. God dangled before him glowing promises, one of which stuck in his craw: the assurance that he would father a great nation. Abraham was seventy-five when he first heard that promise, and over the next few years God upped the ante with hints of offspring as bountiful as dust on the earth and stars in the sky.
Meanwhile nature took its course, and at an age when he should be patting the heads of great-grandchildren Abraham remained childless. He knew he had few years of fertility left, if any. On one of God’s visitations, Abraham made a veiled threat to produce an heir through a liaison with one of his household servants. At the age of eighty-six, following his barren wife Sarah’s suggestion, he did just that.
The next time God visited, that offspring, a son named Ishmael, was a teenage outcast wandering the desert, a victim of Sarah’s jealousy. Abraham laughed aloud at God’s reiterated promise, and by now sarcasm was creeping into his response: "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?" Sarah shared the bitter joke, muttering, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?"
God responded with a message that to Abraham’s ears must have sounded like good news and bad news both. He would indeed father a child, but only after performing minor surgery on the part of his body necessary for the deed. Abraham thus becomes the father of circumcision as well as Isaac.
That pattern of feint and thrust, of Abraham standing up to God only to get knocked down again, forms the background for a remarkable prayer, actually an extended dialogue between God and Abraham. "Shall I hide from Abraham what lam about to do?" God begins, as if recognizing that a valid partnership requires consultation before any major decision. Next, God unveils a plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, notorious for their wickedness and moral pollutants of Abraham’s extended fatally.
By now Abraham has learned his own role in the partnership and he makes no attempt to conceal his outrage, "Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
Forty-five? No problem. May the Lord not be angry . . . Now that I have been so bold—Abraham bows and scrapes, then continues to press – Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? Each time God concedes without an argument, concluding, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
Although ten righteous people could not be found to save Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham got what he really wanted, deliverance for his nephew and grand-nieces. And we readers are left with the tantalizing fact that Abraham quit asking before God quit granting. What if Abraham had bargained even harder and asked that the cities be spared for the sake of one righteous person, his nephew Lot? Was God, so quick to concede each point, actually looking for an advocate, a human being bold enough to express God’s own deepest instinct of mercy?
As Abraham learned, when we appeal to God’s grace and compassion the fearsome God soon disappears. "The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion." God is more merciful than we can imagine and welcomes appeals to that mercy.
Skip forward half a millennium when another master bargainer appears on the scene. God, who has "remembered his covenant with Abraham," handpicks a man with the perfect résumé for a crucial assignment. Moses has spent half his life learning leadership skills from the ruling empire of the day and half his life learning wilderness survival skills while fleeing a murder rap. Who better to lead a tribe of freed slaves through the wilderness to the Promised Land?
So as to leave no room for doubt, God introduces himself via an unnatural phenomenon: a fiery bush that does not burn up. Appropriately, Moses hides his face, afraid to look, as God announces the mission: "The cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt."
Unlike Abraham, Moses turns argumentative from the very first meeting. He tries false humility: Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh? When that fails, he marshals other objections: I don’t know your name . . . and what if the Israelites don’t believe me . . . I have never been eloquent. God answers each one, orchestrating a few miracles to establish credibility. Still Moses begs off: O Lord, please send someone else to do it. Patience runs out and God’s anger flares, but even so God suggests a compromise, a shared role with Moses’ brother Aaron. The famous exodus from Egypt thus gets under way only after an extended bargaining session.