From the Book of Exodus:
The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Exodus 33:17-23 (NRSV) – May 14, 2014)
The translators of the NRSV are a bunch of prudes; a better translation of the last verse of this section would be “. . . you shall see my butt.”
The term “my back” is a translation of the Hebrew term ‘achowr which, incidentally, is a plural noun; when this is used of an animal, the translation is usually “hindquarters” or something of that nature, which apparently is inappropriate with respect to God. In the 3rd Century Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, it is translated into the odd construction ta hopiso mou, “the behinds of me.” When St. Jerome translated the Vulgate Latin version in the 4th Century, he also retained the plural, posteriora mea, “my posteriors.” The translators of the Authorized version of 1611 did so, as well, “my back parts.” In other words, my backside, my ass end, my buttocks!
So the NRSV editors are just a bunch of prudes! Or maybe they are just being prudish for a contemporary American audience which has become obsessed with . . . what? sex? nudity? titillation?
Recently there was a news article about an attractive 17-year-old young woman who was expelled from a homeschoolers’ prom event because, although her dress met the dress code requirements, it was considered to titillating for the fathers watching the dancers from the balcony! I hesitate to say that this event was billed as a dance for “Christian” homeschoolers, because the published reports reveal a good deal of unchristian behavior from the leering of the fathers to the disrespect shown the young lady and her escort by the chief chaperone of the event. (The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s report yesterday of the incident is here.)
And the question of respect is really what this episode between Moses and God raises for me.
I’m not sure when the “look at God’s face and die” notion arose among the Hebrews, but it isn’t there in the earliest stories of the bible. Adam and Eve seem to carry on face-to-face conversations with God with no ill effect and, when God shows up in the guise of three strangers at the oaks of Mamre, Abraham sits and talks with them over a lamb dinner and does not succumb. But, in any event, the Hebrews somehow got the idea that one shows greatest respect for God by averting one’s gaze and thus this story and, later, Isaiah’s fear that he will die because of his experience in seeing a vision of God in the heavenly throne room: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa 6:5)
Human cultures differ on how to show respect to elders. Some adopt this averted-gaze position; others (my forebears among them) insist on looking people in the eyes. I can remember quite vividly both of my grandfathers forcefully insisting that I look them squarely in the face when in conversation; looking away even briefly was considered either as disrespect or as possible evidence of untruthfulness.
What this suggests to me is that we humans don’t actually know how to respect one another! The story of the really (in my opinion) bad treatment of the young woman at the prom is simply more evidence of that. And, if we don’t know how to respect another human being, we certainly do not know how to respect God.
Respect requires maturity; showing proper respect to another person, human or god, is a mark of adulthood. Perhaps that is the point of today’s story of Moses and God, neither Moses nor the Hebrews (nor, for that matter, any of humanity) were yet mature enough to have a respectful face-to-face relationship with the Almighty, so God did what God could.
Moses is permitted to see God’s butt because God was lowering God’s self to develop a relationship with Moses and, through him and the Hebrews, with all humanity, a relationship that hopefully would grow and mature. In giving Moses this vision, God revealed both a special affection for his favorite and a hope for the eventual adulthood of the human race. The gaze of those lustful old men in the balcony focused on the young prom-goer’s butt suggests we still have a long way to go!
The indecorous nature of God’s backside reveals the extent to which God is willing to humble God’s self out of respect for human beings; someday, perhaps, we’ll learn to show respect as well.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.