Though every line of Scripture was written by Semitic thinkers, today almost everyone who reads and comments on this sacred collection are Greek thinkers. Among other things, that means we're "analyzing" words of "synthesizers." We Greek-minded individuals mentally tear things apart when we think of them. Semitic-minded people mentally pull things together. We passionately endeavor to eradicate contradictions; they just as passionately try to surface contradictions. Since the middle of the second Christian century, when Greek thinkers captured Christianity, we've lost an essential key for understanding our sacred writings. We continually search for "either/or" components in "both/and" literature.
This is particularly true when we reflect on biblical concepts of God, especially as we find those concepts in today's first and third readings.
In our Exodus pericope, Yahweh's clearly has had it with the Israelites. God intends to wipe out this recently freed band of Hebrew slaves, and make Moses and his family the new Chosen People. "I see how stiff-necked this people are," Yahweh tells Moses. "Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation."
We know from Deutero-Isaiah that you can take Yahweh's word to the bank. In chapter 55, God reminds us, ". . . My word that goes forth from my mouth . . . shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it." In this Exodus situation, that can only mean the Israelites shouldn't invest in any long-term life insurance.
But, flying in the face of Deutero-Isaiah's theology, the Exodus author tells us Yahweh eventually "relented" in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people." No matter Moses' argument, how can Yahweh go back on Yahweh's word?
Semitic thinkers have no problem with such a contradiction. They simply reply to our either/or objections with the comment, "On one hand, God must keep God's word. But on the other hand, God can change God's word."
Luke's Jesus creates a parallel contradiction when he teaches his enemies about God's forgiveness of sinners. On one hand, God is obligated to follow strict norms of justice. But on the other hand, God is unbelievably merciful. Such contradictory behavior surfaces in Jesus' parable about the prodigal father. Though obligated and expected to follow strict justice toward both sons, the father puts that obligation in the background when he finally encounters his long-lost prodigal son. As he explains to his justly complaining older son, "You are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."
Perhaps the key to understanding these contradictions lies in a comment the great Hans Walter Wolff once made during a lecture on Jonah. There, too, Yahweh "repents" and, to the chagrin of the prophet, doesn't destroy the Ninevites. "Yahweh doesn't have to be faithful to Yahweh's word," the German scholar stated, "as long as Yahweh is faithful to Yahweh's people." Only a fool would keep his or her word when circumstances change enough to make that word "counter-productive." God's relationship with us is more important than God's reputation.
The author of I Timothy recognizes that divine attribute. "Christ Jesus," he writes, "came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated . . . ."
Real relationships never revolve around either/or. Such a mentality will eventually kill them. They only grow and prosper when they're both/and.