I finished reading The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell yesterday. I very much appreciated these two books, which I really recommend reading as one work. Let’s just say for now that the story told herein deeply challenges the tropes that permeate pop-christianity. Mary Doria Russell is a deep thinker who converted to Judaism as she wrote these books. I don’t particularly agree with her views on the distinctions between Christianity and Judaism or the significance of these views, philosophically and theologically speaking. Nevertheless, the story told is told well and very much worth the emotional toll it takes as it roils through devotion, good intentions, evil, unintended consequences, suffering, injustice, and…. well, perhaps you get the point that this is a serious work of fiction.

I found myself thinking, at times, “But this is all made up!” as I was pushed into considering extremely uncomfortable situations and themes. And yet, history is replete with events that parallel the events in the story Russell creates. How does one interpret those events in the light of God? Theodicy, indeed. But that’s not really why I’m writing. It is what pours out as a preface to what I intend to focus on, which is a really interesting interpretation of Exodus 33.18-23 that I had not heard before.

Perhaps you recall that Exodus 33 records the conversation between Moses and Yahweh immediately after the golden calf incident in the wilderness at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses insists that as Yahweh sends him and the people to the land Yahweh has promised them that Yahweh himself come with them – not just an angel. Yahweh agrees, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

The “conversation” continues…

18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
19 And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
21 Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

Exodus 33.18.23, New International Version

I’ve always heard this interpreted in light of God’s holiness and overwhelming glory and so on. I’m not disagreeing with those interpretations; but perhaps there is more? Deeper? One of the characters, Father John Candiotti, at the end of Children of God suggests that this passage is about the passage of time…

“There’s a passage in Exodus – God tells Moses, ‘No one can see My face, but I will protect you with My hand until I have passed by you, and then I will remove My hand and you will see my back.’ Remember that?…”

“Well, I always thought that was a physical metaphor,” John said, “but, you know – I wonder now if it isn’t really about time? Maybe that was God’s way of telling us that we can never know His intentions, but as time goes on… we’ll understand. We’ll see where He was: we’ll see His back.”

Mary Doria Russell, writing as Father John Candiotti (a fictional character in Children of God)

I suppose I think Father Candiotti’s “we’ll understand” is a bit optimistic. But his reinterpretation of the metaphor of seeing God’s face vs. seeing God’s back as a about time…. That’s sticking with me. The preparation for, and that thought alone was worth the reading of the two books!

And there was another, related quote near the end Children of God.

In all the shrouded heavens anywhere
Not a whisper in the air
Of any living voice but one so far
That I can hear it only as a bar
Of lost, imperial music
Edward Arlington Robinson, from his poem Credo