The Power of One

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 — Week of Lent 1 (Year One)

Frederick Douglass, Prophetic Witness, 1895

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 952)

Psalms 119:49-72 (morning) // 49, [53] (evening)

Deuteronomy 9:13-21

Hebrews 3:12-19

John 2:23 – 3:15

Today’s dramatic story in Deuteronomy is carved deeply within the Hebrew consciousness. (It is central to the argument of the New Testament reading from Hebrews.) While Moses is away on the mountain with God, receiving the tablets of the covenant, even then the people are acting rebelliously. We are a stubborn people.

With foolishness and rebellion come bad consequences. In scripture sometimes those consequences are characterized by saying that God withdraws the divine protection and favor from the people, allowing them to face directly the destructive powers their foolishness has unleashed. In other places it is said that God acts decisively to encounter and oppose such rebellion. In this passage Moses hears God say “Let me alone that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven.” Then God makes a promise to Moses — a promise similar to the one made to his ancestor Abraham — “and I will make of you a nation mightier and more numerous than they.”

It’s an enticing offer. Selfishly Moses could see that this would be the apex of human achievement for him. He would be the father of a great nation blessed by God. And pragmatically it would eventually be better for the Hebrew people. After all, this second start would become “a nation mightier and more numerous.” It’s a pretty easy rationalization, after all this people has gotten off to a bad start. They seem flawed. They’ve been nothing but trouble. It might be better with a new start. This might seem a no-brainer cost-benefit analysis to a good CEO.

It is rather remarkable what Moses does. He leaves God and returns to the people. He smashes the tablets of the broken covenant. Then — possibly in disobedience to the divine command “leave me alone” — Moses intercedes on behalf of the people, fasting and praying forty days and forty nights. He directly attacks the symbol of Israel’s disobedience, destroying the calf they had set up for their worship. (The calf is another story. The power of the need for concrete religion; the power of the needs for fertility, sexuality, fecundity and wealth as well as our need for their symbols.)

The intercession of the one faithful man was enough. A whole society that had become rebellious was spared the full destructive consequences of its folly. They suffered indeed from their rebellion, but they weren’t destroyed. Their experience became a source of learning and deeper understanding. Eventually, they recognized the implications of being chosen from a more humble and less presumptuous perspective. The wisdom, obedience and prayer of one person was an effective counterbalance for the folly and rebelliousness of the many.

This is a story of great hope, especially in times of trouble and folly. A few — faithful and interceding — can be the critical difference.

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