Moses, Complementarianism in PCI and the Idolatry of Minimum Meaning

There is a curious incident on top of Sinai when Moses was receiving the stone tablets, which contained what we know as the Ten Commandments. These tablets had been handwritten by God (Exo 31:18).

Somehow in their conversations at the summit God discerned that down below, at the base of the mountain, the people had turned to revelling around the golden calf. The events are narrated in Exo 32. God, in clipped and frustrated tones, urges Moses to return to “his people” (God has disowned them already). It appears that God has had some form of a revelation in which he realises their persistent unfaithfulness, and in his anger he instructs Moses to “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them” (Exo 32:10)

God is going to brood for a while and then strike out to destroy these people.

But Moses refuses to leave him alone and instead intercedes passionately and forcefully. This, remember, is the man who declared he was heavy of mouth and inarticulate (Exo 4:10). God subsequently relents of his original intention (Exo 32:14).

Now here’s the question—did Moses disobey in not leaving God alone? Or did he discern something in the undertone of God’s words?

I’ve been thinking of this because I’m reading Avivah Zornberg’s latest book Moses: A Human Life (see more about her below). And her consideration of this event has stuck with me because of some of the recent debates at the Presbyterian Assembly, one of which was rehashed in an interview on Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme last Sunday (about 35 mins in).

This latter one was the debate on women’s ordination and leadership. Despite the Presbyterian Church confirming women’s ordination to word and sacrament in 1973, it is quite clear that this confirmation still has not received universal acceptance. Indeed, the Principal of Union College, which trains ministers for the church, confirmed his own personal position as a complementarian, i.e. that women and men have different but complementary roles and responsibilities. This stance does not include allowing women to have teaching authority over a man, and hence they shouldn’t be ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament, and possibly not even to eldership, which was accepted by the church in the 1920s.

Anyway, Zornberg got me thinking about these things when she writes in relation to Moses apparent disregard of God’s instruction:

Between God and Moses the air is full of subtle intimations and ambiguities. As in all language between people, the literal meaning of the utterance may be distant from the speaker’s intention. God says, “Let me be!” Moses hears, “Don’t let me be!”

God’s words, like all words, need to be heard: they need human interpretation. If Moses hears only God’s manifest meaning he will be trapped in a kind of idolatry, seduced by minimum meaning.”

Now isn’t that a phrase worth pondering, “the idolatry of minimum meaning?” The simple surface meaning needs interpreted. Zornberg goes on to say,

“God hints that Moses is to listen differently, or rather that he is to listen as those who are involved in human dialogue listen. He is to allow God’s words to penetrate him in the infinite range of their possibility. He is to understand in chords. He is to bring his imagination to bear on what he hears.”

The idea of understanding in chords is what intrigues me, to listen for the overtones and undertones, for the harmonies and even the disharmonies that bring vibrancy to the music and the performance. Zornberg suggests that when Moses discerns this his previously inarticulate tongue is loosened and he intercedes in a passionate and effective way for the people God had disowned and handed over to him. Moses intuits “God’s wish to be disrupted.” She writes, “in hearing overtones in divine language, [Moses] will be most truly with God.”

Furthermore, Zornberg suggests that Moses smashes the God-written tablets of stone because he also discerned the relentless tendency of human beings towards idolatry of all kinds. So quickly we resort to worship of people, or ideas or texts that it’s best not to give us any encouragement. So it was better to smash these stones bearing God’s own handwriting because Moses knew that they would quickly worship just these surface scratchings, rather than continually encountering them and interpreting them afresh for each new time.

Make of that what you will, either for the various conflicts we endure in the church, or those we endure in relation to our peace/political process. Have we made an idol of minimum meaning, rather than wrestling with the complex chords of God’s intention? And in acceding to the literal meaning of the utterance have we been complicit in a destruction of the faith of countless numbers of people in a way that God never intended?


Renowned Jewish scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg is leading a seminar for Corrymeela on 5 September in the Connor Lecture Theatre at Ulster University Belfast Campus at 7pm. Her writings on Genesis and Exodus are startling and challenging and I’ve quoted her countless times over the years, including on this blog. The seminar title is “Trauma, Resilience and Remembering: Reading Moses in the Context of Conflict.” Tickets for the event are available HERE.

4 thoughts on “Moses, Complementarianism in PCI and the Idolatry of Minimum Meaning

  1. Hi glen this is a really challenging piece and thank you for introducing me to a new theologian … I will look her up

  2. Hi Glenn my understanding of complementarianism is that it does not preclude women in minstry

  3. thanks for the kind comments everyone. And as to your understanding Denis, as I understand it it does exclude from the ministry of word and sacrament…or authoritative roles over men

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