When God Was Obvious
Few atheists, but many rebels
Exodus 24:17 To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.
Why doesn’t God intervene more? Why doesn’t he directly feed the hungry, heal all the sick and stop all wars? If God really exists, at the very least why doesn’t he make himself more obvious?
People who ask such questions often assume that if God ever did spectacularly reveal himself, all doubts would vanish. Everyone would line up to believe in him.
Exodus tells of a time when God made himself perfectly obvious. The plagues on Egypt revealed his mighty power. An enormous miracle at the Red Sea provided sensational deliverance. A recurring miracle supplied food for the Israelites every morning. And, if questions about God’s existence arose, doubters needed only to look to the ever-present glory cloud or pillar of fire. It must have been hard to be an atheist in those days.
Yet every instance of God’s faithfulness seemed to summon up astonishing human unfaithfulness. The same Israelites who had watched God crush a pharaoh quaked at the first sign of Egyptian chariots. Three days after a miraculous escape across the Red Sea they were grumbling to Moses and God about water supplies.
A month or so later, when hunger pangs began to gnaw at them, they bitterly complained, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Exodus 16:3). God responded with a provision of manna (that would continue for 40 years) and quail, but the Israelites were soon grousing about the water supplies again.
The Great Rebellion
Exodus 32 shows the Israelites at their worst. People who had eaten manna for breakfast, who had just solemnly agreed to keep every word of the covenant, who were at that moment standing beside a mountain stormy with the Lord’s presence—those very people proceeded to melt down their gold jewelry and flagrantly flout the first commandment. “Stiff-necked,” God called the Israelites as he burned in anger against them. Only Moses’ eloquent appeal saved their lives.
The history of the Israelites should nail a coffin lid on the notion that impressive displays of God’s power will guarantee faith. (Jesus would later say, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead,” [Luke 16:31].) People who had everyday proof of God demonstrated only one thing: the monotonous consistency of human nature.
The offenders would pay for their acts by wandering 40 years in a desolate wilderness while a new, untainted generation grew up to replace them. But a pattern was beginning to emerge: If the Israelites failed God in the shadow of Mount Sinai, how would they possibly withstand the seduction of new cultures in the promised land? The next generation, too, would fail God, as would all their descendants. The old covenant, as Paul would so convincingly argue in the book of Galatians, succeeded mainly by proving undeniably the need for a new one.
Do you ever have doubts about God’s existence? What would it take to completely convince you?