It's no wonder that some modern-day Christians seem so militantly closed-minded about any ideas that didn't come straight from their home church's pulpit. The words of Exodus 34 are directed exclusively to the Israelites and refer specifically to groups of people who existed thousands of years ago, so if one is inclined to take the Bible completely literally, it would seem that at least some of the information is obsolete. Still, the passage reveals something about the nature of the Israelite god, and it grants some insight into how beliefs about our essential nature impacts how we see the world around us.
As a brief tangent, there is one little phrase in this passage that bears pointing out to those who want to take the entirety of Christian scripture as accurate and infallible. The Israelite god commands, "No one is to appear before me empty-handed." It's one of those things that Jesus never directly contradicts in the New Testament. How many Christians take this to heart, I wonder? And how many of them justify their empty-handedness by claiming that their devotion is worth more than anything else they could bring before God? How many people believe that they're not appearing before God empty-handed if they've contributed to a radio station or a pregnancy crisis center or an organization that delivers Bibles to China? The meaning is pretty clear here: God expects your wealth. If you want to take the Bible as perfectly literal and true, you don't get to decide how he uses it.
Alright, now take a look at the image of God established by the Israelites. After Moses spends a long time chiseling new stone tablets (since he broke the first ones in a fit of rage), God is described as being compassionate and gracious, "slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness," and although he forgives wickedness, rebellion and sin, "he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation." This is the perfect description of a scapegoat god, the kind of deity that can be blamed for any misfortune, because he's just punishing some wickedness. Some wickedness that he has presumably also forgiven. It's a bit odd, come to think of it.
Taking this belief to its ultimate corollaries, if something bad happens in life, God may just be punishing you for what you've done. Or he may be punishing you for what your father or mother did. Or your grandparent or great-grandparent. For anyone who buys into this completely, there is no reason to try to help the poor, the sick, the abused, or anyone else who is suffering. They are just getting their punishment from God for something someone did, and why would a believer get in the way of God's just consequences. It's also a great belief for those who are wealthy, healthy, and happy in every way. God is obviously blessing them because their family has managed to go four generations without doing anything wicked or sinful. Right?
If that strikes you as slightly off, it's because our minds reject the nihilism of the concept that God is punishing everyone and there's nothing that can be done, because he punishes even those he has forgiven. No one can go through their lives without doing something worth being punished for, and our definition of forgiveness conflicts with the idea of punishing a person for what her father's mother's mother did. Fortunately, Jesus came along and turned a lot of this business on its head, but then, how can one claim that the entire Bible is true? What people believe about the character and behavior of God becomes filtered through what makes sense to them, and how we think God should treat us personally is often very different from how we think God should treat other people. It's fine for God to punish that other person, but we want forgiveness for ourselves to be absolute and pain-free.
The Israelites in the Exodus story wanted the same thing. Their god promised to wipe out the neighboring cultures (whom the exiled Israelites were technically invading), provided the Israelites had nothing to do with them. Don't even entertain the thought of learning about their beliefs or culture, and don't even consider the concept of a treaty with them. Why? They'll corrupt you. In fact, the Israelite god is named Jealousy in this passage. Jealousy is the same thing as "envy," right? So their god is defined as being one of the seven deadly sins, but they consider themselves to be the righteous people in this situation.
Unfortunately, they also consider themselves to be the weak people in the situation. They are afraid to make treaties with people, to participate in the culture or religious observance of the Other, because they believe they will be turned from their own faith. That level of small-mindedness isn't actually faith, though. It's ignorance. Why in the world would God suggest that his people remain ignorant about every other belief system around them? In order for those alternate beliefs to be a threat, the commitment of the Israelites would have to be pretty insubstantial. I've heard about many different cultures and religious belief systems over the course of my life, and I've only rarely been tempted to adopt any of them into my own perspective. My beliefs are strong enough to come into contact with other people's beliefs and remain intact. What was wrong with the Israelites that they would be so threatened by other cultures that their god would warn them not to even make treaties with those other people?
This type of passage from the Old Testament still informs the Conservative Christian worldview in the twenty-first century to some extent. There is no interest in learning about other cultures or faith systems. We just need to send our troops and wipe them out. We need to crack down on how many of Them are allowed into our country. They are out to kill us, and we need to kill them first. Even with regard to other belief systems in America, there is hostility based on assumption. Fear. Small-mindedness. Ignorance. These are not healthy lenses through which one should look at the world. I know there are Christians who sincerely believe that they are under constant threat from people with different beliefs, but it is simply not true. The only way it can be true is if the Christian in question is so weak in his or her faith that any other suggestion is going to create some crisis of belief, and I would suggest that that isn't faith at all.
Whatever we believe about ourselves, we are simply not that weak. People are not so vulnerable to external ideas that they cannot establish a set of criteria for themselves to determine what they are and aren't willing to believe. Different ideas are not a threat, they are simply other people's ways of viewing the world. We are capable of deciding what makes sense to us, regardless of our chosen belief system, and we are capable of interacting with other people without being "corrupted" or "led astray." When we encounter a belief that seems to be a challenge, it's just possible that we are experiencing growth at a certain level. We don't necessarily figure out all that there is to figure out about the world and human spirituality in grade school Sunday school classes.
There may be ideas that make a great deal of sense to us that we don't have a chance to explore until after we have traveled a bit down a particular belief path. If we view those other ideas as threats, we are essentially stagnating our own growth. We are claiming a desire to remain immature and ignorant in our beliefs. We would find it somewhat disturbing for a child to determine at age 10 that he isn't going to grow any taller and force his body to remain stunted. And yet, we are comfortable doing that with our own spiritual selves. If a belief is worth maintaining and nurturing, it will stand up to scrutiny. If our beliefs are shattered the moment they come into contact with a different way of seeing the world, what good were those beliefs really doing us? The only way our beliefs can be altered is for us to encounter a perspective that makes more sense than what we previously held to be true. This is growth, plain and simple. And there is nothing really threatening about growth, even though it may seem a little bit scary and unsettling.
Whether it is in the realm of politics, religion, personal relationships, business practices, or whatever, encountering new ideas is beneficial. When our beliefs are challenged by a new perspective, we either walk away from that with our old beliefs strengthened or we walk away with beliefs that make more sense to us. It may be a radical change, or it may be a subtle refinement, but either way we grow. We are strong enough to accept that other people will believe different things from us. They aren't a threat to us at all. They are simply different. Let's stop worshiping Jealousy and Ignorance and Fear as if they had any true power. The only thing those gods do is lie to us about ourselves and other people. And we are strong enough to let go of those lies.