The Bible's Only Dash

Dr. John Goetsch

A mood or emotion is easily expressed when we speak. The tone of voice, a shrugging of the shoulders, a raised eyebrow, a furrowed brow or a pointed finger all communicate powerfully. In fact, we rely heavily upon these tools to express ourselves beyond our mere words. When writing we are much more handicapped in expressing meaning. We are left only with black marks on paper—some in the form of words and others little art forms we call punctuation. When we see a “.” we know that a sentence is complete. A “,” indicates a separation of the elements within the structure of a sentence. An “!” shows us that this sentence is exclamatory in nature and the “?” indicates a question. The writer must use these black marks accurately in order to convey meaning.

When studying the Bible it is important to notice the punctuation, as obvious meaning is conveyed through these means. In Exodus 32:32, there is a punctuation mark that is found nowhere else in the Scripture. In the previous chapter, Moses is given two tables of stone, written with the finger of God, on the top of mount Sinai. While he was gone, the people became anxious about his absence and convinced Aaron to build a golden calf. Once completed, the people forgot all about God and worshipped this false image that they had crafted. When Moses returned and saw what had transpired, he was not at all happy as expressed in Exodus 32:19–20. “And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.”

I’m sure Moses tossed and turned on his bed that night as he thought about what he would tell God. The tablets that God had made were in pieces, the people he was leading had become idolatrous, and Moses had ordered the execution of three thousand men. By morning however, we begin to see why God had chosen this man to lead the children of Israel. The frustration and anger had been replaced by love and compassion. “And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin. And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written” (Exodus 32:30–32).

What does this dash, found nowhere else in the Bible express? Was Moses at a loss for words? Was he overcome with emotion? Did the grief of the moment disable him from speaking temporarily? Was he carefully contemplating that which he was about to request? Did he fear God’s response? Oh, I think all of this and much more. Contained in this punctuation mark are all of the emotions of a man who had given every fiber of his being to these people. He loved them, prayed for them, cared for them, and patiently led them when many a lesser man would have given up. Now he stands on their behalf between life and death! He knows God is angry and has every right to wipe them off of the map. But Moses, consumed by love and overcome with emotion, pauses and then pleads for God to take his own life rather than the lives of the people.

We see this same passion, years later in the Apostle Paul as he yearns for his nation to come to Christ. “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:1–3). Why would Moses or Paul be willing to suffer eternal judgment for people so unrepentant and undeserving? The answer to that question is found in the life and death of the One they served. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). When the grace of God truly resonates in our hearts, how can we not give our all to reach others for Him? “And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Corinthians 5:15).

God did not answer the prayers of Moses or Paul. He did not let them die so that others could live. But God did use their compassion to make a difference in the lives of those who came in contact with them. No one doubted their authenticity or genuineness. They preached not themselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord. They were willing to spend and be spent, though the more abundantly they loved, the less they were loved. Nothing could move them from the ministry which they had received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the Gospel of the grace of God. These men and countless since have lived to rescue the perishing!

So what punctuation mark would describe your emotions when you think of your lost loved one, or co-worker, or neighbor, or friend? How would you describe your feelings about their eternal destiny? Do you as a matter of fact simply understand that one day they will be in Hell? Do you question whether they even could be saved? Would you be emphatically glad that they got what they deserved? Or does the thought of that person suffering in an eternal lake of fire cause an overwhelming sorrow that disables your ability to speak or think? When the “dash” is the only way to communicate our heart for the lost, we have come to understand the command to “rescue the perishing.”