Last week we (and when I say we I mean you) looked at the story of God providing the Ten Commandments for Moses and the Hebrew people after they left behind their lives as slaves in Egypt and began to live life as a free people. The law was given as a gift to provide order and boundaries and provide the necessary restraints for people to live together in community. Israel regarded the law as a light to their path, and so we should regard it, rather than a punitive deity trying to keep us from having any fun.
Today’s story is absolutely shocking in showing the propensity of the human race to choose darkness rather than light almost immediately. It is, in fact, so shocking that we generally do not even conceive of the possibility that we might act in similar ways. I hope to break it down in such a way that it becomes possible to imagine this.
After the giving of the law, God calls Moses back up onto Mt.Sinai to meet with him again and Moses is up there for 40 days receiving instruction about building a tabernacle and the equipment that would be used in it. 40 days – a long time. Down in the camp people started to get antsy. Where is Moses? Did something happen to him? Did he go off and leave us? What should we do now? They got impatient, and bad things happen when you get impatient. As the old saying goes, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
People came to Aaron and said, “Get up. Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron caved easily to their pressure. He told them to bring all their gold rings, the plunder of Egypt. They did so and he made a golden calf. When they saw it the people proclaimed, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” Aaron built an altar before it and proclaimed that the next day would be celebrated as a feast to Yahweh. So the next morning they got up early and offered burnt offerings and sat down to eat and drink, then rose up to play.
Meanwhile, up on the mountain Yahweh suddenly said to Moses, “Go down.” You’re going to love this. “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way I have commanded them. Now leave me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.”
There is more to that story, which I will come back to, but let’s fast forward to when Moses gets down the mountain. He sees all the people dancing and singing and making merry before the golden calf and he throws the tablets with the Ten Commandments on them, breaking the tablets as they have broken the first two commandments. He takes the golden calf and burns it and grinds it into pieces and mixes it with water which he makes them drink. Then he turns to his brother Aaron: “What did these people do to you that you have participated in bringing such an enormous sin on them?” Aaron said, “Don’t get mad at me. You know what they are like. They demanded I make them a god so I told them to bring me their gold. I threw it in the fire, and this calf is what came out.” And, of course, the dog ate my homework.
The commentaries I have been reading this week compare this event with the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Where that was the individual story of the fall, Sinai is the story of the community’s fall. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are told there are just two no-nos, two trees they are not to eat from. In no time at all that’s where they are, eating away. At Mount Sinai the first two commandments are : You shall have no other gods before you; and you shall make no graven images or bow down to worship them. So we see Israel immediately violating these first two commandments.
Gerald Janzen writes, “The similarity between Israel’s fall and the story in Genesis 2-3 suggests at least two things. First, the Genesis story is not simply an account of what happened once, at the very beginning. It is the story of what happens, again and again, at the very beginning of new beginnings in God’s relations with the human community in general, any specific community, or, indeed, any given individual. Second… it also signifies how all our fallings from early promise have their root in an immemorial past. When we fall, we do so as buying into a mind-set and playing out patterns of behavior that are deeply grooved in the human soul.” (Westminster Bible Commentary, Exodus, pp. 226-227)
Terence Fretheim adds, “It is Genesis 3 all over again. The garden scene becomes a tangled mess. Harmony turns to dissonance, rest to disturbance, preparedness to confusion, and the future with God becomes a highly uncertain matter. The reason for this is stated clearly: the people of Israel have taken the future into their own hands and compromised their loyalty to Yahweh through the construction of an idol.” (Interpretation, Exodus, p. 279)
There are several implications that I’d like to draw out of the story so far. First, there can be a thin line between good and evil, though it is easy not to see that in this story. The people were getting impatient; they had a lot of pent up energy. They had been asked to accept a lot of changes, including about the nature of God. The God of fire and cloud and thunder was awesome and a bit scary, so to have something a little less threatening and more like what they were used to might be good. The Egyptians and everyone else they knew had representations of their gods, and the bull was generally the greatest. What would be the harm in giving them that and maybe it could be used to channel the energy into a festival to Yahweh.
Second, it debunks the idea that if we could have just been alive and seen all those miracles done in the Exodus, or the miracles done by Jesus, then having faith and living the way God wants us to live would be a piece of cake. The people of the Exodus and the disciples of Jesus both failed to get it time after time in spite of being a part of the most amazing stories in history. We see plenty of miracles every single day, but we also take them for granted or fail to recognize them or just hunger for the next one.
Thirdly, and related, the Bible and our own experience show us the frequency with which “falls” from grace happen quickly after important faith experiences. Adam and Eve are given life, promises, and a life sustaining garden to live in but they quickly grasp for that which they are told not to take. The Hebrews cross the Red Sea out of slavery into freedom and are given the law to govern their lives and a long delay which makes them impatient leads them to immediately break the first two. The disciples hear the teachings of Jesus about love, then ask if he wants them to rain down fire on a Samaritan village. They have the Last Supper with Jesus, then in a matter of hours all deny or forsake him. The transfiguration happens on the mountain, and when they come down there is all manner of squabbling and complaining going on, and soon a request to be seated on the right and left hands of Jesus in glory. The return of Jesus does not happen as quickly as expected, so Christians lose their focus and begin arguing and taking sides and turning away from the faith. 2000 years go by and the return of Jesus still doesn’t happen, so Christians are distracted by everything under the sun and begin worshiping all kinds of false gods and completely forget about the God who freed them from their captivity to sin through Jesus Christ. A person joins the church or has their baby baptized and is excited about the future with God, then a problem occurs to call the promises into question and faith begins to drift away. It happens all the time. Our idolatries may be more subtle; our revelry may be in celebration of something other than a golden god figure; but to think we are not closely related to those wayward Hebrews at the base of Mount Sinai is to ignore much about our lives and our devotion to God or lack thereof. We all deserve God’s anger and condemnation just as surely as they did.
But now we need to back up to the actions of Moses, which prefigure the actions of Jesus. God told him to go down the mountain, saying, “Your people, whom you led out of Egypt, are going crazy. Leave me alone while I destroy them. But don’t worry, I will still make of you a great nation.”
Moses could have been quite pleased about that. The people had driven him crazy with their complaining and rebelliousness, too. The idea of being rid of them had to have a certain appeal for him. But to his credit, he took a big risk by talking back to God and challenging his intentions.
He turned things around and said, “Why does your anger burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt? Imagine what the Egyptians would say when they heard that you went to all the trouble to bring the slaves out and them killed them all yourself. Remember the promises you have made and be faithful to them.” And indeed God changed his mind. The Bible says he “repented of the evil which he had planned to do to his people.” The word “repent” does not just apply to sin. It means a complete change of direction, going the opposite direction in which you had been going. God repents of the destruction he had in mind, and goes in the opposite direction towards grace.
This is a remarkable assertion, the idea that God is willing not only to listen to what Moses has to say but to take it so seriously that he changes his mind. Terence Fretheim says that “The God of Israel is revealed as one who is open to change… Hence human prayer is honored by God as a contribution to a conversation that has the capacity to change future directions for God, people, and world.” (p. 287) This openness to change is seen in numerous ways throughout the Scriptures.
The most important is that when thousands of years of experience showed conclusively that human beings were never going to move beyond the pattern of rebellion and disobedience, were never going to live lives worthy of their Maker, worthy of salvation, God changed direction radically. God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever lives and believes in him should never perish but have eternal life. God did not send this Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
Thanks be to God for his amazing grace! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
October 12, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church