Last week we followed the life and times of the at-risk patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel as they journeyed back and forth between Syria and Canaan and Egypt, ending up enslaved and oppressed in Egypt before God commissioned Moses to lead them out to freedom. We ended up with the night of Passover and the departure of the Hebrew people from Egypt, culminating with the parting of the sea to enable them to escape the army of Egypt. During this past week we have had plenty more opportunities to consider the plights of refugees, evacuees, people at risk from water, from wind, from tyranny, from false pride.
So today we begin the story with Egypt in the rear view mirror, the proverbial first day of the rest of their lives for the newly free Hebrews. Their shackles are gone, their taskmasters are gone, their daily routines are gone. They had no way to know what lay ahead, literally or figuratively.
The patriarchs had led a nomadic existence, but for the past 430 years the Hebrew people had been settled in Egypt, first being well treated because of Joseph, but later being enslaved because their rapid population growth and their “otherness” led them to be feared by the Egyptians. For a number of years the Hebrews simply did what they were told and worked hard and had no autonomy. Now Moses was thrust into that role of being the person who ordered their days and made sure they had something to eat and settled disputes and made decisions. Former slaves have not been allowed to develop initiative or imagination or tools for self-determination.
So Moses and the Hebrew people turned their backs on Egypt and on the Red Sea and set out on a journey. Like Abraham, they did not know where the journey would take them, where God would lead them. Like Abraham, they did not know the enormous patience and endurance that was going to be required of them as they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. If they had been told that when they started out, my guess is that 100% of them would have chosen to remain in Egypt as slaves.
They set out across the Sinai peninsula, which is a desert. Naturally, the first problem was water. There was none for three days, and when they finally found water it was so bitter they could not drink it. The people complained to Moses, who cried out to the Lord, who showed him some wood to throw into the water which would cause it to become drinkable. They traveled on and came to a place called Elim which must have seemed like paradise because it had palm trees for shelter and twelve springs of water, so they camped there for a while.
But there was a big problem about food, which is not exactly abundant in the desert, and there was a big crowd traveling in this party. The people complained again, saying, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Life may have been hard in Egypt, but at least they had three square meals a day.
In response, God began providing manna, bread from heaven, which would appear on the ground each morning for the Hebrews to eat. They were to gather enough for their families to eat on that day. They were not to gather extra and store it in case there wasn’t any the next day. Of course, some did and found that it became wormy and disgusting. They had to learn the hard way to trust God to provide daily bread each day. That would be a difficult challenge for any of us. But the manna was provided for forty years, until they crossed the border into the promised land.
Well, they traveled on and came to another region where there was no water to be found, and the people began complaining to Moses again. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Moses, in turn, has gotten more and more tired of being the object of this complaining, so he complains to God, who provides water miraculously again. Moses and the people must have all wondered, “God, if you can do this why don’t you just create a river to run beside us wherever we go so we won’t have to keep going through this?” But that’s not the way the journey of faith works. So they kept journeying and came to Mount Sinai, still of course on the Sinai peninsula. They camped here for an extended period of time while Moses met with God and received the Ten Commandments and many other instructions for worship, service, and obedience. And this is where today’s story takes place.
The sojourn at Sinai covers 14 chapters in the book of Exodus. It includes several meetings between God and Moses with various givings of laws in oral and written form, with cultic regulations and religious instructions. Moses is away from the people much of the time. In chapter 24, having received the law orally, he passes it along to the people and they declare, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Then Moses goes up on Mt. Sinai to receive the tablets of the law, and he is gone for forty days and forty nights. That’s a long time, especially for those people at the bottom of the mountain who are waiting. Having been slaves, they are not used to having this kind of unstructured time. Surely they are getting impatient to move on and actually get wherever they are going to live. After a couple of weeks they probably wondered if Moses was even coming back. Maybe they had complained and pestered him so much that he just kept right on walking down the other side of the mountain and wiped his hands of them.
At any rate, Exodus paints a great picture with two scenes happening simultaneously. On Mt. Sinai Moses meets with God himself, who lays out laws to order and govern the society that the Hebrews will build in the promised land, and guidelines for how they should worship their God in the promised land and in the wilderness. It is a solemn, weighty, holy scene. Meanwhile, at the base of the mountain some of the Hebrews come to Aaron, the brother of Moses and second in command, and they are somewhat threatening in their demeanor and message. “Get up,” they say. “Make gods for us. We don’t know what has become of Moses.” Aaron instructs them to gather all the gold jewelry they can find and bring it to him. They do so and he melts it down and casts it into the form of a calf. They take it from him and hold it up before the people, proclaiming, “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” Aaron built an altar before the calf and proclaimed that the next day there would be a festival to the Lord.
The next day everyone was up early and they offered burnt offerings before the calf and brought offerings. They sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to revel. The Hebrew word for “rose up to revel” indicates a rowdy, out of control party which may or may not have included clothing.
At this point the two scenes intersect. The people at the foot of the mountain are acting out many of the things that Moses and God are working to try to prevent up there on the mountain. God realizes it and tells Moses he needs to go down right now because things are going very wrong and he needs to straighten the people out. He indicates that he is about ready to burn them all up and start over again with Moses.
In a fascinating scene, Moses tries to calm God down and reason with him about this course of action. His primary argument is, “Well, what will the Egyptians think if you do this? They will say you are cruel, because you gave these people false hope by freeing them from slavery and bringing them out only to destroy them yourself.” So, Exodus says, “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” Then Moses went down to the people and pretty much lost it when he saw what was going on. He smashed the tablets of the Ten Commandments. He ground up the golden calf and sprinkled the grounds into the water and made the people drink it. He set the Levites to the task of killing some of the people. Then he went back up the mountain to intercede with God for the people, even offering himself for punishment in place of the people. God dismissed him and told him to go lead the people on to the place he was preparing for them.
A number of commentators find a close comparison here to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. After being created and being given a beautiful home and all they need with just one prohibition, Adam and Eve immediately disobeyed the prohibition. Having been granted freedom and being given the gift of law and religious directives to govern their community life for good, the freed Hebrew slaves immediately disobey in a big way.
What led them to it? Impatience. Boredom. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, you know. The fact that the religion they were familiar with had objects which represented the gods and they thought it would help them to have a visible representation of God to focus their thoughts and worship, something tangible they could visit and bring offerings to. This God of the pillar of cloud and fire, who met Moses in unpredictable ways and places, who could not be seen or located but nevertheless seemed to be present and powerful, was a bit much to comprehend. And they needed to liven up the worship atmosphere a bit with some jazzier music and maybe some dancing and who knows what else.
What have you done for me lately, God? Where’s the water? Where’s the food? Where’s Moses? Where are we even going, for heaven’s sake? Why don’t you do something about all these shootings, about all this racism? Why don’t you do something about ISIS? Why don’t you do something about these presidential candidates? Why are there so many people hungry and why are so many people out of work or unwilling to work? Can’t you do something about the weather?
Maybe we have made some golden calves as well in our frustration and impatience, things which will represent God for us that we can worship not thinking there could be any conflict of interest. I’m going to throw out a few possibilities and maybe you will find one to examine whether it plays that role in your life. What makes you feel secure that you give an outsized place to that may displace God to an extent?
A political party or candidate?
The Bible, as a concept rather than a living document?
Security, whether in alarm systems, video surveillance, or guns?
Whatever it might be for each of us, the true God continues in relationship with us and continues to lead us on in the hope that we will come to realize that God has indeed done a lot for us lately, we have just taken it for granted and are always wanting something more. Instead of a long, drawn out lecture and teaching session at the bottom of Sinai following the golden calf event, God just tells Moses to move ‘em out. So as the story ends the Hebrews are breaking camp and setting out, heading into a new day as God’s imperfect people, just as we do. There are lots of experiences yet to be had on this wilderness journey in the forty years before they are allowed to enter the promised land. In the future these will be looked back upon as the days when God’s relationship with his people was closest, when he led them in a pillar of cloud and fire, fed them with manna, brought water from rocks, rested in the tent of meeting. But at the time I’m sure it was just hard, wondering why they never got anywhere, wondering if there was really something good at the end of this journey, wondering if there was really a God and if so if he was all he was cracked up to be. Eventually, though, they made it, and I’m sure there will be other stories in this journey highlighted in this week’s daily readings and in future years of the narrative lectionary. But for us this year in worship, this is it for the exodus and wilderness wanderings. Next week we will find the people in the promised land beginning to learn how to live with God there in a faithful manner.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
October 9, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church