Eugene Peterson’s book “Eat this Book” teaches us to chew on a passage of scripture, digest it, and then put it to use in practical ways. Our Christian fathers and mothers called this process Lectio Divina. Below is part 2 of a discussion of Exodus 32: 1-14 – the story of the golden calf. (Find Part 1 here.) Here we look at Moses’ reaction to God’s anger.
Exodus 32: 9-14 (MSG) – (Part 2)
Picture this: God and Moses are having a conversation on the mountain top to discuss building the Tabernacle and guidelines for worship. They become aware of a commotion in the Israelite camp. God’s people are drinking and cavorting around a molten calf and offering praise to this golden god who has brought them out of Egypt. In Part 1 of this Going Deeper blog, we focused on the “making of our own gods” In Part 2 we focus on God’s reaction to the idolatry of God’s people, and Moses’ astonishing reaction to God’s reaction:
God spoke to Moses, “Go! Get down there! Your people whom you brought up from the land of Egypt have fallen to pieces. In no time at all they’ve turned away from the way I commanded them: They made a molten calf and worshiped it. They’ve sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are the gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.
God said to Moses, “I look at this people—oh! what a stubborn, hard-headed people! Let me alone now, give my anger free rein to burst into flames and incinerate them. But I’ll make a great nation out of you.”
Moses tried to calm his God down. He said, “Why, God, would you lose your temper with your people? Why, you brought them out of Egypt in a tremendous demonstration of power and strength. Why let the Egyptians say, ‘He had it in for them—he brought them out so he could kill them in the mountains, wipe them right off the face of the Earth.’ Stop your anger. Think twice about bringing evil against your people! Think of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants to whom you gave your word, telling them ‘I will give you many children, as many as the stars in the sky, and I’ll give this land to your children as their land forever.’”
And God did think twice. He decided not to do the evil he had threatened against his people.
God looks at the idol in the form of a golden calf, reminiscent of one of the Egyptian gods, the drinking, and the commotion and remembers that not long ago God rescued these people from slavery and listened to their promises to obey the covenant and its commandments. And God’s had enough! He tells Moses to “go down to your people, whom you brought out of slavery.” In the past, God has repeatedly (16 times) referred to Israel as “my people” whom “I brought out of the land of Egypt.” But these people have breached the contract, releasing God from his promises. God is disowning his people! (This statement parallels the Israelites’ claim that Moses was “the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt.”) It looks as if the split is mutual.
God’s wrath against the unholiness of God’s people has been aroused. God’s next statement to Moses is dramatic and terrifying: Let me alone now, give my anger free rein to burst into flames and incinerate them. Moreover, God gives Moses a tempting offer: Since the people of Abraham have turned away, “I’ll make a great nation out of you.” God offers Moses the chance to be the originator of a whole new people to substitute for the destroyed Israelites.
This is a dangerous situation! God is speaking the same way about humankind as God did before the flood was sent. Richard Niell Donovan says that “the offer God made to Noah is similar to the one God makes Moses — a proposal to start over with the one person God approves of, after destroying everyone else” (www.lectionary.org) It looks as if everything is falling apart.
But Moses, unlike Aaron, is not a “yes” man. He”talks back” to God. How does Moses respond to God’s wrath?
- He turns down the opportunity to lead a new people.
- He prays and intercedes for this people (who have betrayed him as well).
- He reminds God that the Israelites are God’s people.
- He says that destroying Israel in the wilderness will give Egypt the opportunity to taint his reputation.
- He reminds God of the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their descendants. God has sworn an oath to these people. Is God really going to go back on his Word?
Moses is not always successful in changing God’s mind. But evidently God takes very seriously Moses’ denying his own interest, advocating for the people, and begging for mercy. God changes his mind! A major crisis has been averted. Surely God is angry with his people, but not to the point of breaking the covenant and destroying them.
♥ God labels the Israelites a stubborn, hard-headed people. (Other translations use the term “stiff-necked,” a reference to animals who refuse to follow the pull of the bit strap and go their own way.) Look back over the past months. Have you been stubborn or hard-headed toward anyone? Toward God? Can you make amends before the situation becomes a crisis?
♥ This story portrays God as One who wants a dialogue with his people. As brave as Moses was, his past relationship with God must have encouraged him to speak up for the people. God listens to Moses’ arguments and is moved by his love for the people. This story encourages us to be courageous and plead with God on behalf of others, even those who have wronged us. For whom do you need to advocate at the throne of God?
MORE FOOD FOR THOUGHT
“Yahweh seems intent on destroying the people he saved from slavery (v 10), and Moses prays desperately to Yahweh not to do so. Moses’ prayer is an example of the bold and reckless praying that we also see Job, Abraham, and many of the prophets do. . . .Moses goes further than anyone else, however, when he cries: ‘But now, if only you will forgive their sin – but if not blot me out of the book that you have written (Exodus 32:32).’ Take my life for theirs, he seems to be saying, or else take me with them. The only biblical prayer that echoes the risk Moses takes is Paul’s: ‘I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people’ (Rom. 9:3). It is a powerful high-stakes prayer, an all-or-nothing fling of his own life between the wrath of God and the sin of the people” (The Spiritual Formation Bible, p. 139).
Of course, we see this same kind of prayer offered in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus says, “Not what I want, but what you want.” This time God requires the sacrifice.