The reading for this week might come as a bit of a shock. Only last week we had Yahweh giving the Ten Commandments to Moses and the nation of Israel on Mount Sinai, and today’s episode with the golden calf seems to come rather hot on the heels of this. The giving of the law was a climactic moment in salvation history. It marked the liberation of the people from slavery and gave them an opportunity to respond in action to the God who loved them and set them free.
The reading for this week might come as a bit of a shock. Only last week we had Yahweh giving the Ten Commandments to Moses and the nation of Israel on Mount Sinai, and today’s episode with the golden calf seems to come rather hot on the heels of this. The giving of the law was a climactic moment in salvation history. It marked the liberation of the people from slavery and gave them an opportunity to respond in action to the God who loved them and set them free. This great moment is followed quickly by the people’s shameful denial of the love and power that has saved them. Despite being rescued from slavery, and from some of the challenges and difficulties they’ve encountered so far in the wilderness, the people in their impatience and restlessness turn away from Yahweh to something more tangible. The God they see in fire and cloud is not enough for them, and they look to gods of gold instead.
We’re told that the cause of this turn of events is Moses’ delay in coming down from the mountain. Since the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, Moses, sometimes along with Aaron and other leaders of the people, has made a number of trips up the mountain to speak with God. On these occasions Moses has received further details on the Commandments, and laws on a whole range of things, many of which are to do with the worship of the people. This has gone on for ten chapters! Then finally, at the end of Exodus 31, Moses is entrusted with the two stone tablets of the covenant. We read between the lines to assume that at this point he is preparing to return to the people with the gifts he has been given. But as far as the people are concerned, Moses has taken too long. He’s been out of sight for too long, and rather than seeing this as an opportunity to test their faith and their patience, instead they see it as a reason to look to someone else to provide other, better gods and other, better leadership - something they can see and touch. We can read all sorts of things into why the people make these demands. Perhaps they’re still young in their faith and not quite trusting of this strange God who has done inexplicable things for things. Perhaps they doubt their ability to cope on their own. Perhaps they’re rather infantilised in their mentality, feeling that they need or deserve the full attention of their leader, and if they’re not getting it from Yahweh or Moses then they’ll go somewhere else to find it. Whatever the reason, at the beginning of this passage the blame is very clearly laid at Moses’ feet.
It seems hard to explain what Aaron is doing here. He’s supported Moses through some incredibly difficult times. He’s stood with Moses and taken the complaints of the people when food and water were lacking. He’s even been up the mountain with Moses to receive instruction from the LORD Exodus 24:9. So why does he seem to so willingly abandon Moses and give in to the desires of the crowd? It doesn’t seem to make any sense. From what we have in front of us, it doesn’t look as though he makes any argument or protest against the demands of Israel. Instead he asks them for their gold and makes it into a calf, which the people hail as divine. It’s not really clear why a calf was chosen specifically, but it appears from Exodus 32:4-5 that this was considered to be a representation of Yahweh. If you compare this with 1 Kings 12:28 later on, two golden calves were made to represent God. So already the first two Commandments have been broken quite shamelessly.
Moses is still on the mountain at this time, and Yahweh sees what is happening and is annoyed and put out. Yahweh alerts Moses to what is going on and promises to bring judgement on the people. In fact Yahweh repeats the words of Aaron who declares, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” I think that the repetition highlights just what a terrible thing it is that Israel has done. Yahweh is shocked and incensed, and we echo those same feelings . So we’re not terribly surprised when Yahweh’s anger and fury erupts. One commentary I read paraphrased Exodus 32:9-10 like this: “Get out my way Moses, and let me at the people. I will destroy them, but of you I shall make a great nation.”
The turning point comes in Exodus 32:11. Moses has been rebuffed by the people who are critical of his leadership and say they want someone else instead. Moses has also been pushed aside by God who wants to get straight at the people. But here Moses steps up and takes back his role as mediator between God and the people. In Exodus 32:11 he emphasises Yahweh’s role in liberating the people, in contrast with Exodus 32:4-8 where salvation is attributed to the calf-gods. The people may have forgotten who rescued them, but Moses has not forgotten, and Moses is also aware that the God who has saved Israel is now in danger of destroying it.
Moses’ argument to God is interesting. Firstly he tells God not to give the Egyptians the satisfaction being able to say, “I told you so!” Why let the Egyptians feel smug that the God who set them free only went on to destroy them a short while later? Why give them an excuse to spread rumours about God’s vengeful and malicious motives? Secondly, Moses appeals to the covenant with Israel’s ancestors, calling on the names of Abraham, Isaac and Israel to back him up. Moses ignores the fact that Yahweh has already said that the covenant will be continued through Moses, and he asks God to remember the promises God has made in the past.
The lectionary ends at Exodus 32:14 with a rather abrupt turn of events: “the LORD changed his mind...” This might come as a surprise to you, or it might not. There are other texts in the Old Testament where Yahweh’s mind is changed and judgement is held back because of the intervention of a just mediator (Genesis 18: 22-33; Amos 7: 3-6). This is not intended to give us the impression that Yahweh is indecisive, but rather to demonstrate that God’s justice is always tempered with mercy, and that when justice and mercy are seen to clash, the former (justice) gives way to the latter (mercy). Moses is seen here as important to Israel and to Yahweh. To Israel, Moses was a great man of God who served as a channel of divine guidance and strength at a time when the nation needed it. To God, Moses was not only a faithful servant, but was also a patient voice insisting that justice is not justice unless it is administered in love.
If this passage has anything to teach us, it’s important that we identify with the rebellious people and that we don’t set ourselves up in contrast to them. There are many ways in which the image of the people of Israel that we get in Exodus is reflected in the gospel accounts of the early disciples. Just as Israel was blind to what God was doing and often didn’t recognise God’s activity even when they were right there next to it, so Jesus’s followers also often misunderstood and misjudged his teachings and his actions. In both the people of Israel and the early followers of Jesus, only divine patience and mercy sustained the relationship and enabled the people to move from doubt to faith. To paraphrase the words of one commentator, everyone who has received the saving love of God with less than the full devotion that it demands kneels before the golden calf - and that includes us all.
For further reflection…