Friday, September 10, 2010

Remember and Do Not Forget (Exodus 32:1, 7-14)

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, 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."
The LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."
But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, `I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Exodus 32:1,7-14

The Golden Calf episode (Exod 32:4) is a pivotal text in our history.  The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt. Now, it is important to note that they weren’t slaves the way you and I think of slaves. It wasn’t the depraved and incomprehensible atrocity enacted on African slaves in the United States; “Hebrews” in Egypt lived with their families, had livestock, etc.  But it was no picnic either.  Before they left Egypt they were cruelly worked and punished by their masters and threatened with genocide.  So, God intervened, Moses led them and they fled into the desert.

Today’s portion takes place forty days later.  Moses has gone up the mountain to have a confab with God and the “Israelites” have been left at the foot of the mountain to eat manna and wait. 

How long does it take lose faith? For the Israelites, evidently something less than forty days, because after forty days, they turn to Aaron, their erstwhile leader, and say, “What the heck are we doing? Back in Egypt, we had jobs and homes and regular meals. Now we’re out here in the desert living tents on manna.  Back in Egypt we knew our gods and how to worship them. Now, we don’t know what to do with the God of Moses and where is Moses anyway?  Let’s just build an idol, we know how to do that, and go back to worshiping the way we know how to do it.”

God looks down from the mountain and sees what the Israelites are doing and says, understandably, “Go down there and fix that or I will.”

Now there is a lot of interesting language in this text.  First of all, God says to Moses, these are “your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt.” Well, wait a minute, didn’t God bring them out of Egypt?  Or didn’t He at least give the marching orders?  They are not Moses’ people, are they?  They are God’s people, aren’t they?  

In making an idol and mistaking it for the god that freed them, the people of Israel appear to have chosen not to be the people of God.  They are now just a group of metal cow worshiping vagrants following a very embarrassed and absent prophet. And as such, God need have no compunction in wiping them out.

But Moses intervenes. We learned in the story of Abraham that God listens when we talk to Him, that He seeks to make Himself understood.  But unlike Abraham, Moses’ argument does not turn on who the people are, but on who God is.  He doesn’t even try to make a case for the Israelites, which is doubtless very prudent indeed.  Rather, he turns the focus on God because, I think, that is the point of the passage.

The Israelites lost sight of God.  They had all these signs and miracles at the beginning, but now it’s been a while since they saw any real evidence of God.  They have had to go along on faith, in the absence even of their prophet.  Their faith faded, their resolve diminished, and they lost sight of (or turned their stiff necks away from) God.

Moses resolves the issue by focusing on God. He says, “I know you to be the one and only, the merciful and just God of the Israelites.  But there are people who don’t know you. There are even those who those who suspect you. If you lose your temper and smite your own people, they will never see you for what you are, indeed they may hide their eyes from you in fear.”  Now, Moses knows, and God knows, and you and I know that God does not want us to fear Him and that His greatest pleasure comes when we turn our eyes and lift our voices and open our hearts to Him.  Clearly, Moses has a point.

And he pressed that point to the limits of chutzpah.  Moses goes on to say, “Also, you know us for who we are: weak and sinful, and dependant on you.  You have always guided us and you have promised always to guide us. You swore by your own self! If you destroy us now,” Moses seems to be saying, “Which of us would be turning away?”

Now, whatever you believe about how the Bible came into being, there is no doubt that there was a moment in time when it was determined that this was a story worth re-telling.  Why is that, do you think? I mean, it doesn’t reflect well on God, really, He looks a little hot tempered.  And Moses comes off looking like the captain of the debate team, which is less classically heroic than one might expect.  So what is in it for us?

Well, for me, today, this morning, it holds a frightfully urgent message.  Recently there have been those among the broad brotherhood of mankind who have lost sight of God.  They created for themselves an image of worship that was false and their pursuit of it threatened the unity of God’s creation, the peace He so earnestly desires, the efforts we all make at healing the wounds of the world, and potentially put at risk the lives of innocent and brave men and women whom I personally know and love.

Now, this morning, before dawn and the morning news breaks over the horizon, it looks as if that particular conflagration of sin has been averted. And what I take from this text this morning, is that I must forgive.  I may not reach out wrathfully.  I may not take my anger out in print or in deed.  I have been the object of God’s mercy, I have read the lesson of God’s grace. And I have been told: Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness; you have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place.” (Deut 9:7)
I must move on from here, grateful that they have seen and hopeful that I have seen, the true nature of a just and forgiving God.

Now, I would be a poor lecturer indeed if I neglected to tell you that as our story proceeds from this point, Moses himself goes down and opens up a can of whuppass on those idol worshipers… but that is a story for another time.