Exodus 32:1-14

Only last week we read the Ten Commandments or the Ten Best Ways to live and I ended my reflection with a question:

I wonder if there are deities or idols that led us to misrecognize God and one another?

Despite the fact that God told the Israelite people that they were to:

“…worship no other god than me.

“You shall not make yourselves any idols: no images of animals, birds, or fish. You must never bow or worship it in any way; for I, the Lord your God, am very possessive. I will not share your affection with any other god!

here they are this week making an idol to worship, a golden calf.

As God gave Moses the Commandments God said:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20: 2)

God had not only freed the people but had continued to provide for the people, providing for them manna and water in the desert.  In chapters 19-24 we read about the covenant that is created between God and these people of God.  Here in chapter 32 we read about the breaking of the covenant.  Between the two, God gives Moses guidelines for the production of the tabernacle, the tent in which God “may dwell among them” (Exodus: 25:8).  There is so much that is exciting and hopeful in these chapters, which makes the events of Exodus 32:1-15 surprising as well as terribly sad.

Moses is on Mt. Sinai with God where he remains for forty days. The people turn to his brother, Aaron, and, speaking derisively of Moses, demand that he make them gods:

“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” (Exodus 32:1).

Aaron tells them to take their gold earrings and give them to him and from the gold he formed an image of a calf.  Missing from this conversation is any mention of God or of the covenant. God’s absence grows even more striking in their response to the golden calf: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
(Exodus 32:4) Thus, Moses is dismissed as “this Moses,” and the people’s history and covenant with God is cast aside to make room for a statue.

The wording of the people’s pronouncement about their newly minted god(s) makes use of phrasing very familiar to any reader of Exodus, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” but with one striking difference: the use of the word “gods. This underscores the disloyalty in their actions and speech. These gods had nothing to do with their miraculous escape from Egypt. Indeed, even Moses is not the one who brought them out of Egypt, although he is given the credit in verse 1. So I ask again this week, I wonder if there are deities or idols or leaders that led us to misrecognize God and one another?

When Aaron saw how the people were responding he built an altar before it; and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Yahweh (the Lord God).” (Exodus 32:5).  Aaron is depicted as a practical leader; he is willing to compromise on the theological details a bit in order to appease the people. The people want tangible images of God (gods who are a bit more accessible than Yahweh and/or intermediaries who are less cranky than Moses), so Aaron fudges a bit.

He makes them a calf and lets them think what they want about it. Technically, he clarifies that for him, this is about Yahweh by calling a feast in honour of Yahweh. But Aaron does not disavow the people of their theological misconceptions. Maybe he thinks, “So what that the people don’t get the subtlety of the distinction, what’s the harm? At least they’re not griping at me!”

I wonder if you can identify with Aaron?  I wonder if like Aaron you are a people pleaser and just want to keep the peace or at least stop people grumbling against you? I wonder if there are situations in which our theology is compromised in order not to upset people?

In response to the people’s rejection of God it seems that God is going to reject them.  God says 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… I have seen “this” people, how stiff-necked they are.” (Exodus 32:7-9)

All of a sudden “these” people are Moses’ people and Moses was the one who delivered them from slavery in Egypt.  God seems to be distancing himself from these” people. 

God calls the Israelites “perverse” or “corrupted” (Exodus 32:7).  This is the same word God used of the people just before flooding the earth (Genesis 6:12). The offer God made to Noah is similar to the one God makes Moses too. A proposal to start over with the one person God approves of, after destroying everyone else

“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.” (Exodus 32:10).

Even God’s demand for “rest” (New Revised Standard Translation has “let me alone,” from the Hebrew word nûaḥ recalls the name of Noah (nōaḥ).

Moses is not the yes man his brother seems to be.  Even though Moses would be spared he does not go along with God but appeals to God first that God should protect his reputation

“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?’” (Exodus 32:12)

And then Moses reminds God of the promises made to the people’s ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 32:13).

The speech is successful for “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” (Exodus 32:14).  Where God spoke of destroying your” (Moses’) or this” people they are now once again “his” people.

We see in this story the intimate, honest, courageous and open relationship between Moses and God.  A relationship that we too can have with God.  We also see through this relationship the willingness of God to forgive and offer grace.

Rev Tammy Hollands