One of my favorite stories in the Bible is Exodus 32:1-14. It’s a favorite not
because it makes me happy or comfortable. It doesn’t. In fact, it’s a challenging story in many ways, especially if you continue reading past verse 14. It’s a favorite because it reveals something remarkable and surprising about God in the face of the uncomfortable realities of human sinfulness and unfaithfulness. This is the story of the golden calf. You remember that one, right? Maybe from Sunday school, maybe from
Confirmation? After God leads the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, God brings them to Mount Sinai, where Moses goes up the mountain to confer with God. Part of that conferring includes God giving Moses the Ten Commandments. But apparently, there was a lot more involved, because Moses was up the mountain for a very long time. In fact, he was gone so long that the Israelites became convinced that he was never coming back. Yes, Moses had been instrumental in giving them freedom from the
Egyptians. Yes, Moses spoke for God, the God of their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But did that god have any power here outside of Egypt, or outside of the land given to Abraham and his descendants? In the ancient world, gods were usually thought to be local. Go to another country, and there would be other gods in charge, just like there would be other kings. This is why Jonah tried to run away from God when God called him to go to Nineveh. Until the storm at sea, he thought of God as a local god with
limited reach. So, when Moses doesn’t come back from the mountain in the expected time, the people of Israel feel not only leaderless but godless as well. So they ask Aaron, Moses’ brother who was left in charge, to “make gods” for them. This strikes us as strange. How can people “make gods”? Well, they didn’t actually think they were making gods, just creating a way to be connected to gods they imagined already existed and controlled that territory. As bizarre as it seems to us, this was a perfectly normal reaction in this time and place to the situation they were in. God, of course, finds out
about this development and gets angry that the people have given up on both Moses and God – so angry that God resolves to utterly destroy the people of Israel. But Moses intervenes. This is the remarkable part. Moses, a mere human being, stops God from the “evil” God intended to do. (The NRSV translation of the Bible we use says “disaster” here, but the old King James Version does not shy away from attributing potential “evil” to God: “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.”)
As I mentioned above, this story challenges our simplistic notions of God, and it opens up all kinds of possibilities for further discussion and conversation. For now, I just want to focus on one thing, namely Moses’ attitude towards his people at this particular moment, in spite of their unfaithfulness and inclination toward evil of their own. (See Exodus 32:22 where the NRSV gives us “evil” for the same word earlier translated as “disaster.”) Moses does not say, “Good idea, Lord! Blow them away!” Instead, he intercedes on their behalf and talks God out of destroying them.
Many Christians feel under attack these days because of their faith. They feel that the culture has become hostile to religion, particularly their religion. While there may be some truth to this, my sense is that they are mostly reacting to Christianity (or a kind of Christianized civil religion) no longer being the dominant default in our culture. There is an instinct to make this a binary, us vs. them, good vs. bad sort of situation – to defend the faith and fight back. Moses in this particular instance gives us another option, to recognize that we are all in the same boat, that we are all, in
our own ways, unfaithful and in need of God’s forgiveness. Moses doesn’t downplay the people’s sin. He intercedes on their behalf in spite of their sin.
What if we followed Moses’ lead here? What if we interceded with God on behalf of all the people in our country, or in our world, even and especially those who are hostile to us? What if we Christians dared to react as Jesus suggested if we were actually to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us”? (Matthew 5:44) Would we start to see them not as “them” but as “us”? Would we maybe even open doors to God’s love and forgiveness that no amount of reactiveness or self-defense could possibly accomplish? I think maybe so. I think that is where Jesus is leading us. So, in times like these, I invite you to pray like Moses. Who knows how God might respond? Who knows how we might change? We might be surprised.