YEAR A: SEASON AFTER PENTECOST
(Sunday Between October 9 and October 15)
The book of Exodus is formative of Israel’s identity as a people, recounting the holy history of God’s dramatic act of delivering them from slavery in Egypt. Our lectionary readings have followed the people of Israel from the Passover and crossing of the Reed Sea, through a forty-year period of wandering in the wilderness, a time of testing and solidifying their community, to their encounter with God at Mt Sinai. In this passage, Moses continues to act as intercessor between a faithful God and a faithless people, while Aaron shows a leadership more vulnerable to the demands of the people.
In the last three weeks, the readings from Exodus have told stories of God’s faithful provision of manna and water to the Israelites in the wilderness, and the giving of the Ten Commandments. In the intervening chapters, Exodus 21 to 31, we read details of God’s giving of the law to Moses, who remains up on the mountain, away from the people.
The people appear not to have developed much trust in God’s providence in spite of the provision of manna and water, for when Moses’ return is delayed, they complain to Aaron, ‘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’ (v. 1). In saying this, they deny that it was the Lord who led them out of Egypt, with Moses as God’s servant. They have conflated the servant of the Lord with the presence of the Lord himself. Moreover, in speaking about ‘this Moses’ they distance themselves from him and thus from God. It seems that when the servant is out of sight, they seek a more tangible sign of divine presence.
They put pressure on Aaron as the second in command, telling him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us’ (v. 1). The verb is the same used of God’s going before the people of Israel in the pillar of cloud and fire.
The story unfolds with characteristic understatement. Aaron resists not at all, buying into the people’s demands by telling the people to take off their gold earrings and to bring them to him. The leader is now led in turn by the demands of the people.
The people did as Aaron asked, their faithlessness mirroring his own example. In v. 4, the meaning of the verb is uncertain, but likely has to do with making a mould for the statue of the golden calf, which Aaron forms. The text presses on, down the slippery slope of a second ‘fall’. Though they have just seen human hands form the mould, they are not slow to acclaim, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ Again, it is striking that they picture the gods as plural, perhaps in keeping with the pantheon of gods they would have known in the surrounding culture in Egypt. In so doing, they have broken the first two of the ten commandments that Moses has just brought to them.
Commentators have several theories about the calf itself. It has often been viewed as a Canaanite symbol of fertility, with the people worshipping it as a sign of life renewing itself in a dry and inhospitable climate. Others see it as a version of the bull, which was worshipped in Egypt and elsewhere as a god of war. If either of these interpretations is followed, it underscores the people’s turning away from God, as they have only recently witnessed God’s victory over the military might of the Egyptians and their chariots. Commentator J. Gerald Janzen writes that it is one of the ‘ironies of Exodus’ that the people turn and worship the very sort of image of power as that which had enslaved them in Egypt. Another possibility in quite a different vein is that the bull was an image used of Israel’s God, Yahweh, possibly at an early time, and this story echoes that tradition (cf. Gen 49:24 with the title for God of ‘Bull of Jacob’ although the NRSV translates the Hebrew term ‘bull’ as ‘mighty one’). If so, then in this later telling of the story the bull is thoroughly rejected as an image for Yahweh. But such a history could change the reason for the rejection of the image. It might not be that the people simply want to worship some other God than Yahweh, be it Canaanite or Egyptian, but rather that they seek some tangible image of God, one they can touch, see and in many ways control. It could be this that is rejected in this story.
Aaron continues to show a disturbing tendency to be swayed by the acclaim of the people, and builds an altar to the calf, proclaiming a festival, which is, interestingly, described as a festival ‘to the Lord.’ It appears that Aaron sees no conflict in the making of the calf, and still holding to faith in the Lord, Yahweh, a factor which might support the third view above. Some commentators have suggested that he might have envisioned the calf much like the Ark of the Covenant, as a seat for God, rather than an idol which itself represented God. The people respond with sacrifices and a feast, and rise up ‘to revel.’
Verses 7-14 are believed to be an interpolation from a different writer, as the Lord tells Moses what has transpired with the people. In verse 15 Moses seems surprised to learn what has happened. Commentators believe the golden calf story has links with 1 Kings 12:25ff, in which Jeroboam sets up golden calves in the northern kingdom of Israel at Bethel and Dan. It therefore puts in place an etiological explanation for a later form of worship in the northern kingdom which is rejected by the writers of Kings.
In v. 7, the Lord tells Moses of the perverse actions of the people, giving the command ‘Go down at once!’ This echoes God’s earlier command that Moses ‘go down’ to Egypt to lead the people in deliverance; this time the command is inverted to reflect God’s judgement.
God is angry in this passage, asking Moses to ‘let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them’ (v. 10). God offers to make of Moses a great nation even as he proposes to destroy the people. We hear echoes of the Noah story, where a similar desire to destroy perverse humanity led to the saving of a righteous man.
But Moses is not willing to save himself at his people’s expense, and bargains rather shamelessly with God. He shows himself a good shepherd, protecting his people from a threat posed by the Lord himself. Moses reminds the Lord that they are his people, whom he brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. He acknowledges (as the people had not) that it was the Lord who led them out. Moses appeals to God’s good name, saying that the Egyptians would conclude that the Lord had led the people out only to kill them in the wilderness (indeed, much the same conclusion as the people themselves had made when they murmured against God and Moses in previous readings.)
Moses goes further in defending the people, appealing to God to remember his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel ‘your servants,’ how God swore ‘to them by your own self,’ promising descendants and a land. By the phrase ‘your servants,’ Moses reminds the Lord of the relationship with the patriarchs. Moses is successful in his appeal, and God turns from venting his full wrath on his people.
In preaching this passage, one might draw out implications for church leadership. Aaron provides a rather frightening example of a leader who uncritically identifies with the demands of the people, remaking the transcendent majesty of the divine into something easily accessible and tangible. He leads the people in worship that is experiential, but that lacks clarity about what sort of God is to be its focus. Moses shows a different model of leadership, interceding for the very people who had at times so frustrated him. He maintains a love for his people even when their behaviour (and the lack of faith that lay behind it) deeply disappointed him.
Alternatively, the making of the golden calf perhaps reflects a human temptation to make God in our image, rather than to acknowledge that it is God who has made (and delivers) us, and not we ourselves. It presents the people as ones who long for a tangible sense of God’s presence with them, for whom faith needed some tangible proof.
The Old Testament reading has a couple of points of possible connection with the gospel for today, Matthew 22:1-14. In both readings there is a feast, and in both the character of God is marked by angry disappointment over the people’s faithlessness and lack of proper response to God. In both, God’s gracious offer (in Exodus, of the covenant and the Torah, and in Matthew, of the invitation to the wedding feast) is shown to arise from a grace that is not cheap, but costly.
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