In this text, Paradise has almost been regained. Oh, yes, Israel is in a dry desert, not a lush garden. But so much of what had been wrong has been put right. Israel has been released from the house of bondage. Their covenant Lord is leading them to the land of milk and honey, providing food and drink and guidance along the way. He has given them the basic rules for liberated living, and then he added other laws designed to make life better than they had ever known.
Best of all, God has revealed all the arrangements for enjoying his own Presence on a regular basis: instructions for the Tabernacle where he would dwell, offerings and festivals designed to regulate entrance into his presence, and the ordination of priests who would help them meet their loving Lord. All of that re-establishment of Shalom is concluded by these words: “When Yahweh finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God (Exodus 31:18).”
Awesome! That should have settled it for Israel. After Shalom had been shattered by human sin in the Garden, God has nearly restored it in the desert. But then it was like Genesis 3 happened all over again. What we have in Genesis 32 is the Fall of Israel, followed in subsequent chapters by Yahweh’s fierce but ultimately gracious restoration of his sinful people. It’s a remarkable story filled with remarkable things or, more accurately, strange things.
Moses is still up on Mount Sinai in the presence of God, but for Israel he might as well be on the moon speaking to little green men. He is out of sight and, so, out of mind. Or is it Israel that is out of its mind? Just days after receiving the Ten Commandments, which begin with prohibitions against other gods and graven images, Israel frantically demands, “make us gods….” So anxious are they to have access to God that they immediately violate the most basic laws in the covenant with their God. How strange!
And look at who is facilitating their idolatrous lunacy! It’s Aaron, Moses’ brother and aide and the priest just appointed by God. If anyone should have known better, it was him. But upon hearing Israel’s cry for “gods,” he gathers all their gold ear rings, makes an idol in the shape of a calf, builds an altar before the Golden Calf, and then calls for a feast “to Yahweh.” The people respond by shouting “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” Then, these hopelessly deluded people celebrate their gods/God with a combination of the sacrifices God has commanded and the sexual bacchanalia for which the pagans were famous. How strange!
Could things get any worse? Oh yes, much worse, when the God who has been revealing his gracious will to Moses suddenly (?) notices what Israel is doing. How does their covenant Lord and loving redeemer respond? He reveals Israel’s sin to Israel’s human leader and immediately disassociates himself from them. “Go down, Moses, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt have become corrupt.” Notice, “your,” not “my!” So soon after I have redeemed them and given them my law, they have turned away from me and done exactly the opposite of what I commanded them.
This episode with the Calf is not an isolated incident. “I have seen them for who they really are, a stiff-necked people.” They aren’t a basically good people who just stumble a bit now and then. These are fundamentally rebellious people who regularly disobey my laws and demonstrate their lack of loyalty to me. Well, I have had it with them. The God who swore on oath to be God to the descendants of the patriarchs forever now says, “Now leave me alone, so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.” Then I will start over with you, Moses, and “make you into a great nation.” How strange!
The strangeness continues when Moses refuses to leave God alone to do his angry will. Instead of God reversing human sin and suffering (as signaled so often in the Bible with two words, “but God”), our text shows us Moses reversing God’s determination to punish sin (as signaled with two words, “but Moses”.) Moses seeks “the favor of Yahweh his God” by trying to talk God out of his announced plan of destruction.
Imagine a human arguing directly with God’s revealed will, and with what boldness! Moses argues that God is being unreasonable in punishing his own people whom he has just brought up out of Egypt. “Why should your anger burn…?” Why are you being so unreasonable? And what about your reputation, Lord? Why would you want to give the Egyptians the opportunity to speak ill of your redemption? What will the neighbors say, O Lord?
What about what you said, Lord, way back in the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? You promised to make them and their descendants as numerous as the stars. You promised to bring their children to the Promised Land. And you not only promised; you swore an oath on yourself that you would keep your promise. Moses calls the Almighty, All Knowing Creator of Heaven and Earth to “remember,” as though God could ever forget. How strange!
Moses fairly demands that his Lord “turn,” and “relent,” imperatives usually spoken to sinners, and the Holy One of Israel “relented,” literally, “changed his mind.” Contrary to what he had just said he was going to do, Yahweh allows himself to be talked into a new course of action; “he did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” God changed his mind? What about the doctrine of divine immutability so ingrained in classic theology? How strange!
Yes, this remarkable story is full of strangeness. But that’s because the Bible always tells the truth about things, like sin and idolatry and God and redemption. And the truth is that things are not simple; they are strangely complex, diabolically and divinely complex. Take sin, for example. It makes no sense; it is foolish and destructive and nearly irresistible. Why would Israel, having just received the Royal Law of Liberty, turn right around and violate its most basic demands? Because sinners want to do what seems right to them, regardless of what God says. It’s crazy!
And take idolatry, for another example. When the one true God, “immortal, invisible, God only wise,” tells us who he is and how to worship him, why would humans invent other gods and make images using parts of creation? Because people want gods they can see and handle and carry with them and, most of all, control. From the beginning of the human fall into sin, humans have wanted to be like god, knowing good and evil, in control of their own lives, even though their idolatrous efforts always end in ruin. It’s crazy!
And take God, for another example. People want a god they can fully understand, completely wrap their heads around, even as they carry god in their hands, a nice tidy god they put in their backpacks or set on their mantle. “This is your God, O Israel,” right here in front of you! No, it’s not, because God is not manageable, predictable, or comprehensible. Yes, God wants to bless his children, and God is faithful to his promises, and God has revealed himself to his children so that they can relate to him. But God is not simple, any more than his creatures are.
So, this remarkable story gives us a vivid insight into the complexity of God. Redeemer and Judge, Lord and Avenger, loving and angry, all knowing but open to human approach, immutable but responsive to human entreaty. As the New Interpreters Bible puts it, “the tension between mercy that forgives and sovereignty that will not be mocked” is central in the Bible. This “tension is what makes Moses intercession so dangerous, so urgent, and so future producing.” This is not crazy. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The human sin that ruins life and makes God so angry has been forgiven because of the mediatorial work of Jesus Christ. This story shows us a clear foreshadowing of that work in the audacious argument of Moses. As the NIB summarizes, “The terrible theological distortion enacted by Aaron has been overcome by the daring intervention of Moses.” Just so, Jesus was sent by our complex covenant Lord to stand between the crazy sin of humanity and the threat of divine punishment. Unlike Moses in our story, Jesus didn’t just talk God out of it. He took it all upon himself, as Moses offered to do later in this story (cf. verse 32, “please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written”).
The story is strange but wonderful, because it gives us a true picture of ourselves and God and the way of salvation for all who will turn to the one Mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus (I Timothy 2:5).
The combination of strangeness and craziness, terror and wonder, that permeate this story runs through much of modern literature and entertainment. I think of the marvelous novel, The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber. It is about an English pastor who is sent to the planet of Oasis to teach it reclusive inhabitants the tenets of basic Christianity. They become enamored with the Bible, which they call “The Book of Strange New Things.” Or I think of the wildly popular science fiction horror TV program entitled “Stranger Things,” which combines science and the supernatural. Who can resist such strangeness? Well, I can, but my point is that people love strangeness and craziness in this upsetting time in history.
Thank God for the awesome wonder of redemption through the mediation of Christ! “O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works thy hand hath made, I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed…. But when I think that God, his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in, that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin; then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art….” (Hymn by Stuart Hine)
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 11, 2020
Exodus 32:1-14 Commentary