A sermon for Proper 23: Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14
A lot has happened since Moses received the 10 Commandments. Moses, Aaron, and some others go to a meeting with God. Since then God seems to have gone away. Now Moses has been gone for 40 days or so. And so Israel does as she always does when challenged, she grumbles. Only this time she grumbles to Aaron. “Where is Moses?” “Is he dead?” “Now we are all alone (Bratt)!” “You do something for us, something we can see (Portier-Young).”
We know what happens. Aaron takes gold from Israel, perhaps the same gold given to them as a tribute as they left Egypt. He casts a golden calf, an idol. The people make a burnt offering, offer a sacrifice, and then a raucous celebration breaks out. God is furious. Moses isn’t down the mountain yet and already Israel has broken the 1st, and 2nd commandments and who knows what else. In fierce anger, God is going to destroy Israel and make Moses into a great nation. Using God’s words as his argument Moses challenges God:
“Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.”
“Remember your promise ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven.’”
“Do you really want to give Egypt a reason to speak evil of you.”
Moses calls Israel “your people.” As Israel’s defense lawyer he pleads “Do not do this.” And God changes the divine mind.
There are two scenes in this story 1. the making of the idol and celebration that follows and 2. God’s response, and Moses plea. Let’s take a closer look.
Yes, Aaron casts a golden calf. But is it really an idol, is it really another god? After the idol is made Aaron says: “These are your gods.” Notice ‘gods’ is plural; why plural if there is only one casting? Is the calf envisioned as an animal mount, perhaps a divine one, with a god, or even the Lord riding upon it? Such iconography is common in the ancient Near East (Gaventa and Petersen). Nowhere in the Old Testament do we find an explanation about the calf (Brueggemann). And there is the kappōret (Leviticus 16:6) or footstool build for God’s use in the Tabernacle (Kaiser Jr.). Perhaps the calf is the kappōret. Aaron also says, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” Note ‘Lord’ is all caps, if you go to the Hebrew it reads ‘Yahweh’ which indicates the feast and celebration is for or to God! Aaron also does what has been authorized to do! Back in chapter 20, an altar has been authorized, burnt offerings have been described, and offerings of well-being are defined (Exodus 20:24), these are exactly what wayward Israel is offering. On top of this in chapter 29 Aaron and his sons are consecrated as Priest to serve God and Israel. So Aaron is just doing what he has been ordained to do!
All this is a bit like a murder mystery. The story looks like it flows from front to back. However, some scenes that are connected are interrupted by other scenes, sometimes whole chapters. It is up to the reader to figure out what the sequence is.
Here there are two choices. The first is that this scene follows the fuller story of the ten commandments we read last week, which is followed by Israel’s consecration, so we have a real existential threat, Israel has simply broken her covenant with God. If this is the case then this may be a precursor of Israel’s behavior. In 2 Kings 23 (4-25) Josiah, one of the few faithful Kings of Israel, sets out to reform Israel. He destroys the idols, alters, holy poles, and priest of: Baal and Asherah, the gods of the sun, moon, and constellations, Molech, Astarte, Chemosh, Milconm, in places from Geba to Beer-sheba, Wadi Kidron, Topheth, Bethel, and Samaria. That is a lot. Josiah commanded that the Passover be kept; which had not been done since the time of the Judges. Which means that not a single King of Israel, not one, not even David or Solomon, observed Passover!
The second choice is that this scene follows Aaron’s consecration, which emphasizes all the power, prestige, splendor, and wealth of the his newly established office. Which suggest that Aaron falls to the temptations of his office.
It is also possible to read the conflict as Moses vs. Aaron. This is a conflict that repeats throughout Israel’s history. We read about conflicts between Levites vs. Zadokites, torah priests vs. temple priests, Pharisees vs Sadducees, and Jews vs Greeks (Brueggemann).
Both stories have a common theme we should pay attention to. Israel is impatient with God, and Aaron seemingly goes down a path of pledging allegiance to God and the other gods who happen to be available. It sets in motion a behavior we see through all of Israel’s history. It ends with the complete destruction of the ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom. They have never been heard from or seen since. Later comes the exile of the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom; who do return to their homeland, but who live in an occupied land from then all the way until after the Second World War.
The competition between Moses and Aaron sets up a competition that is also seen throughout all Israel’s history until the 2nd complete destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. The Temple has never been rebuilt.
Both story lines are a warning about how decisions leaders and peoples make can have consequences that last not just three or four generation, but thousands of generations. These are stories that that rebuke any thought “Well this leader won’t be here for long, we can pick up again after this mess is over.” Neither story line is particularly hopeful.
Even Moses changing God’s mind reveals a continuing tension. We want, many people want, God to be infallible, and unchangeable. But what we have here in this story is a clear example of Moses changing God’s mind. Throughout all the Bible God is a strong demanding God, with no tolerance for foolishness, continually sentencing people to lots of fire, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth. God is a God of “sovereignty that will not be mocked.” At the same time, throughout the Bible we witness God’s unexpected, incomprehensible grace and mercy. God is a God of “mercy that forgives (Brueggemann).” A God who is infallible and unchangeable is easier to follow. You know the rules and rest is up to God, we aren’t responsible for anything. On the other hand, a merciful forgiving God calls us to be merciful and forgiving; and that makes us responsible for our inflexible sovereignty and how we give mercy away, or don’t.
Now, I want to be perfectly clear, there is no hidden implication here. I am not accusing any political leader or party of being self-sovereign or lacking in mercy and forgiveness. I am saying all political leaders and parties are; and have been. Moses, is no pure character. Born a slave, he is raised privileged, in the Egyptian royal house. He bravely returns to his people. Then he murders an Egyptian over lord. Instead of facing the corrupt repressive Egyptian system he flees to Midian. When God calls him to go back to help he people his favorite phrases are “Who am I?” and “Your people” which sound just like an exasperated parent speaking to their returning spouse “Do you know what your children did today!” In addition to all the political leaders, I am accusing all the people. In this story and throughout all of scripture in one way or another the people of Israel regularly break every commandment, starting by worshiping other gods all the way through violating Sabbath to coveting anybody’s everything. I include me; and I include you. We are all the wayward children of Israel and her kings, who do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.
The frightening vision is that we are living in dangerous times. Not because there are disagreements, but because we are more and more segregating ourselves into like thinking camps. We are less and less willing to put aside our differences and work for the good of all God’s people. Except for violence towards others, which some of many camps have demonstrated, ultra-liberal students literally shouting down an invited conservative speaker are no better than ultra-conservatives protesting the removal of their beloved but controversial monuments. If we cannot listen to someone who believes what we think is offensive we cannot learn the hardest lessons of life, that are so often spoken by the people we call “other.”
The hopeful vision is that Moses spoke up. Moses dared to argue with the most sovereign of all that is sovereign. The result was forgiveness and mercy. We too can speak up. We can risk arguing with our leaders. We can contribute to changing hearts. We can contribute to the restoration of forgiveness and mercy. The hopeful vision is we are still here. God has not abandoned us. Even though we may be walking through dark shadows we are not alone; the great shepherd is always with us. Look carefully, listen closely and you can see the signs. There are exhausted firemen continuing to fight massive wildfires to save homes and lives. There are police who run towards gun fire. There is the Paramedic sitting with a mortally wounded victim, unprotected from gun fire, so she will not die alone. There a stranger paying it forward for a single mother who is short at the grocery store checkout. There are stories of high school students who go out of their way to honor a somehow disable classmate. There the vagrant who sees someone drop a wallet, picks it up, sees it has a couple of hundred dollars in it, and traces the owner down and returns the wallet. There is much good in this world and it worth fighting for (Tolkien).
Like today’s story I think we are lead into a sort of tension; we are called to be aware of the opportunity to confront to sovereignty that will not be mocked and speak; and we are called to be aware of mercy that forgives and celebrate. And at all times we are to trust that our Lord really is right here, right now, and will be forever.
Bratt, Doug. Proper 23 A Exodus 32:1-14. 15 10 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Brueggemann, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Kaiser Jr., Walter C. New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary The Book of Leviticus. Vol. I. Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. Olivetree App.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Portier-Young, Anathea. Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14. 15 10 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.