Exodus 32:1-14 – God has a name and a face in Jesus

A reflection by Josh Olds

Many of you will know that we’ve recently had a new addition to our household – baby River, our third wee girl was born just a few weeks ago. I’ve quickly come to realise that while it’s lots of fun having a house full of kids, it’s also very loud. In the last few weeks I have really come to appreciate moments of silence, at times they can feel few and far between! But there are particular moments at home when actually silence isn’t a good thing. I’ve noticed that quite often if Susan and I are preoccupied with something and leave the (older) girls to entertain themselves, silence is often a surefire indication that mischief is being perpetrated. It’s kind of like the line you sometimes hear in movies – “it’s quiet… too quiet.” More often than not when the kids are left to their own devices monkey business seems to be the path of least resistance. As they say – when the cat’s away the mice will play! We seem to see a similar concept play out in the Exodus reading we had a moment ago in what’s ominously referred to as the ‘golden calf incident.’ As the story unfolds we read of a people who go astray when left to their own devices.

The events of our passage occur within the wider narrative of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their journey from being a people enslaved by the Egyptians, to becoming a nation in their own right as the people of God. Moses, the one through whom God liberates the Israelites from Egyptian rule, has shepherded God’s people through the wilderness to Mount Sinai – the holy mountain of God. There, gathered at Mount Sinai God claims the Israelite people as his treasured possession and famously seals his covenant with them in stone, providing Moses with the instruction guide of what it meant to live as God’s people. That brings us to the events of our passage – in Exodus 32, Moses is up Mount Sinai having a parish council meeting with God and is interestingly receiving guidelines for the building of the tabernacle – the mobile, tent-like structure that was to be the dwelling place of God’s presence in the midst of his people. What I want to do this morning is follow the contours of the narrative captured in our passage pausing at different points to reflect on what’s going on.

As the narrative begins Moses is up the mountain with God; the focus is on the people down below, who, in Moses’ absence are growing antsy. The concern of the people seems to revolve around the fact that they are without a tangible representation of God. Notice that it is Moses who the people attribute with bringing them up out of Egypt, there is no mention of God. With their concept of God bound up in the person of Moses, who is nowhere to be seen, it’s as if God is nowhere to be seen. Without a sense of God with them, they feel rudderless, vulnerable, unsure about where to from here – so they take matters into their own hands. The people charge Aaron, Moses’ brother and resident peace-keeper while Moses is up the mountain, with making them a tangible representation of God to lead them forth. Let’s pause here for a moment to reflect on the fact that the first two ‘terms and conditions’ that God has asked of the Israelites as his chosen people are that 1. They have no other gods before Him, and 2. That they have no idols, or human-made mini-gods.

The loyalty of God’s people is drawn away by what they can see and feel and touch, or at this time the lack thereof. Moses’ absence has created a vacuum that they felt they needed to fill. It’s interesting that while Egypt was a place of slavery for the Israelites, it was also a place of familiarity. It was a place where they were governed by Pharaoh, a figure seen as a god in the flesh. We can see them looking for God in that same way, someone or something that they can look to, be reassured by, something that can’t be doubted because it’s right there in front of them. With Moses no longer able to be seen, or felt, or touched, in their antsy-ness the people turn to what is familiar, what is comfortable, even if it means being drawn away from the God who has chosen them.

The narrative progresses as Aaron becomes the focus. He obliges the people and collects their gold jewellery and fashions it into the golden calf, the tangible representation of God that the people desire. As Aaron presents the finished product to the people, in contrast to the people’s earlier acknowledgement that it was Moses who had brought them up out of Egypt, it is now declared that God, represented in the golden calf, was responsible for the Israelite liberation. As an aside, there’s some ambiguity as to whether the golden calf was an image of a false god, or a false image of the true God. Either way, it goes against how God has called his people to live. The tangible nature of the golden calf quells the people’s antsy-ness, they are reassured once again that God is with them, as such Aaron declares a festival to the Lord, a day of worship, of sacrifice, of revelry – all in devotion to their shining-bovine representation of God.

The people of God can’t seem to help being devoted to what is before them, it’s almost as if they’re hardwired to worship. So much so that a cast statue of a calf could be equated with the God who rescued an entire nation of people out of slavery. Now, while it’s easy for us to look down our noses a bit at the Israelites and their seemingly bizarre choices, I wonder how different we really are. I wonder what the golden calves in our context today might be? Maybe we’re not smelting our gold rings in our backyard to fashion items of worship, nonetheless, I do notice the tendencies within myself to be devoted to things in place of God. I was reading an Old Testament scholar this week who highlights that there are two ways we can look at this; firstly, the false gods in our lives, things we devote ourselves to in place of God – money, possessions, ourselves, people we look up to, and secondly, the false images of the true God in our lives, things we associate so much with God that we worship them instead of Him – a church building, that retired minister, the old liturgy or style of music, perhaps a theological position or doctrine to which we cling too tightly.[1]

The narrative of our passage then shifts to a new scene, to the top of Mount Sinai where the presence of God is engaging with Moses. God, aware that his golden-calf-worshipping people below have not held up their end of the bargain as the people of God, instructs Moses to head back down the mountain. Notice twice more this phrase “brought up out of the land of Egypt” appears. This time, surprisingly it is God crediting Moses with the liberation of the Israelites. It’s hard to know what to make of this! It’s almost as if God lets the Israelites’ rejection of him and his covenant with them take its natural course – ok, if you claim Moses as your leader, then be Moses’ people. God’s covenant with the Israelites was always to be a two-way street, to which Israel hadn’t complied. God’s next statement is almost inconceivable, he offers to start the whole plan of having a people of his own again with Moses. Again, passages like this raise lots of questions, and it’s hard to know how to make sense of them! I don’t purport to have especially enlightened answers, but I do think we need to seek to interpret verses like these within their wider contexts. As such, lets continue following the narrative here.

Moses doesn’t take God up on his offer, in fact he refutes God’s claim, as the people had claimed, that he was one who had brought them up out of Egypt and he sets the record straight – God, these are your, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt. Moses implores God to remember his promises to the ones through whom he had brought the Israelite people about. Moses advocates for his people, for God’s people, he denies his own opportunity for credit and legacy and appeals to God’s mercy, seeking to restore the relationship between God and his people. Inexplicably our passage ends in verse 14 with “And the Lord changed his mind…” Wild. This unfathomable, transcendent, creator God listens to a person and seemingly changes his mind. Again, this can be hard to get our heads around and make sense of, many of us will have questions, it’s ok, its good to have questions. But don’t let those questions throw the baby out with the bath water – this passage displays that God is a relational God, that he welcomes human participation in his mission, that he invites our conversation with him, that ultimately God is for his people.

I think in some ways we are all hard-wired to worship, to recognise and respond to the worth of something or someone, we don’t get to decide if we’ll spend our lives worshipping, but only who or what we’ll spend our lives worshipping. Unlike the Israelites in our passage, we don’t need to look for a tangible representation of God, because he has already provided us with one; God himself has a name and face in Jesus. God himself came down the mountain and moved into the neighbourhood in the person of Christ, the one truly worthy of our worship and devotion.