17 The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21 And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
This passage marks a shift in human understanding of who God is and it must be understood in the context of the preceding chapter. The Israelites have been rescued from oppression, been protected from pursuing armies and have been provided guidance and sustenance in the wilderness. God had fulfilled his promises to the people. But when Moses is slow returning from the mountain, the people get anxious and demand of Aaron, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; 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.” The people could not tolerate their vulnerability and needed something concrete—something more than God’s promises. In our language, the people needed certainty; they needed evidence that God would continue to lead them. After all, clouds can float away. As the story unfolds, God is furious with the people’s betrayal and intends to destroy them. They have broken the first and most basic commandment: You have no other Gods before me.”
It is easy to focus on the distrust and faithlessness of the people but that conveniently forgets how difficult it is for us to rely on God and the ease with which we create Golden calves to provide safety for ourselves. When we are in the wilderness and discover we must place our lives in the hands of God—-by choice or circumstance—We need to know he is there. The calf is something concrete. It is not an abstraction. Its physical existence provides a sense of presence.
No matter how often God has been present, staying open to God always requires humility and uncertainty. In real life, relationships continue because we choose them and we have been chosen. Most of us have trouble tolerating that vulnerability. Couples in trouble frequently defend and justify—’that’s not what you said, I did the best I could, How could you think that of me? And more coercively, look what I’ve done for you, what’s wrong with you, I’ve done my part! It is hard to live in the knowledge that our vows are unenforceable. They are statements of good intention. But when we learn that, love is a gift—and all of our deference, our goodness and obedience cannot make love happen. So it is with God.
Trusting God means relying on the promise that he chooses us. But when we are frightened and anxious, that is a big ask. How could you love me and not save me from the wilderness. Telling me it will all work out does not help. Show me. Such an attitude, even in our day is frequently viewed as a ‘lack of faith’. And if we are not faithful, we deserve the hardship of our lives. This was certainly the understanding of God in the Golden Calf story.
Putting other God’s before them deserved punishment! “9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen these people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” And Moses demands a test of faithfulness:
26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’” 28 The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. 29 Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.”
Now that is harsh. Kill someone you love to demonstrate that you will put nothing before God. Pass the test of faithfulness in order to be one of God’s chosen. This was the ‘Word of God’ of its day. (This is a passage that does not make the lectionary).
But Moses, intercedes and convinces God to withhold his wrath. The God of righteous wrath changes his position. Even in the face of egregious betrayal, “ I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” This a radically new conception of God and it is important to notice that the righteous judging God is found side by side with this new concept that God.
This is a choice that has enormous consequences. If we view God as spending his time separating the sheep from the goats, it is mighty important to be a sheep. And we spend a lot of time differentiating between people—because, in part that is how we view God. We do not trust God’s gracious goodness. We are promised we are loved—even when we fail—but we like the Israelites seek more certainty. What if, this time, God has had enough What if, this time, our sinfulness is punished? We are more likely to live in fear instead of gratitude.
Our modern day Golden Calf comes in many forms. We divide people. We put people in categories. There is always a way to make differences a sign of favor or disfavor. We use the bible and our understandings to prove we are right. I do this as much as the next person but I would like to remind myself that no matter how convinced I am, that doesn’t mean I am right. My convictions, piety or obedience do not change God’s love for me, they just change my capacity to enjoy that love.
We create idols of certainty. A great deal of violence has been done in the name of God by people who were sure about God’s will. The bible is full of stories like the Levite massacre. In the name of God, crusades were fought; the Jews were a lesser people; women, children and slaves did not qualify as ‘created equal’; the blond and blue eyed were a superior race; the good are rewarded, the bad go to hell —these and countless other examples were and are, fiercely argued as divinely inspired and only the passage of time has called them into question. However, in the long view, irrefutable truths (at least at the time) have been challenged and altered. That is what was beginning to happen between the Levite massacre and God’s promise to stay with his stiff necked people.
We can observe this reality in the long view but if we apply it to our lives, it is a pretty scary thought. It raises the question in our own lives of what is it that we can count on. How can we be sure? Where is God leading us when the world seems so dark?
I have just returned from a vacation where these issues became evident in ordinary ways. Our program director introduced himself by telling us where he lived and a bit about his family. In the process he mentioned his husband. Later, some in our group said: “Why did he have to say that? I don’t care what they do, but he doesn’t need to put in our face that way.” Others said, “I think they should have equal rights but I don’t think they should use the word husband.” The unspoken dilemma revolves around what does the word husband means. Elasticity in the definition challenged long held ‘biblical truths.’ Suddenly, we are confronted by the fact that ‘husband’ can have definitions unfamiliar and opposite to the ones we might be accustomed to. How can we know what is right when everything keeps changing? It is easy to believe we are accepting when people are like us.
Later in the trip, a man observed a woman walking in a hijab and said: “She wears that thing but it doesn’t stop her from wearing high heels.” My response was: “That just goes to show that our stereotypes are unreliable. ” When people become categories we cease to meet people—we only see what we expect.
Our final speaker was a Syrian refugee. He was twenty three, was in university and spoke better English than most of us. He certainly did not fit my expectations. His story was personal rather than any kind of advocacy and at the end someone asked how we might help. He took his time and closed with ‘do not be afraid of the other.’ Meeting a real person—who started out as ‘the other’—builds bridges.
It is ironic that the very concept of God can be so confusing and contradictory. On the one hand we have God’s righteous anger that punishes those who stray from his path and on the other we have a gracious God who forgives his people’s most egregious betrayals. Both images of God are well supported biblically. But notice, it is not God who is changing, it is our understanding of God that is shifting.
This is where reading the bible gets tricky. We usually lack the humility to acknowledge that as convicted as we are, our knowledge is always limited. We cannot know. When we face that fact, we face our own vulnerability and when we do that there is room for God and each other. We are all God’s children. He chooses to love us—even when we turn our backs.
Lean into God’s love. His promises are true and worthy of full acceptance. Let it be so.