Exodus 32: 7-14
11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
The Israelites had just broken God’s first and most important commandment— I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. The people lost their center. They forgot who provided their new found freedom. Lost in the wilderness and with Moses unavailable, the people needed a god—so they made one of their own, the Golden calf. They, however, are not the only people to look for short term relief when anxious, tired and afraid.
It is hard to live in the wilderness whether that be at the base of Mt Horeb or trying to figure out what we should do next in the time of Covid. A couple of weeks ago I saw a posting of Facebook saying: “It is terrifying to realize that in 15-20 years, increasing numbers of voters will have been home schooled by day drinkers”. Most of us don’t know how to deal with our own sense of ‘people deprivation’ much less how to shepherd a child through the predicament. The Israelites wanted relief. They wanted clear direction. They wanted a plan. The concept of tolerating our fears and uncertainties and relying upon God is just as difficult for most of us as it was for the Israelites.
In any case, God was not happy. In fact, he was enraged and was ready to annihilate the very people he had brought into being. Not only is God portrayed as angry and vindictive, God is also depicted as vain and manipulable. What will the Egyptians think? (Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’?”) That sounds more like the appeal of an embarrassed spouse when their partner starts getting loud in an argument. (“Keep your voice down, what will the neighbors think.”) In real life, I don’t know anyone who would think God cared about what the Egyptians might think. Yet, here we have it in the scriptures.
This image of God is very ungodly. God is portrayed in a decidedly human way—and that should not surprise us. When we read the Bible, it is easy to forget that there is an evolving understanding of God in the biblical record. This process is not so different for us in our personal faith journeys. Confronted with the mystery of God, we can only use words we know to describe what we do not know. We start out with our own experience of the world when we seek to describe it. As we encounter others and have more experiences, hopefully we grow.
I use a simple example in therapy when I tell people that if you live in a house that makes pancakes every morning and then stack them in the closet—when you meet someone who eats pancakes, you will probably think they are a bit crazy. We can only start with what we know. Only later do we learn that there is more than what we know. Sorting out human projections and the mystery of deity is a never ending task of discernment. Over and over again, God does the unexpected and reminds us that our understanding needs to be corrected.
In this passage, the writer of Exodus starts with an understanding of God that fits human expectation. God has every right to be angry. God is expected to punish wrongdoers. God uses threats of punishment and abandonment to express displeasure. All of which are pretty ordinary to the human ear. The pancakes are stacking neatly in the closet. But as the story progresses, something unexpected happens. Moses reminds God of who he is and what she has promised. God may have a hundred other different attributes but God’s center is God’s steadfast love. However this recognition occurs, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” Instead of the wrath the Israelites deserved, God continues to walk with her ‘stiff necked people’ in the wilderness. That is a very different God than the one Israelites would have ever expected.
In real life, if you are going to love, you’d better be able to change your mind. Your first reaction is often not the best. Everyone one of us has had times when ‘we lost it’. Perhaps you have been betrayed in a relationship, perhaps a child flat out defied you, perhaps you’ve felt dismissed or ridiculed or perhaps you’ve been a political ‘discussion’ in which neither logic nor respectful engagement was possible. These, and a thousand more, are the times we must remember who we are and what we stand for. In such situations, we need to be reminded. It is not okay to bully people into ‘respect’. Coercion and love can not exist in the same space. If we are going to claim that God is a God of love, we must use loving means. Two quick examples to make this point. In the first (https://learningenglish.
So I (Andrew) said, “You (his wife) point the gun at him, and then I can reason with him as a brother, because if he takes me out, you take him out,” and she said, “I’m not going to do that.” I said, “What do you mean? What’s — what are you going to do?” She said, “I’m not going to point a gun at a human being.” I said, “That’s not a human being. That’s the Ku Klux Klan.” She said, “Look, don’t you forget it. Under that sheet is the heart of a child of God.” And my idea was, “Damn, woman.”
You know, what kind of woman did I marry? And she said, “No. We’re not going to point guns at — we’re not — ” she said, “If you don’t believe in what you preach, we need to quit now.”
Jean, Andrew’s wife, called him back to his center. The all too ‘natural’ reaction is ‘if they are going to threaten me, I’m going to threaten them.’ And if he went by secular wisdom,, the smart move would have been to have a machine gun rather than a rifle covering him. Superior fire power makes a lot more sense—it’s just not Christian. Very few of us could have done likewise but God set the direction to reconciliation even when we cannot actually do it.
On a much more day to day level, I asked the FIRL groups about times they needed to be reminded what they believed. What did they do when they lost it? The examples mostly centered around parenting. When fatigue, a bad day, a little too much wine or indignation take over our lives, it is really tough to deal with conflict of any kind. One mother sought a mediator, another talked about ‘tag teaming’ with her husband, another disengaged until she could calm down. (My best friend says, ‘Sometimes it gets so bad I have to send myself to my room.”) Another simply counted to ten.
We have made promises to love one another—our children, our partners, our friends and even our enemies. The writer of Exodus suggests and expects that God will act like we act when betrayed—God will be filled with consuming anger. But, God does something new.. God forgives. God is not simply a projection of human behavior. We believe in a God whose core is love, who keeps his promises even in the face of the most outrageous disobedience. That is the God we hold at our center. It is the path to life and reconciliation. Though we will often fail—thankfully, we do not get what we deserve.
We need to be reminded that God’s love far exceeds what we would imagine and certainly more that we deserve. Let it be so.