The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Naomi Walters (see previous post for full explanation). -Sara
Naomi Walters lives in Princeton (NJ) with her husband, Jamey, and their seven-month-old son (Simon). She grew up in Syracuse (NY), graduated in 2007 from Rochester College (MI) with a Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies, and received her M.Div. from Abilene Christian University (TX) in 2010. She is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry from Lipscomb University (TN). Naomi is the assistant minister at the Stamford Church of Christ (CT), and she works as an adjunct professor of Bible for Abilene Christian University.
Naomi’s Introduction: One of my goals in this sermon was to reimagine more positively a story that is often heard and interpreted in a negative light. The sermon does not, exactly, escape the pattern of “Israel had idols, and so do we” that is so common in sermons on Exodus 32. This interpretation seemed inescapable; the reader of Exodus 32 is compelled to identify with the Israelites.
An interpretation in which the reader identifies with Aaron leads to a sermon about “leadership-gone-wrong,” which (as you will see) does not align with my reading of what was happening in the making of the Golden Calf (in which Israel and Aaron were genuine – although misguided – in their attempts to worship God). And an interpretation in which the reader identifies with Moses leads to a sermon about the power of intercessory prayer, which does not seem to be the intent of the text itself, but rather a modern concept forced onto the text.
So, if the reader is (if we are) identifying with Israel in this story, then the sermon must be about idolatry. But it was my hope – within that common and familiar framework – to expand the concept of idol-making to include something more universal: the idea that all language for God is, in a hyperbolic sense, idolatry because all speaking of God limits God. If this is the “focus” of the sermon (that, like Israel, we try to limit God), then the intended “function” is to inspire humility in our speech about a God who is (and ought to be) more “mysterious” than “known.”
Read the text of Exodus 32:1-18 here.
Israel’s request for an image of God is understandable. Their intentions are good. You may remember that life has not been particularly kind to Israel. They were enslaved in Egypt building supply cities for a tyrannical Pharaoh. This Pharaoh took a murderous turn and many of their sons were killed. Pharaoh’s (step)grandson Moses – who they hear is also a murderer, by the way – shows up to help them and says God will set them free, but this naturally makes Pharaoh angry and thus increases the misery of their enslavement. They put up with a number of plagues that, if they were sent by God, probably ought to have been limited to Egypt, don’t you think? After they finally did escape, Pharaoh tracked them down and they were on the run.
More recently, they have just been wandering through the wilderness, hungry and tired, thirsty and tired, sore and tired. It took a long time for the Israelites to trust Moses, but just as they do, he disappears up the mountain. He disappears, and he doesn’t come back. It has been a long journey for them from Egypt, and though they are supposedly heading for the Promised Land, lately they’ve just been stalling at the bottom of this mountain.
I imagine that Israel was feeling insecure, confused, lost, and abandoned. And they have good reason to fear abandonment as a possibility; God did leave them alone in Egypt for a few generations. But God has also been faithful to them – protecting their firstborn from the final plague, making a path through the sea on dry ground, providing manna and quail and water for sustenance, and pillars of fire and of cloud for guidance. And God provided Moses, their leader.
Yes, God has been faithful, and Israel is not ready to give up yet. But Moses has delayed in coming down from the mountain, and the pillars of fire and of cloud are nowhere to be seen. So they ask Aaron to make them an image of the god who brought them up out of Egypt, something tangible to remind them that they are not alone, despite how they may feel. Wouldn’t God want them to be reassured of God’s presence?
They even sacrifice their earrings made of Egyptian gold – the spoils of their escape – to make this image. As all good sacraments are, this image is costly. And they bring burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being, just like God commanded. Perhaps their worship gets a little out of control at the end; but who hasn’t gotten a little rowdy in praise every now and then?
Israel has had a rough time of it, and they are doing their best. They know that God is everywhere, but right now, they just need a God who is somewhere. Israel’s request for an image of God is understandable. Their intentions are good.
At least, that’s how it looks to me. But as the camera zooms out – no, that’s not quite right – as the film cuts scenes, abruptly shifting to the top of the mountain, we see that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it. I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” What Israel saw as a representation, God apparently sees as a replacement. God is angry, full of wrath, intent on destruction. This is the kind of language that makes me uncomfortable when it is used for God’s enemies, not to mention when it is used for God’s chosen children.
But we can see why God would be angry. God clearly commanded: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth (20:4)…You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. (20:23)” I suppose a calf is an image of something on the earth. And, unfortunately, it is made out of gold. The indictment is strong.
So strong that God does not want these people anymore. God says, “Moses, your people, whom you brought up out of the land Egypt, have acted perversely.” This is a sort of “parental hot potato” that some of us may be familiar with. “Jamey, your son needs a diaper change.” “Ben, your daughter has a 10-page paper due tomorrow and you need to take her to the library tonight.” God is done with Israel; God refuses ownership of them.
The irony, of course, is that the conversation we have walked in on up here on the mountain was God giving Moses instructions for building the tabernacle, a sanctuary in which God would dwell among the people. But there’s no point in giving further instructions about the tabernacle now, because Israel has broken the covenant.
Perhaps Israel did have good intentions, but God’s reaction reveals Israel’s attempts at representation for what they really are: an attempt to control God, to constrain God, to make concrete a God who is profoundly abstract. The sad irony is that Israel’s attempt to re-present God has ruined God’s plans to be actually present. As we look at the molten calf at the base of the mountain, we see a charred bush in the distance, and we are reminded that the glistening glow of a golden calf is no comparison to a bush on fire.
And in that glow of the golden calf, we also see ourselves. Don’t you feel a little stiff-necked? I know I do. Can’t you feel the strain in your neck from tilting your head to try to see God, way up there at the top of that mountain? I know I can. Like Israel, I feel like I have been on a long journey. Maybe you do too. Although there are times that we are led by a pillar of fire or of cloud, more often it seems like smoke and mirrors. Although there are times that we are sustained by manna and quail and water in the wilderness, wouldn’t it be nice to be out of the wilderness altogether? Although there are times that God makes a path through the sea on dry ground, more often it feels like we are barely treading water. Although there are times that we are certain we are on the move with the mission of God, more often we are sure that we are just stalling at the bottom of a mountain, wondering: Why is God so long in coming?
And what are we supposed to do in the meantime? Our necks are stiff, tired, and sore from straining to see God all the way up there. But we are not ready to give up yet so we proceed with something. We know that God is everywhere, but right now, we just need a God who is somewhere. So we heat up the oven and we look around, grasping for the nearest thing that we can melt down and reshape into some representation of God, something to sustain our congregations and perhaps to sustain us along the way. These images of God that we create with our words each Sunday might be a lot like the real thing. They might be close enough that we go to bed Saturday night thinking, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”
And sometimes, it is! But just like Israel’s festival, it is all too easy to start out well, with the burnt offerings and sacrifices of well being that God commanded, and somehow end up getting rowdy under a small golden statue. Because there is sense in which all our attempts to represent God are really attempts to control God, to constrain God, to make concrete a God who is profoundly abstract and radically free. There is a sense in which all language for God is idolatry – seeking a minimum of what God must be, or a maximum of what God can be.
But God defies all such attempts at minimum limits or maximum boundaries. In fact, God defies even the boundaries God puts on Godself. The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
This sounds familiar: And God saw that the earth was corrupt and said to Noah, “I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” Yes, this sounds familiar, so when God tells Moses he’s going to consume Israel, I’m thinking: Break out the gopherwood; it’s time to build a boat! But that’s not what happens.
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?…Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” And God changed God’s mind about the disaster that God planned to bring on God’s people.
The wrath of God in the face of our idolatry, our flawed attempts to represent God, our well-intentioned failures, are not the final word. This god is no unmoved mover, no statue, no molten image. This god is not a tyrannical Pharaoh, who would not even change his mind after all the plants, animals, and firstborn children were wiped out. This god can change his mind. This God defies even our need for God to be unchangeable. So every time we speak of this God, we run the risk of constructing an idol, of limiting the God who is profoundly abstract, radically free, and infinitely surprising.