Exodus 32:15-35: Moses Gets Hot
In the last passage we studied Yahweh's nose was burning hot. This time it is Moses' turn to have a hot nose. Our text is Exodus 32:15-35. You may recall, Yahweh had just finished giving Moses all the instructions for the tabernacle and it was time for Moses to deliver them to the people. Yahweh had also engraved the Ten Words on two stone tablets and given them to Moses for placement in the chest in the tabernacle. As Yahweh and Moses ended their forty day communion, Yahweh looked down the mountain and saw that the Israelites had grown treacherously weary of waiting for Moses. They had replaced Moses with a golden calf, and more, they were worshiping before this calf as if it were an image of Yahweh. Yahweh is filled with anger, for the people have broken the second commandment. In their rejection of Moses and their construction of the calf the people have "reduced" Yahweh to a power to be controlled and harnessed for their own ends. Yahweh's nose burned hot with rage. He informed Moses of what had happened and that He was determined to bring an end to this stiff-necked people.
Moses could not yet see what had happened. He attempted to calm the face of Yahweh. Amazingly he succeeded, at least for the moment, and Yahweh relented from the disaster He had intended to inflict. Now Moses headed down the mountain with the tablets of the Testimony in hand, apparently thinking there was still a covenant relationship intact.
As Moses and Joshua made their way down the mountain towards camp Israel, they heard singing. When Moses saw what all the singing was about he went into a hot-nosed rage! Hit with the stark realization that Israel had made a mockery of the Yahweh covenant, he threw down the two tablets shattering them to pieces. (Moses was the first person to break all ten commandments at once!) The covenant was decimated.
Moses acted swiftly. He destroyed the golden calf image immediately, burnt it, ground it into powder, spread it upon water, and then forced the people to drink it.
Next, Moses called Aaron to account: "What did these people do to you, that you led them into such a great sin?!?" Aaron was exceedingly crafty in his answer, an excellent spin-doctor by any standard. He first told Moses not to be so hot-nosed, implying that it was not that big of a deal. "Moses, you're over-reacting." Aaron then shifted the blame onto the people: "You know how prone these people are to evil." In other words, "What did you expect from these folks, Moses? You know how bad they are."
Still sensing that Moses hadn't bought his innocence, Aaron pulled a very shrewd move. He quoted the people, "Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him." Read between the lines. Aaron was saying, "Moses, it's your own fault. If you didn't want this to happen, you should have been here. You stayed too long on the mountain. You are to blame for this." Thus, Aaron painted himself as one having to solve a problem that Moses was responsible for creating with his long absence. Aaron's final move to escape responsibility was humorous. Whereas we are told in 32:4 that Aaron had fashioned the gold into the image of a calf by using a tool, Aaron made the claim that he threw the gold "into the fire and out came this calf." "I had nothing to do with it, Moses, really. It just happened."
Aaron, in his effort to be a good priest and keep the people happy, had done what Christian priests are always tempted to do: Take an offering and make God a little smaller and a little easier to follow/control in order to satisfy the people. I can hear the slave owners of a century and a half ago: "Aaron, make us a Jesus that will allow us to keep our slaves. As for this crucified one, we don't know what happened to him." I can hear revolutionaries crying out, "Aaron, make us a Jesus that will allow us to use whatever means necessary to take over the power positions of society, to dominate those who have dominated us. As for this crucified one, we don't know what happened to him." I can hear the financially insecure begging, "Aaron, make us a Jesus that will guarantee us prosperity, a Jesus that will out-give us ten to one. As for this crucified one, we don't know what happened to him." I can hear those with status demanding of Aaron, "Make us a Jesus that will legitimate our place and see to it that our privileges are protected. As for this crucified one, we don't know what happened to him." And I can hear ecclesiastical bureaucrats pleading, "Aaron, make us a Jesus that will insure the growth and success of our churches, a Jesus that will sell, a Jesus that means large numbers in both the plate and the pew. As for this crucified one, we don't know what happened to him."
What kind of Jesus are you asking Aaron to make? It seems to me that there is a strong tendency among all peoples of all times to ask for a golden Jesus rather than a crucified Jesus. Golden Jesuses are a little easier to follow, a little more controllable, and not so demanding. Nobody wants to get rid of Jesus. Nobody wants to be unhooked from the one with resurrection power. Nobody wants to cast off the giver of abundant life. Like the Israelites not wanting to lose Yahweh power, we don't want to lose Jesus power. We, like they, would just like to tame this Power, domesticate it and put it to reasonable use (which really means personal, self-interested use). The problem is, as Yahweh's burning nose makes so clear, Yahweh/Jesus cannot be tamed and harnessed for personal ends.
Having gotten nowhere with Aaron and seeing the people still running wild, Moses determined to stop the party. He stood at the entrance to the camp shouting, "Whoever is for Yahweh, come to me!" The tribe of Levi gathered around him and Moses laid upon them the highest test of loyalty: "Thus says Yahweh, put on your sword and go through the camp slaying your brothers, friends, and neighbors." After 3000 men had been slain, the party finally stopped.
I can't help but wonder how close Moses came here to breaking the third commandment, "You shall not take the Name of Yahweh in vain, you shall not use it for your own purposes, you shall not underwrite your own agendas with Yahweh's Name." Moses had just been on the mountain talking with Yahweh and I never heard Yahweh tell him to get a group of men to go through the camp slashing folks to death. Yes, Yahweh had wanted to destroy, but He never told Moses to execute His anger. In fact, Moses had talked Yahweh into a cooling off period. And now Moses, enraged himself, asserted "Thus says Yahweh, take the sword to your family and friends." When did Yahweh tell Moses this? Or is Moses acting on his own initiative and using Yahweh's name in support of his outburst?
Given that I like Moses, this is not a question I like. But I couldn't keep it out of my mind, so I thought I would ask it. The text at no place calls Moses into question for this course of action. Yahweh never reprimands Moses for his call to arms. Thus, we proceed on the assumption that Moses was carrying out the will of Yahweh. The question, nonetheless, is a good reminder that in our zeal we had better make sure that we know Yahweh's mind and are not merely underwriting our own initiatives with Yahweh's name.
The Levites were pronounced blessed because "you were against your own sons and brothers." I am reminded of Jesus' call to discipleship in Luke 14:26, "If anyone come to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, even his own life - he cannot be my disciple." Yahweh is not to be used. Rather, covenant discipleship includes the highest demands imaginable.
The deathly loyal action of the Levites stopped the party, but it did not fix the shattered covenant. The next day Moses addressed the people, "You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to Yahweh; perhaps I can cover for your sin." Moses went back up the mountain to meet with Yahweh.
"Oh Yahweh, what a great sin these people have sinned! They have made themselves gods of gold."
"Tell me something I don't know, Moses."
"But now Yahweh, please forgive their sin - but if not, then blot me out of your book."
Notice that Moses was trying to use his relationship with Yahweh to leverage Yahweh into forgiveness. It didn't work.
"Moses, whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book."
Moses could not cover for the sins of the people. What's done is done. Moses could not make it go away. Neither could the people undo what they had done. The only one who can cover the sin is the one that has been sinned against. More, Yahweh cannot be forced or leveraged into offering forgiveness. For forgiveness to be forgiveness, it must come from Yahweh's heart, from Yahweh's own free volition. Is Yahweh going to forgive? At this point we still don't know. The relationship is hanging in the balance.
"Now go, lead the people (not My people, just the people) to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin."
A whisper of hope that just maybe there would be forgiveness. But it was a very faint whisper. Maybe Yahweh would let the people live and even have a messenger guide them into the Promised Land. But what would the relationship be like? Would it be a covenant relationship, or just a relationship of co-existence? Would Israel ever be "My people" again?
"And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made."
That's where our text ends for now. Plague. Israel must feel the pain of Yahweh, the heat of Yahweh's nose. There was no forgiveness. It was still too soon. Imagine discovering that your spouse only married you as a means to an end. You have been reduced from a covenant partner to a manageable resource. The wound is deep. The rage is strong. Quick, automatic forgiveness? No such thing. Can the counselor coax you into forgiveness? Not a chance, not if it is going to be genuine. No, that forgiveness will have to come, if it comes, from deep within your own heart. And thus we wait to discover what lies deep within the heart of Yahweh.
Again, it would be easy, too easy, to jump to the New Testament and Jesus as the atonement for our sins. To make that move would be true enough, but to make it so quickly would distort the nature of forgiveness and shrink both Israel's sin and Yahweh's heart. The sin of reduction is huge. Only a huge forgiveness can cover it. Does Yahweh have a huge enough heart to re-covenant with Israel? So far, there is only a whisper of hope. Possibly, just maybe, plague is not the last word.
But we don't know, not yet. We have to wait amid hushed tones of hope to see what's in the heart of Yahweh. As a New Testament people it is an awkward place for us to be. But if we are to know Yahweh's heart, if we are to know the heart that Christ reveals, that's where we must be for now: the not-yet-forgiven side of forgiveness.
Hope the whisper is true.