The Wrath of God

Exodus 32:7-14

 

God is mad, very mad.  “Your people whom you brought out of … Egypt [Ex 32:7 JSB]”, meaning Moses people, has replaced God with a golden calf … and this after God had liberated the people from the Egyptians. God is so angry that God has denied the people. God in Exodus would normally refer to Israel as “My people” “whom I brought out of Egypt”.

God tells Moses to hurray off the mountain top and witness this act of betrayal and idolatry. Then in the very next verse God says, “… let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them … [Ex 32:10 JSB].”  God seems to have a second thought and said, “Don’t bother, Moses. I’m going to kill the whole lot of them.”

Here with great clarity we see a very angry and vengeful God. Something we do not find in the Gospels. Indeed, most of our dialogue with God is one of compassion and help and forgiveness. Where is the forgiving God in this verse? Where is the compassionate God who forgives us and tries to set us on the right path? Why isn’t God instructing Moses how to help the wayward people?

Such a cruel God these verses describe!

But in God’s defense, the people have broken faith with God. They were called to be patient while Moses communed with God to bring to them the Torah … their constitution, if you will, that would make them a nation. But they gave up on Moses and the unseeable God and made their own god.

They needed a god. They knew that. But they wanted a god they could control and that was predictable. But God, the invisible God was uncontrollable and certainly not predictable. So they made their own god – a god that they could see and touch.

But there are consequences to doing this: replacing the true God with a false god.

So maybe God is not angry at the people because they insulted God or dishonored God by abandoning God’s way. Maybe God’s angry feeling comes more from how a parent feels when one of their teenagers is wayward, even out of control.

If you have a teenager that is out all night and you don’t know what is going on you are going to worry. If you find that your teenager is running with a bad group and taking advice from them instead of yourself, you are very likely to be very angry to the point of wishing you never had the kid. Maybe this is where God is at … angry because God worries that the people are heading for a disaster. And God is worried about the consequences of where this is leading …

Sometimes we have an older, adult child who will calm us down and engage our teenager in some discussion. A teenage child may be more willing to talk to an older sibling than mom and dad.

In the second part of our reading, Moses plays this part. Moses cries to God, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt …[Ex 32:11 JSB]” Moses reminds God that the people are God’s people not Moses’ people. He alerts God to how God’s name would be disgraced if the Egyptians found out he had slaughter the very people he rescued. And God listened and left the people to Moses’ discipline.

In the passage that follows today’s Moses deals with the people … but not the way we would appreciate. Moses was a Levite and so he called the Levites together, made them to swear loyalty to God, and then to track down the instigators of the golden calf and execute them… not a very compassionate solution to the problem …

I wander that on second thought God regretted God’s own outburst and felt guilty that he had threaten to kill the people and that Moses at least partially carried it through.

But whether God repented of God’s own instigation of retribution or not, this story still remains unsatisfactory in light of the teachings of Jesus: Where is the forgiveness? Where is the compassion? Where is the hope?

 

I suggest that there is another way of looking at this story by not viewing God as anthropomorphic, but as the Spirit that holds all of creation together in a rhythm destined for goodness and compassion.

The description of what happened when the people cast an idol and worshipped it is a very visual and physical one. We can picture the golden calf and the people dancing, and Aaron, Moses brother and the priest, allowing it against his better judgment. We can even imagine God as a human – or at least human-like – who is very angry and stern. We could draw a picture or even make a movie of it. And for the ancients who were surrounded by images of gods, this would be an expected way of relating to God. With these images our senses from touch to sound to smell can tell us there is a god – just not the God of Moses.

But today in our age, we have learned about many invisible things that our senses cannot detect: radiation, distant stars, microbes and bacteria as just a few. We can however sense their consequences from radiation sickness to the cause of bread rising. We understand these in the framework of science with its orderliness and verification. And because of this modern knowledge we can consider part of reality – maybe even a major part of it – is unavailable directly to our senses.

So, we can step away from visual images and physical acts by God. I suggest that a more appropriate idea of God is that God is the intelligent, all-wise spirit that flows through all of the creation including the physical world. Our physical senses cannot detect God. But if we are believers and faithful we often discover that we have another sense, one that is not triggered by physical stimuli but by our faith: in some inarticulate way we sense that God is talking to us – not in English or Spanish or Hebrew or Greek, but in some manner that goes directly to our minds and souls. We then in-turn translate this spiritual sense into images which make sense to us and to which we can respond.

I suggest that God did indeed “speak” to Moses up on Mt. Sinai about the people succumbing to idolatry. I also suspect that God spoke that this decision of the people would lead them into self-destruction. But maybe Moses, being a person of his age, read anger in God’s remarks more than God’s concern for the survival of the people. Remember Moses spoke Hebrew. God did not. And I suspect we’ve all heard God and at times mistranslate.

Then Moses realized that ultimately he was the agent of God and reasoned what he had to do to prevent the self-destruction of the people. But his solution was not God’s. It was a solution born of his era and his capacity to cope with the people’s waywardness. So he came down off the mountain and called his tribe, the Levites, to clean house and restore Yahweh as the one true God.

And of course the result of Moses’ efforts sadden God. But Moses was constrained by his culture, his knowledge and the civilization’s maturity. The prophets had not yet risen to cry out for forgiveness and mercy. We in our age have the benefit of the wisdom of the prophets and the radical challenge of Jesus.

There is a raging illustration of this facing us this very moment. Have you been following the on-going destruction in Syria? There leader Assad is brutal. The latest “sin” is that he used sarin poison gas on civilians killing up to 300 men, women and children. Further, I read just this past Monday the rebels have overrun the Maaloula village, an ancient Christian village. They have promised not to harm the Christians, but given the make up of the rebels, only time will tell us if they truly will make the effort to protect a people who were aligned with Assad.

It’s a terrible civil war … a war of power and ancient bigotries. The nations bordering Syria also suffer with the onslaught of refugees as well as the spill over of violence. And further there are other nations fueling the civil war for their own political gain.  It’s a mess. And God is weeping over the destruction, displacement and death of so many of God’s children.

Some Americans feel that we must intervene. None, that I know of, have claimed that God is telling them to do this. The President wishes to punish Assad for the horrendous gassing of people … an act long banned by the nations of the world. He feels it primarily falls to us to enforce that treaty. He wishes to attack Syria with limited air strikes.

But other voices point out that once we attack there is no way to assure the war … now no longer just a civil war … will not expand to Israel and possibility Iran. But no one asked that for Assad’s sin of murdering 300 people, how many people is our government willing to kill? Is it right to kill even a single person to enforce a treaty? Is it right to kill one person because we think not punishing Assad, will encourage him and other’s to stop using such horrific weapons (as if “acceptable” weapons are not horrific)?

The governments, if not the people, have fallen into the idolatry of power superceding God. We believe that we have the right and the responsibility to enforce what we think is right even if the consequences are horrific. Once again life becomes cheap.

Moses could not step out of his culture and the expectations of it. He responded to God to end idolatry but in doing so he ordered the death of many. Likewise, our government has not yet transcend our culture and expectations to find a more compassionate and life-giving solution. Like Moses, we believe that what we do is righteous… because we do not have the courage to risk pursuing a plan that aligns with Jesus’ teachings of embracing all God’s people. We forget that vengeance is God’s, not ours. If we would remember that and leave it to God, we would understand, I believe, that God’s vengeance is really God crying out for all sides to take responsibility and seek God’s way … all the nations involve claim God as theirs and yet they do not listen to God …

But there is good news. Unlike Moses, our government is talking about joining with the Russians to pressure Assad to have international inspectors come in and begin the process of destroying the chemical weapons. If he allows this there will be no strike.

So now it appears that God’s cry just maybe is being heard by our government and hopefully others as they seek a non-violent and far more humane solution to this terrible event. They may not realize that they are listening to God, but God’s cry and voice comes through the concerns of the people here and abroad, and through our leaders own conscious.

God weeps angry tears just as a parent whose children may claim the parent but constantly ignores the parent or out and out disobey. We cannot wait for some other nation to be enlightened … if this nation wishes to be the world’s leader, then we must cease using the old, broken, failed fights (like Afghanistan and Iraq and Vietnam) and presént to the world a way of embracing the contenders without pre-judgment.. to do more than just talk, but to act to aid refugees, to be a honest neutral arbiter, to listen and listen, and never contribute to the violence and the destruction.

God truly speaks to us … but a lot of times God says what we don’t want to hear. But now is the time to listen and to follow God no matter how unexpected it is…

 

Think about it.

God’s grace and love be with you …

Amen.