The Wild Places Bible Guide – 8
March 20, 2019
Wednesday, March 20
32 The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.”
2 Aaron said to them, “All right, take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He collected them and tied them up in a cloth. Then he made a metal image of a bull calf, and the people declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Then Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!” 6 They got up early the next day and offered up entirely burned offerings and brought well-being sacrifices. The people sat down to eat and drink and then got up to celebrate.
7 The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry up and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything!8 They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. They have made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and declared, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen how stubborn they are.10 Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you.”
11 But Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, “Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and amazing force? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He had an evil plan to take the people out and kill them in the mountains and so wipe them off the earth’? Calm down your fierce anger. Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, whom you yourself promised, ‘I’ll make your descendants as many as the stars in the sky. And I’ve promised to give your descendants this whole land to possess for all time.’” 14 Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.
Points of Interest
- Just after we read of the commandment to not trade in the living, passionate god for dead, controllable idols, people do just that.
Why the move to idol making when Moses has been missing? We get hints of fear, abandonment, loneliness, stress, and boredom – the conditions both then and now in which individuals and communities easily lose our path.
- The people want “gods who can lead us” and Aaron, their priest, makes a golden bull calf. This might represent the Egyptian calf idol Apis, associated with royal divinity. It might also be a nod to the region’s fertility gods – the need for harvests and children and the fear of drought or infertility being the great anxiety of ancient agricultural societies in arid areas. Perhaps it’s good for humans to reach for the living God in these anxieties, rather than avoid our fears through idols.
- Lest we put too much of a distance between our own times and these ancient religious practices, remember that the United States has our own actual golden bull idol – the popular New York City tourist attraction whose virility now represents wealth and fortune – the longing for abundance and the fear of scarcity being one of the great anxieties of our age. Perhaps it’s good for humans to reach for the living God in these anxieties, rather than avoid our fears through busy industry.
- In last week’s passages, Moses was regularly stressed and fed up with people, while God was a calming and loving presence. Here Moses and God switch places – God is fed up and Moses calmly asks God to stay the course in steady, faithful love.
This passage reminds me that the God of the Bible, and the God Jesus embodied is not the unmoved mover of Greek philosophy, but a personal and passionate God, one who can experience weariness and frustration, as we do.
- This passage also reminds me that humans can affect God. God has chosen to be connected to our story; prayer and love and human action move the heart of God. At Mount Sinai, out in the wilderness, God has some things to say to the people. The wild places, as it turns out, are a great time for re-centering, re-calibrating our life course. But first, a reminder of just who’s talking to them – the god who brought them out of slavery. It would be easy to hear this as a guilt trip, but I think it’s meant to clarify what’s going on here. God’s reminding them that the purpose of this whole journey through the wild places, and whatever spiritual or ethical journey these commandments take them on, is liberation.
- There’s been centuries of debate about what to do today with these ancient commandments. Some people want them on the walls of public buildings, while others think they’re utterly irrelevant for modern life. I receive them as my own faith tradition’s oldest, most central ethical teaching, guideposts for living that promise more liberation.
- The commandment against idol-making is tied to God’s passion. Idols – physical representations of unseen gods, be they religious statues or any other objects of devotion and control – are nothing if not dispassionate. God is clear that God is more alive than that – passionate in consequence perhaps but far more passionate in loyalty and love. God wants to be related to as a Person, not an object or idea.
- The command to regular rest is liberating – there is more to life than work! It is also hospitable – it is for the immigrants, it’s even for the animals. Worth keeping in mind when we consider that the lowest pay and lowest status jobs in our own economy tend don’t have paid vacation times and often involve long or inconvenient hours and holding down two or more jobs to make ends meet!
Honor of parents is for liberation too – it’s for long, flourishing life in community.
- Letting your neighbor enjoy their own life feels particularly liberating as well. Our consumer economy is predicated on wanting stuff and experiences that we think other people have. That wears me out and troubles me, whereas wanting and consuming less (in those rare moments I take this to heart!) brings me freedom and peace.
- After all the words, the only thing the people pick up on is the fearsome smoke and noise. They witness an important moment in ethical and religious history while slowly backing away, telling Moses – catch us up later on whatever we missed.
- If these commands are meant to be helpful – guideposts toward the good life – than sin is the word in this text for the life that loses course. Moses doesn’t want people running from God in fear, but in a relationship of awe that will keep them focused and inspired on the liberated way forward.
A Direction for Prayer
If it feels authentic to you, confess to God our city or our country’s idolatry – the things we do to distract ourselves from our fears and try to assert control where we are vulnerable. Our obsession with wealth and consumption might be a place to start. Ask God to patiently lead us all to a path of healthier vulnerability and a trust in the Spirit of God to care for us.
Spiritual Exercise of the Week
Encounter and Discovery in Nature – This week, each day if you are able, spend a few minutes of quiet in a natural environment. This could be a patch of woods, a park, or even leaning against a single tree. Be creative with what’s available, or try a single, longer trip at one point during the week. (The ocean of Revere Beach, Boston Harbor, or the beaches of Dorchester Bay, and the woods of the Arnold Arboretum, Franklin Park, and more are all available via public transportation.) Quiet your body and mind for a few minutes, and see what you notice or discover. Is there any way you differently encounter yourself, your life, your world, or God in this setting? Is there any perspective you take in?