The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they 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 and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” 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.”
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? 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. 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.’ ” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
The Lord changed his mind? Can you think of a more baffling sentence in all of scripture? The one for whom there is no shadow of change, the prime mover who set all the stars in their courses, this God… Changed their divine mind? This sort of thing is hard to square with a God who knows everything and who holds all of time and space in hand. The idea of God, sitting in eternity, coming down and being swayed by a conversation with one of his servants, is probably one of the stranger things we could come across in the pages of scripture.
Yet, here it is, in the black and white of the page, a fire of inspiration for us to gaze into and find some kind of illumination. In the face of the bizarre, I ask us to do what I so often do on a Sunday, ask some questions and be content in not having quite a complete answer. I’ll go ahead and spoil the end of this message by saying that we are not going to be able to have a coherent statement on what God has done in this passage, but we will have an example of how we should act in Moses and his own fiery words spoken in the very presence of, face to face to, God.
This episode is the culmination of Israel’s time at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses has been gone for days, raptly attending to God’s every word and movement. Glory sits on the mountain and the people speculate what will happen now that Moses is gone. He has not come down to eat or drink, they have nothing to say he has found any rest on the mountain. The people conclude then that Moses is dead, or at the very least not coming down anytime soon. With the prophet who has been the voice of God to them gone, they begin to panic, they need something to comfort them. Aaron, trying to lead in his brother’s place, placates the people with the creation of a brazen creature. Gold hastily thrown into a fire and beaten into a facsimile of a calf.
The calf, and more specifically bulls, would be used to describe the God of Israel several times throughout the history of God’s people. Most famously, the words of Aaron as he consecrated the golden calf to Israel is reflected by Jeroboam centuries later. When the king sets up two bull statues to take the place of the temple in Jerusalem, saying, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Adonai, the great bull, was an enduring image in the eyes of God’s people, and in their plight under the mountain they called upon it. Even in the presence of God’s being, the physical heat of Glory radiating down from the mountain, they felt a need for something immediate, something they could touch and comprehend. They exchanged the full presence of God for a lesser image of the same.
God did not let this go unnoticed, and told Moses the moment the people had fallen away. God commands Moses to leave him, so that he can begin the work of wrath without anyone present to see the terror to come. God is angry, and that anger is not going to be stopped for anything. The crackle of energy must have been intense, but even in the face of all that rage, Moses stood up and told God, “No. You are not going to destroy these people.”
As shocking as it can seem to us today to talk back to God, the prophets never had much problem with it. Moses especially seemed to be able to speak frankly to God in a way few others could. Moses here lays out a clear explanation to God – whether people deserve to be killed here or not, whether your wrath is justified or not, this is not the kind of God you are. The God who promised the descendants of Abraham so much, that comforted Isaac after his binding on the mountain, who walked Jacob to Egypt under the reign of his son Joseph, that same God would not abandon the people he loved. And imagine what the Egyptians might say?!
The rush of emotion was intense on that mountain. Though the text is sparse, I borrow from Elijah’s meeting with God to imagine the fire and earthquakes and thunder that accompanied God’s presence. To imagine that presence in the midst of a moment like this – it could only be amplified. The waves of splendor that emanated from God rushing all around, and yet a resolute servant stands firm before God and attests that this is not how God has acted before, and it should not be how God acts now. That fire, that crackling lightning and rushing wind… All begins to die down, leaving only the still small voice of God behind with Moses.
This is an incredible show of commitment by God. To yield in anger and preserve those he has called to be a part of his nation, his people. That does not mean they get off with a free pass. The sins committed that day do not go unpunished, there are immediate consequences from Moses and from God. Worse, the people never fully recover from this breach of covenant. Still, God does not abandon the promise made in ages past, God holds fast, God shows that God is still willing to live and work and love alongside God’s people.
Divine punishment, and Divine mercy, is a whole conversation unto itself, and we have spent a long time looking into the details of even just this one situation. It is high drama, and it shows God being calmed, changing the divine mind, at the urging of one of God’s own. That is a lot to take in. As I said at the outset of this message, we cannot fully explore how God can change direction, but we must acknowledge that it happens here. God ends up conforming more to what we expect of God by relenting, so maybe the change is not as drastic as it first appears. Maybe our ancient author is explaining something beyond our grasp in terms we can cling to. Either way, the mystery of divine freedom is there to behold, and we will end our time together with it still unresolved.
Rather than trying to explain what is ultimately mysterious, let us look at the person we can understand a bit more fully. Moses, standing before the divine and not backing down. I already said that this seems impossible for us to do. Honestly, I’m not sure any of us will ever find ourselves in the position that Moses is in. I have not led people through a wilderness, compelled by my God and witnessing that same God’s presence like I would a friend. Yet, I have been in situations where I have had the chance to defend people or to let other people go after them. I’ve been in situations where people deserve to have someone go after them, and situations where it is completely unwarranted. Have I ever been able to stand up for them like Moses does here?
Moses looks at the sin of his people and immediately decides that God is right to be angry, but asks for God to reconsider what that anger means. Moses arbitrates for God’s people. Have we arbitrated for our neighbors in disputes? Have we, when a family member is berating another one, taken up for them? Not to wade into the middle of a fight that isn’t ours or to create a conflict triangle that doesn’t need to be there, but simply to say, “Hey! This is not how we do things!” Conflict, that thing which we fear so intensely, is going to happen, but are we willing to be people who speak to it as it ought to be.
God relents, not because Moses denied wrongdoing by his people, but because he knew that there was something else that could be done. God sees in Moses’s refutation, a reflection of God’s own soul. The truest thing to God in that moment is to relent, we see for a moment a reflection of our own tendencies to rush to an answer, only to find a better one after sitting and reflecting for a moment longer. Moses had everything to lose in that moment, but his love for God and God’s people was enough for him to stand up and defend them. Is our love great enough to do the same? For our coworkers, for our neighbors, for the enemies we cannot stand, and the inconveniences we try to wish away. Is our love great enough to quell wrath? Let us, like Moses, be unafraid to test it out. – Amen.
 Ex. 32:4 cf. 1 Kings 12:28