Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14
Tell me, whose side are you standing on? I’m standing on the Lord’s side. Whose side are you standing on? Standing on the Lord’s side. I stand, I stand, I stand, I stand…
Growing up, I sang this song in Sunday school and in Vacation Bible School. Even now, after all of these years, it’s still in my memory bank. I’ve come to wonder, however, about the worldview advocated by these words (as I have for many of the songs I sang, including “I’m in the Lord’s army, yessir!”).
Ours is a culture of taking sides, and regardless of the context, we’re constantly being challenged to take a stand. Are you on God’s side or not? Are you for or against the war in Iraq? Are you for Obama or McCain? Are you for or against capital punishment? The assumption behind every challenge is that there IS a right side–God’s side. Today’s reading from Exodus gives us pause to reevaluate the idea of being on God’s side and even what it means to be on God’s side.
Exodus 32 has two different scenes playing out simultaneously: in one, Moses is at the top of Mount Sinai where he is just about to conclude a period of forty days and forty nights which he has spent receiving instructions from God; and in the other, the Israelites are at the base of the mountain becoming restless, having begun to doubt that Moses will ever return.
The reading opens with the Israelites asking Aaron to make gods for them–visible, tangible figures that will lead them through the desert. Aaron, somewhat surprisingly, complies with this request. The people hand over all of their gold jewelry to Aaron who uses it to cast a golden calf. The people seem to be satisfied with this, and they begin celebrating early the next day.
In the scene on top of the mountain, God abruptly tells Moses to “go down at once,” indicating that the people have really messed up. In describing the actions of the Israelites at the base camp, God states that the Israelites “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 worshipped it and sacrificed to it”. After this litany of offenses, God then outlines God’s plans to destroy the people and start all over again, fresh, with Moses.
The stage has been set for the defining moment in Moses’ life and career. Should he choose God’s side and become the founder of a new, improved, nation or should he side with the Israelites? It hardly seems to be a difficult decision; after all, Moses hasn’t done anything wrong. He has done what God has asked, leading the people out of slavery, helping to establish a new covenant in the wilderness–enough for any successful career. The people, on the other hand, haven’t fared as well. God’s thunder and Moses’ voice is still echoing in their ears and they turn to Aaron to request new gods. Whose side are you standing on, Moses?
Astonishingly, Moses sides with the people. In the remainder of the passage, Moses mounts a case before God to save the Israelites, regardless of what they’ve done. “O Lord,” he says, “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?” The reason for God’s anger is clear to Moses. The people are worshiping idols and have apparently turned their back on God. In this rhetorical question, however, Moses makes an altogether different point: the people of Israel are not his people but God’s people. It was not Moses but God who brought them up out of Egypt. Moses is not going to let God off the hook easily here, allowing God to shove God’s chosen people aside the first time they get into trouble.
Now that Moses has refocused the conversation to examine God’s role rather than the people’s sin, he becomes even bolder, asking, “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?'” In other words, “Think about your international reputation, God. After seeing your ingenious Red Sea escape route, do you want the Egyptians to say you’re crazy?”
After making two excellent points, Moses reaches the pinnacle of his argument and does the unthinkable. He makes demands of God! He tells God to:
- turn from his anger.
- repent or change his mind about destroying the Israelites.
- remember the promise he made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel (“I will multiply your descendents like the stars of heaven, and all this land… they shall inherit it forever”).
Moses meets God head-to-head in this confrontation, putting everything on the line for the people at the base of the mountain. He reminds God of the promises that God has made, and challenges God to keep his word.
Even more remarkable than Moses’ taking a stance for the people, even to the point of making demands of God, is that God listens! In Exodus 32:14 we learn that “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” Only then did Moses turn and go down from the mountain.
Moses’ radical advocacy for the Israelites, his taking their side, is depicted positively by the biblical narrator. He has done the right thing. At the end of Deuteronomy, in a summing up of Moses’ life and career, we learn that “never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” This text provides some powerful guidelines for taking sides with the people, especially those who have no other defenders. God can take care of himself.