Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14
The people’s idolatry in Exodus 32:1-14 is difficult to read just a week after the lectionary’s had us reading Ex 20, in which God makes a covenant with the people of Israel and gives them the Decalogue to serve as the heart of that covenant.
The Ten Commandments established a powerful ethical bond between the people and their God and between the members of the community. And the basis for their bond was God’s redemption of them from slavery: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery … ” (20:2).
Between the dramatic creation of the covenant in chapters 19-24 and the breaking of the covenant here in chapter 32, God gives Moses guidelines for the production of the tabernacle, the tent in which God “may dwell among them” (25:8b), a powerful promise of presence and protection. There is so much that is exciting and hopeful in these chapters, which makes the events of Ex 32:1-15 surprising as well as terribly sad.
The plot is well-known. Moses is on Mt. Sinai with God where he remains for forty days. The people turn to his brother, Aaron, and, speaking derisively of Moses, demand that he make them gods: “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (32:1). Missing from this speech is any mention of God or of the covenant. God’s absence grows even more striking in their response to the golden calf: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (v. 4b) Thus, Moses is dismissed as “this Moses,” and the people’s history and covenant with God is cast aside to make room for a statue.
The wording of the people’s pronouncement about their newly minted god(s) makes use of phrasing very familiar to any reader of Exodus, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” but with one striking difference: the use of the word “gods,” which underscores the disloyalty in their actions and speech. These gods had nothing to do with their miraculous escape from Egypt. Indeed, even Moses is not the one who brought them out of Egypt, although he is the one they credit for that act in v. 1. YHWH is not mentioned by the people, signaling that they have betrayed their god and broken the covenant even before the objects that symbolize it — the divinely inscribed tablets of the Decalogue — make their way down the mountain.1
The ending one might expect to this narrative is one in which the people’s rejection is matched by divine rejection. That almost happens, except for the intercession of Moses, who reminds God of the promises to the people’s ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v. 13) — and even appeals to the public image of YHWH: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent the he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?’” (v. 12a) The speech is successful. Where God spoke of destroying “this people” in v. 9 — reflecting the alienation and distance between them — in v. 14, the text reads: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (emphasis mine). The possessive pronoun before “people” serves to connote the renewal of YHWH’s sense of connection with the people, although the actual renewal of the covenant does not take place immediately, and there is a period of time in which God’s presence with the people is at some distance from the actual camp, much to the people’s and Moses’ dismay (see especially 33:12-17).
The fact that the people’s rejection of YHWH and the covenant is not the end of the story is a testimony to the ancient Israelites’ experience of the grace of God. When we read 32:1-15 as part of the larger unit of Ex 32-34, we see that the narrative affirms that grace is central to the character of YHWH. The lectionary, limited to 32:1-15, focuses on the initial sin of the people, and then Moses’ negotiations with God to save their lives. Beyond these fourteen verses, we read of Moses’ reaction to the people’s sin (vv. 15-34) and then of the terrible alienation between the people and God (32:35-33:6), followed by moments of profound intimacy between Moses and God (33:7-34:9). The final scene describes the renewal of the covenant (34:10-28), a scene which includes God’s inscription of the commandments on a second pair of tablets. As the people experience the consequences of their actions, they find that rejection, alienation — in short, sin — do not get the last word due to the tenacious leadership of Moses and the willingness of YHWH to reconsider the initial impulse to destroy the people for apostasy.
There are many avenues a preacher might travel in preaching this text. The wonder of God’s willingness to forgive is a theme that bears repeating from the pulpit. I am struck, however, by the role of Moses in this narrative, especially his insight into the character of God, demonstrated in the words of his speech. In vv. 11-13, he speaks to God of the divine promises to the ancestors of the people, thus implicitly urging God to be faithful to those promises. He also speaks of the terrible waste represented in bringing the people out of Egypt just to destroy them. Granted, he puts it in terms of being bad public relations, but I think it is clear that Moses is reminding God of the tremendous investment God has made in saving the people. Thus, Moses serves to remind YHWH of God’s own character, a character spelled out in 34:6-7: “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness … ” It strikes me that the role of Moses in this reading serves as a model for the Church: to bear witness to God’s faithful compassion and to urge others to seek reconciliation with God and each other.
1 Aaron does speak of YHWH when he declares that the following day there will be a festival to YHWH in v. 5. It is clear however, that he is associating YHWH with the golden calf he has created. Betrayal and confusion abound.