The first reading for today is an odd one in some respects even as the events around it are infamous and memorable. Moses is atop Mt Sinai with God. Meanwhile the people of Israel, just freed from the slavery of Egypt are worshiping the golden calf. It is worth noting that the story of the golden calf is a kind of “fall” story, similar to “the Fall” in the Garden of Eden. In both stories, immediately after the establishment of a relationship between God and humanity, human beings disobey. In the case of Exodus 32, God forms Israel as a new creation and they immediately fall into sin. What is God to do? How is God to be just to God’s self and be faithful to God’s people. In the years of teaching Scripture to folks in the parish, this passage never fails to raise the question about God’s wrath, God’s intent, Moses role, and bargaining with God
In today’s reading, the sin is pretty straight up rebellion against God. And God calls Moses onto the carpet. “Then the LORD said to Moses: Go down at once because your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted corruptly.” (ex 32:7) [emphasis added] It almost sounds as though one parent is saying, “Look what your child has done.”
The Lord’s initial reaction to the people’s idolatry is to pronounce judgment on them: “…Let me alone, then, that my anger may burn against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation. ’” (Ex 32:10). At first glance, it seems a little harsh, but perhaps needs some reconsideration in the light of context and story.
This sin of idolatry comes after God has freed the people from slavery in Egypt with “signs and wonders” (Exodus 7:3). They have seen with their own eyes the deliverance of the Lord. They have passed through the waters of the Red Sea on dry ground. They have heard the voice of God from the mountaintop and have been chosen as God’s “treasured possession” out of all the nations on earth—called to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). And they have received the Ten Commandments, the first one of which is, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).
And now, because Moses takes too long on the mountaintop, they immediately break the first commandment: “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you* up from the land of Egypt!” say the people (Exodus 32:4), and God echoes their words bitterly to Moses (32:8). God will start over with Moses since the people have failed so miserably at being God’s people.
The text gives us some clues, however, that the destruction of the people is not actually God’s desire. “Let me alone then” says God. It is a curious expression. It is as if Moses has some say in the matter. It is as if God is calling on Moses to play some part in this conversation so that it may result in a different outcome than destruction.
Moses does have a role to play in this situation. Moses is a prophet. In fact, if we take Deuteronomy as our guide, Moses is the prophet – Deuteronomy 34:10. And what does a prophet do? A prophet speaks for God to the people and speaks for the people to God. In this latter role, the prophet is often the one who “stands in the breach” between God and the people. In Ezekiel 22, God pronounces judgment on princes, priests, prophets, and people because of their sins (oppressing the poor, stealing from the foreigner, lying, killing, etc.), and then says this: ‘Thus I have searched among them for someone who would build a wall or stand in the breach before me to keep me from destroying the land; but I found no one.” (Ezekiel 22:30). Jerusalem will be destroyed because there is no one to stand in the breach.
The image is that of a defender of a walled city. When an enemy army wanted to take a walled city, they had to starve the inhabitants out and/or make a breach in the city wall. In the case of Ezekiel’s metaphor, the enemy army is God or, more accurately, God’s wrath; and the walled city is the land of Judah and its inhabitants. God wants someone to stand in the breach, to turn away God’s wrath from the land, but no one—prophet, priest, or king—is found.
In the case of Exodus 32, God finds Moses to stand in the breach. The writer of Psalm 106 retells the story:
19 At Horeb they fashioned a calf, worshiped a metal statue.20 They exchanged their glorious God for the image of a grass-eating bull.21 They forgot the God who saved them, who did great deeds in Egypt,22 Amazing deeds in the land of Ham, fearsome deeds at the Red Sea.23 He would have decreed their destruction, had not Moses, the chosen leader, Withstood him in the breach to turn back his destroying anger. (Psalm 106:19–23)
So the Lord relented (Ex 32:14) and did not destroy Israel. Did the Lord change his mind or just remind Moses of his role in the breach?
I would remind you that God’s basic character never changes. God is “…gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity, continuing his love for a thousand generations.” (Ex 34:6-7) God changes God’s mind because God’s faithfulness to God’s people never changes. While there are consequences for sin (as it true in this story, too), God will not break promises. Even in the worst of times.
And in the worst of times, we are called to stand in the breach.