There was a time when I watched a lot of old TV westerns. We had a channel on our cable system that was all westerns, all the time, and in the afternoons and early evenings they show various TV western series—from the first ones, Cheyenne (whose star, Clint Walker, was originally from just across the Mississippi from St. Louis) and The Lone Ranger, all the way to The Young Riders, which dates to the early 1990s and is about the Pony Express.
A common plot device in westerns, whether movies or TV series, is the lynch mob. (We can actually see similar mob scenes in other places, like To Kill a Mockingbird and even an episode of Father Brown, but westerns are where they’re seen most often.) As it usually works in the westerns, somebody has been thrown in jail, accused of some crime—murder, bank robbery, or something similarly heinous. There’s generally someone who stands to gain if the accused is killed before he has a chance to go through a fair trial. Oftentimes that person or someone acting on his (it’s usually a man) behalf is the actual perpetrator of the crime, who knows the truth could come out in trial.
So he heads into the local saloon—which for some reason always seems to be right across the street from the jail—and starts buying everybody drinks. While they’re drinking, and their inhibitions and consciences are being dulled by the alcohol, the one doing the buying starts making inflammatory statements about the person who’s in jail, until he has everybody in the saloon stirred up. Then he leads them across the street, guns drawn, and they call out the sheriff, or marshal, standing guard over the prisoner.
It’s always an incredibly tense scene, when the sheriff comes out and tries to talk the mob into going home and letting justice take its proper course. They’re in no mood to talk, and almost inevitably someone ends up on the ground full of lead before it’s all over.
Any time you get a group of people stirred up like that—with or without the lubricating effect of whiskey—there’s a really good chance of something terrible happening. And it’s not just in westerns; it happens in real life, too. When a mob gets stirred up the individuals in that mob will do things they wouldn’t necessarily do on their own. Not only that, but once a mob is set on doing something, one voice saying, “Wait a minute…” will not be heard—and its owner may well become the mob’s next target.
Why am I telling you all this in the context of the golden calf episode from Exodus 32? Because, as happens pretty often when we’re looking at Bible passages, something has been lost in translation.
When it says that the people “gathered around” Aaron, in Hebrew it’s the very same language that in Numbers 16:3 is translated “assembled against.” The Israelites have gotten themselves stirred up into a frenzy in their anxiety and fear during Moses’ absence. (That’s another thing we lose in translation; when it says that “Moses delayed to come down from the mountain,” the Hebrew actually says Moses was “shamefully late” in coming down.)
This is fairly early in the story; the people have received the commandments and God has made a covenant with them, but they have discovered that this God is not about giving the people certainty beyond their daily bread. Their leader has gone, they aren’t sure he’s coming back, and they don’t really know what to do. So what they do is gather together, start sharing their fears, and this multiplies them and turns them into mass hysteria.
It’s small wonder that Aaron doesn’t even hesitate before he gives them what they want. The westerns will attest that it takes serious guts for one person to face down a mob.
Aaron asks them to bring him their wives’ and children’s gold earrings. When this text came up in the Narrative Lectionary four years ago, I read a blog called “Slouching Towards Emmaus” (neoprimitive.wordpress.com) that pointed out some interesting details in this scene that have been lost in translation, just as the intensity of the mood of the people who rose up and came to Aaron is lost. When the people “take off” their gold earrings, in Hebrew it actually says they “broke” them off or “tore” them off. It says for the men to take the earrings off their wives and their sons and daughters, so we can imagine these terrified people assaulting one another, yanking earrings right out of each other’s ears!
Fear makes us do stupid things, sometimes, and in the midst of a mob people who aren’t otherwise violent may well attack people they’d otherwise treat lovingly and respectfully.
Aaron takes the ill-gotten gold and makes them the statue of a calf, a god they can see, in place of the one ensconced in a cloud on top of Mount Sinai with the shamefully-late Moses. He says, “Here’s your God, who brought you up out of Egypt!” (The word in Hebrew is elohim, which is technically plural, so most English translations render this sentence as “Here are your gods…” But the same word, plural and all, is more often translated as referring to the God of the Bible. The question is, does Aaron believe he has created a golden representation of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? It’s further muddied by the fact that both Egypt and Canaan believed in gods that were represented by the image of a bull.)
He proclaims a festival “to the LORD”; one wonders if he’s trying to redirect Israel back toward the one they are actually supposed to be worshipping and serving. One also wonders if Israel is in any mood to be redirected, or even to hear what he’s trying to say to them.
Meanwhile, up on the mountain—and this is where the story really gets interesting—God becomes aware of what’s going on in the Israelite camp.
Not surprisingly, since God has just commanded the people to have no other gods before him, and not to make any image and bow down before it, God gets mad. Moses, of course, not being God, has no idea what’s going on; so God tells him. He uses language that’s familiar from all kinds of humorous stories of one parent so angry at the children that they disavow them: Look what your people, whom you brought out of Egypt, are doing!
This, incidentally, indicates that God is prepared to invalidate the covenant with this people, the covenant which in its simplest form is “I will be their God and they will be my people.”
They’ve made an idol—right after I commanded them specifically not to do that—and their worshipping it. And in his rage, God says to Moses, “Get out of my way and let me destroy them, and I’ll start over with you as the father of a great nation, in place of Abraham.”
But Moses doesn’t get out of God’s way. Instead he stands between God and Israel—he stands in solidarity with Israel, even against God. He takes an astonishing risk, and he speaks to God in a way that most of us wouldn’t dare. He says, “No, LORD, I cannot let you do that.” What would the Egyptians think?
Why should God care what the Egyptians think? Because God’s honor is at stake, Moses says.
And then he goes further: He urges God to repent.
In verse 12, Moses uses both the Hebrew words for repent: shuv, or “turn,” and nicham, or “change your mind.” He tells God to repent and not to destroy God’s people the Isralites. (Yes, he reminds God that Israel is God’s people, not Moses’ people.) He tells God to remember the unconditional promise he made to Abraham, and thus to remember that Israel is the product of that promise.
Moses isn’t excusing what Israel has done. But he is askingGod to show mercy. And God is moved by what Moses says, and indeed God repents, turns away from the disaster God was preparing to inflict on Israel. God changes his mind.
And right there we have a problem, don’t we?
We’ve tried to soften it in our English translations; we say that God relented, or in other places where the same language is used, like at the beginning of the story of Noah and his family, instead of translating accurately and saying that “the LORD repented of making humankind,” we say that “the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind” (Genesis 6:6). It’s as though we can’t entirely bring ourselves to think that God might repent, or even need to repent.
One of the bits of commentary I read on this passage had so much trouble dealing with the idea of God repenting that they tied themselves in knots trying to explain it away. The comment was, “I believe there is a role reversal in this passage—the feelings, the dialogue between God and Moses—have been reversed. Rather than appealing to God to have God change his mind about his intentions toward the people of Israel, we may have here a case of God reminding Moses of his mercy and love in the face of Moses’ anger toward the people.”
As my Old Testament professor in seminary liked to say, what in the text leads you to that conclusion?
This commentator seems to be unwilling to let what the text actually says stand, and understandably so, because orthodox Christian theology teaches that God is unchanging. Immutable is the five-dollar word for it. God is always, eternally, the same.
People who argue for this view of God might point to 1 Samuel 15:29, in which Samuel tells Saul that God is “not a mortal, that he should change his mind.” Except that even there, God has changed his mind—he’s just not going to change it again after deciding that Saul is unfit to be king over Israel.
And the Bible doesn’t speak with one voice on this. In this Exodus story, God has made a covenant with the people, and then, as a result of their misbehavior, decides to nullify that covenant. He makes up his mind and tells Moses to leave him to it. And Moses (like his ancestor Abraham) stands before God and argues with him! What would be the point if God’s mind cannot be changed?
But Moses does argue, and God’s mind is changed. What are we to make of that?
I think we may need to think through the implications of declaring God unchanging. If that’s what we believe about God, then we’ve got a dilemma. If we believe God’s mind will not be changed, then why do we pray?
The story of Jacob at the ford of the Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32) isn’t in our assigned readings this year. You may remember the story: after a night wrestling with an unidentified man there at the Jabbok ford, Jacob receives a new name. That new name was Israel, which eventually became the name of the whole people who traced their ancestry back to him and his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham. The name means “one who wrestles (or contends) with God.”
I think there’s something for us to learn from our reading this week—and from plenty of other examples in the Bible, Old Testament and New—about how God expects to be related to by God’s people.
From Moses in our text for today we learn that intercession is an important task of people of faith, especially those called to be leaders. We really think of intercession simply as praying for someone, when they’re sick or in some other kind of trouble. But it’s much bigger, much stronger, than that. Intercession means standing between a person or people and God, and speaking to God on behalf of the people.
We also learn that intercession is effective. Unlike Moses, we don’t talk to God face to face; for us intercession takes the form of prayer—but it’s more than just praying for someone who’s sick.
I once had another pastor tell me—this was before I was a pastor myself—that he didn’t believe God responds to intercessory prayer by changing what God intends to do. This pastor said he could not believe this because sometimes it seems that God does what’s asked in prayer, and sometimes it seems that God does not. He resolved the dilemma of apparently unanswered prayer by simply rejecting any possibility of prayer being effective.
But it’s clear from the story of Moses—because Exodus 32 is not the only place in which Moses intercedes with God on the people’s behalf, only the most dramatic—that people of faith, especially religious leaders, are called to be intercessors. And it is also pretty clear, I think, that God honors such intercession.
It seems to me from my reading of the Scriptures that God tends to honor and appreciate anyone who genuinely seeks to engage with God, contend with God, wrestle with God. The Bible is full of such experiences: we have Abraham and Jacob and Moses, but we also have the unnamed authors of numerous Lament Psalms, and the prophets…and then there’s Job.
I think we Christians feel like we have to be much too polite with God. Yes, God does have life-or-death power over us—not just in an earthly sense but in a cosmic sense. But if we’re truly going to have a relationship with God that means anything, I don’t think we can hold back, as though our relationship with God is too flimsy to withstand the expression of negative emotions, as though God has too fragile an ego to handle being argued with.
It was not as punishment, or judgment, that the ancestor of God’s people is named Israel, “one who wrestles with God.” Rather, it’s entirely possible this is what God expects.
We don’t need to hold back. We can stand boldly before God, and ask for what we need. We can complain if that’s what’s called for. We can call God to account if we’re not convinced God’s acting in a Godly manner. We can stand between God and our brother or sister who is suffering, or between God and injustice, and call on God to change the situation.
The Bible seems to say God expects that of us.