The People Change Their Mind about God, and God Changes His Mind about Them

Posted By 
Tue, 10/17/2017 - 12:30pm

Exodus 32:1-14, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, October 15, 2017

            Only once did the novelist David Foster Wallace give a talk about his own philosophy of life. It was a commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, which became a viral video with millions of views and has been published as the book This Is Water. Among the things he said was this:

Here’s something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. 

The human hunger to worship something—and often the wrong thing, something visible and tangible—is the subject of the story we read from Exodus 24.

            It strikes me as one of the wildest stories in the entire Bible, in part because it’s so unexpected. Yes, we know that the people who just left Israel are whiners, but we don’t see this coming: “Make us a god.” And yes, we know that the real God does not want his people to worship anything else, but we had no idea he would wipe out his people if they did. And the most surprising this of all in the story is that God does not wipe them out, because God changes his mind. Does God change his mind? We’ll talk about that.

            Here’s the setting, which you probably recognize from the movies. The people who used to be slaves in Egypt were set free by the miraculous action of Yahweh, the Lord, and are now in the desert near the mountain called Sinai. They have already been fed with manna and had water provided out of a rock. When they get to the mountain there is thunder and lightning and cloud and smoke and trumpet blasts. Yahweh comes down to the mountain top and tells Moses to come up. The first message to Moses is to tell the people to stay away from the mountain, but they have no desire to get near it anyway. They are scared and ask Moses to tell them what Yahweh said because they don’t want to hear from him directly. At this point God speaks the Ten Commandments (they are not written down yet) but it seems that the people only hear thunder. Moses goes up into the thick darkness and Yahweh gives him this message for the people: “You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold” (20:23). I don’t want statues when you worship me—just an altar made of dirt or stones left in their natural state.

            At this point the editors of Exodus insert many chapters of specific laws, and you don’t get back to the story until Chapter 32. Moses is with God up on Mount Sinai, receiving the two tablets of the covenant. The people are impatient. They get anxious. What if Moses never comes back? What if our leader abandons us, or what if he died up there? Who knows, maybe that God killed him. Who is going to lead us the rest of the way?

            Moses had left his brother Aaron in charge. He was a priest rather than a leader. The anxious people come to Aaron and say, “Make gods for us”—or, since the word for god in Hebrew is plural anyway, they may have meant “Make a god for us.” We need a God to lead us. As for this fellow Moses, the one who brought us out of Egypt—kind of forgetting that it was Yahweh who brought them out—we don’t know what has become of him. Old “what’s his name” that used to be our leader has disappeared, so make us a god we can see and touch instead of the smoke and lightning God.

            It has probably never occurred to you to ask for a handmade God. You’ve been schooled all your life to believe in an invisible God. But these people had grown up in Egyptian culture where there were plenty of visible representations of gods. If you’ve been to the King Tut exhibit or anything about the tombs, you know that. Maybe it didn’t seem odd to these former Egyptian slaves to ask for a visible god. Growing up in Japan where the pure forms of Buddhism really didn’t talk about a God per se, I saw lots of statues of minor gods, goddesses, and Buddhas to whom you could pray. I’ve been in a lot of cathedrals where it certainly appeared that people were trying to pray to statues and preferred visible saints and Christs and Marys to the invisible God.

            This theme of people wanting to worship idols turns out to be the major theme in the history of Israel, and this episode prefigures a lot of what happens over the coming centuries. The constant temptation once they were in the Promised Land was to worship the fertility gods of Canaan, using statues of bulls and phallic poles of wood. There was a reason God made these the first two commandments: (1) No other gods, and (2) No images of gods.

            As David Foster Wallace pointed out, there is no such thing as not worshiping. If you don’t worship the real God, you’ll worship something else. Wallace gave as examples the worship of money or beauty or sex. He could have said success or power or nation or war—or, for that matter, family or church. Idolatry, for us, is putting something else in the place of God, making something or someone else your ultimate concern in life. John Calvin said that the human heart is “a perpetual forge of idols.” “Every one of us,” he said, “is an expert in inventing idols.”

            The real God is not only invisible, he’s beyond our control. He doesn’t fit into our plans. Better to make our own god who fits in with our values and our agenda. There are people sitting in churches who believe in America more than they believe in God, and for them the American flag is an idol. For some, the flag is powerful because it stands for the glory of military service, and for those people war and military power have become gods. Churches who do not allow Jesus to critique nationalism and violence and racism have turned their back on the kingdom of God and turned their hearts toward Caesar. God does not help us to kill our enemies any more than he helps us to score touchdowns. But what most humans are looking for is a god who will help them achieve their own goals, not one who will change their goals.

            When Aaron receives this request to make a god for God’s people, you might think he would be outraged. What did you not understand about commandments 1 and 2? But no, like many priests and pastors after him, he gives the people what they want. He starts an earring drive and gets enough gold to melt down and make a statue of a young bull, apparently with his own hands carving a mold. When he brought out the golden calf, either Aaron said, “This is your God who brought you out of Egypt,” or it was the people who said it. A charitable view of that is that Aaron meant the calf to represent Yahweh, or that it was like a footstool for the invisible God (as the Ark of the Covenant was). There are many images in the ancient Near East of gods standing on lions of bulls, or riding on them. But later God says that the people have worshiped the image of a calf, and Moses says that they made for themselves gods of gold. The pagan religious observance leads to a pagan-style party.

            Meanwhile, God and Moses are up on top of Mount Sinai. Some kind of alarm goes off with God, and he says to Moses, “Go down at once! Those people of yours have been quick to turn aside to other gods. They have made an image of a calf to worship.” Yahweh is now burning mad. Leave me alone so my anger can burn hot (literally, so my nose can burn!) and I can burn them up. They would have looked like the neighborhoods in Santa Rosa—nothing left at all. And here’s the kicker: Yahweh says I will start all over with you, Moses. You can be the new Abraham and I’ll make a nation from your descendants.

            Now that’s mad. Was he really going to do it? The story certainly makes it sound like it. There are times when the Bible is philosophical about God; this is not one of those times. There are other times when the Bible talks about God as if God were a human character—shaping Adam out of mud with his hands, walking in the garden with him. Maybe this story is showing us how angry God is when we reject him and ruin our lives and his plan for earth, by showing God losing his temper the way we might when deeply offended. But in the framework of the story, the people of Israel are about to be destroyed.

            Moses is a leader, unlike Aaron, who puts aside his self-interest and glory for his own family. He pleads with Yahweh, reminding him that these are his people whom he just rescued with his great power. He appeals to God’s concern for his own glory and reputation. “If you do this, the Egyptians will say that you are an evil God who only brought the people out to destroy them.” Besides that, he says, remember your promise to Abraham and his descendants, the promise that has driven the whole plot of this story. Moses gets right in God’s face and seems to rebuke him: “Turn away from your rage! Change your mind! Do not bring disaster on your own people!”

            The most remarkable verse in the whole story, I think, is the last one we read, verse 14: “And Yahweh changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on his people.” The writer says it as if it is unremarkable that God changed his mind. It’s only later theologians, especially Christian ones, who had a problem with this. The Bible says that God doesn’t change, that God is faithful, that God is even outside of time. Two things about that: (1) The Hebrew scriptures say that God’s essential nature doesn’t change, not that he never changes his course of action, and (2) that’s more of a Greek philosophical version of God than a Biblical picture of God.

       The God of the Bible doesn’t say he is immutable and cannot change his mind. The God you find in the Old Testament is a God who negotiates, who promises that he will do something terrible but if his people repent it will all change. The God of the Old Testament doesn’t seem to know in advance what people will do. They actually have freedom to obey or not, to repent or not. This God is actually disappointed. He cries and is broken-hearted when people don’t act as he hoped. He longs for people to come back to him, but he says, like Bonnie Raitt, “I can’t make you love me.”

       This God—the real God—does not exist in some realm of absolutes, frozen and static. God is dynamic and exists in relationship to us, just as we exist at every moment in relationship to God and to other humans. Who we are as a self is fluid and changes as we interact with people and respond to them. I don’t think God is fickle like we are, but it is not biblical to say that God has never learned anything in the long history of his relationship with Israel and the church, or that God never learned anything from living as a human being in the person of Jesus.

       God’s anger in this story is the flip side of his great love for his people, those he had rescued from slavery so that he could have a people of his own, in a covenant relationship with him, to be a light to the whole world, a model of what human community could be. In some ways, this story is like the plot of many movies and sitcoms: the parents are away for a while and the kids go wild, doing exactly what they were forbidden to do, and when the parents come home they say they are going to kill their own kids. Not really. But they are really angry, and they are disappointed that they can’t trust their kids, and that the kids don’t love and respect them enough to want to please them and do what is right. But in the end, they are still their children, and the parents want what is best for them. There will be consequences. Love does not mean there is no punishment. If you read the rest of Exodus 32, the punishment for the golden-calf-worship is not the total elimination of the people, but it’s pretty grim. I don’t know, honestly, if that’s history or a kind of moral warning.

       Moses interceded for the people, but he was not the person who could actually atone for the sin of the people. It took the perfect human, the God-man Jesus, to be the mediator between God and humans and the one sufficient to lay down his life to reconcile us completely with God. Jesus did not convince God to change his mind. I think Jesus had a clearer idea of God than the writers of Exodus did. Jesus told us and showed us that God chases after those who have turned away from him and draws them back to himself. Still, we have a choice. If we want to choose to center our lives on things other than God—if we choose to live outside of a relationship with him—then we are choosing death for ourselves, not because God is cruel but because we can only really live if we are connected to him, the way we can only live if we breathe the air around us.

       This strange story teaches us, as Jesus did, that you can only have one God. You can’t worship God and Money. You can’t love family more than Jesus and be his disciple. You can’t give to empire or nation what belongs to God. You have to look inside your own heart to see what idols sit on the throne of your life, calling the shots. That gospel hymn we sang, The Lily of the Valley, says, “I have all for Him forsaken, and all my idols torn from my heart, and now He keeps me by his power.” Is that your story? Is that your song?