Wrath of God
[Published in Mennonite Weekly Review, 9/6/10]
Moses has been missing from the newly liberated Hebrew community for 40 days, and the people have become restless. They have a drive to worship, but Moses, their main conduit to Yahweh, is gone, and “we do not know what has become of him” (32:1).
So the people turn to Moses’ brother Aaron, and ask for help. Aaron says, sure, and aids their constructing a god-substitute — a golden calf to worship and an altar as a location for the worship. “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (32:4). That is, here’s a substitute for the sometimes hidden and not always controllable God of Abraham and Moses.
The problem may be seen in the outcome of the time of worship. With this humanly constructed god, the fruit of worship is: “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel” (32:6). It seems to be all about them. Earlier in Exodus, we read that when the people worship the true God, the fruit of being in God’s presence is God’s presentation to them of “the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction” (24:12). Worship here leads to faithful living.
God, of course, is aware of the idolatry Aaron coordinates. And, to say the least, doesn’t like it. God says to Moses: “Let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (32:10). Our Sunday school lesson ends here.
What do we learn of God?
What do we make of this story and its picture of God?
I believe we should avoid two mistakes here. The first would be to reject this picture of God as angry and wrathful. Some Christians are tempted to say the God of Jesus is only “merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (actually this is a quote from Exodus 34, next week’s lesson). The problem arises when we assume that God is incapable of anger and that God doesn’t hate idolatry and its resultant injustice.
But the other mistake is to see Ex. 32:10 as a standalone statement about the way God truly is — to define God as a “wrathful God,” period.
We must keep reading after this statement of God’s extreme anger. Ex. 32:11-14 tells of a most remarkable debate that reveals much about God. Moses takes God on — and wins.
A debate with God
Moses demands of God: Turn from your anger. Change your mind about “consuming” the Hebrews. Remember your promises. God had said to Moses, these are your people, not my people (32:9). Moses insists, no, these are your people (32:11).
Shockingly, for those who think God never changes, God accepts Moses’ challenge. The text says: “The Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened” (32:14).
So, this story in Exodus 32 is only one part of the picture. It reminds us of God’s close attachment to God’s people, an attachment that indeed may lead to extreme anger. However, the bigger picture emerges as the story continues. The point here is that God in fact does not “consume” God’s people. There are terrible consequences for some, but the people as a whole are sustained.
As happens throughout the Bible, so here: God remembers God’s promises, and God works patiently for healing.