From the Revised Common Lectionary readings for this coming Sunday, October 12:
The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, and of you I will make a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10, NRSV)
I wonder, sometimes, why God does not.
Consume us, that is. Burn against us. Unleash holy rage.
Surely we are no less stiff-necked than the ancient Israelites who melted their finest jewelry in order to cast in gold an image of a calf for worship. I might even suggest that we are more stiff-necked than our forebears in the wilderness, collectively rebellious and distracted by gleaming powers and tangible idols and systemic altars.
Why doesn’t God take us out?
In Exodus 32, Moses appeals to God’s reputation and vanity in order to convince God to relent from anger and spare the people. (Abraham made a similar appeal in Genesis 18:17-33.) Notice with Moses: God is ready to wipe the covenantal slate clean — screw that promise to make nations from the offspring of Abraham, God is going to start fresh with Moses. Moses turns down God’s offer in order to ask God to keep God’s covenant with the people.
(Sidebar: Who does that?? Who willingly says, “I will give up what you can do for me in order to see what you can do for others”? Footnote to the sidebar: the answer is not “Jesus,” for these reasons and more.)
I’m fascinated by the ongoing debate between Moses and God, Moses and the people, God and the people — not only here in Exodus 32 but going back at least as far as Exodus 16** — about who is responsible in the community when one party/person misbehaves.
A separate if related question to “Who is responsible?” is “Who is to blame?” which seeks to know who permitted and/or participated in the errant behavior and who consequently deserves punishment. In Exodus 32, the “blame” answer is Aaron and the people, who are made to drink gold-infused water in 32:20 and then further punished by massacre & plague in 32:27-28 & 32:35. One of those feel-good Bible moments.
I’m interested in the “Who is responsible?” question because of its repetition between God, Moses, and the people across so many chapters. “Who is responsible for holding a person/community accountable for errant behavior? Who is responsible for leading the way toward correction, healing and redemption?” Responsible = Response = Who responds in order to redress what has occurred? When the people act out and create their golden idol, for example, who is responsible for their discipline?
Moses and God draw straws over the question.
“They’re your people,” God says to Moses (Exodus 32:7). “No, they’re your people,” Moses says to God (32:11). They debate not to determine blame for the people’s actions but rather to determine responsibility for the hard work of discipline. If the ancient Israelites are Moses’ people, then Moses must take responsibility to “redirect” the people’s idol worship. If they are God’s people, then God must take responsibility to mend (or, given God’s proposal to Moses, dissolve) the covenant that the people have broken.
Pick any system of injustice or occasion of injury, and the easier question to answer (whether correctly or not) is who’s to blame. More difficult, it seems to me, is the question of responsibility: “Who will clean up the mess? Who will do the hard work of healing & reconciliation & justice within the community? Who will give up their privileges & comforts in order to make way for God’s work to and through others?”
By default, so very often, those who have already experienced injury are tasked with the responsibility for their own healing — those whose privileges and comforts have already been sacrificed — while those who made the mess (as well as those who consider themselves unaffected by it) provide analysis and critique.
Moses loses his debate with God over who is responsible for the people, and so he must do the work of cleaning up the mess: from the aforementioned massacre and plague and forced drinking of gold-infused water, but more than that. Moses spends chapters 33 & 34 laboring & negotiating with God not to abandon the covenant or the people. (Arguably chapters 35 – 40 are a continuation of Moses leading the people through the work of reconciliation with God as they prepare an elaborate tabernacle for God’s presence to travel with them through the wilderness.)
Moses puts in the hard work of repairing the people’s relationship to God, and God remains faithful to the covenant and to God’s reputation as “a God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Exodus 34:6)
Why doesn’t God take us out?
Perhaps because it’s not God’s responsibility to do so. In the flip of divine coin and the drawing of holy straws, we “lost” and God made us responsible for one another (Genesis 1:27-30) — commanding us to invest time in healing, reconciliation, and justice.
It’s God’s responsibility to uphold the covenant. It’s our responsibility to do the hard work of holding one another accountable to it.
**Exodus 16:6-8 Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “What are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.” (That is: “God is responsible for you, not us.”)
Exodus 20:2-3 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (“I am responsible for you, and don’t you forget it.”)
Exodus 20:18-19 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us or we will die.” (“Please, Moses, you be responsible for us because God is too scary.”)
Exodus 32:7 The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” (“Moses, they’re your people, not mine.”)
Exodus 32:11 But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” (“Um, no, those are your people, God, not mine.”)