Thursday of Week 4 of Lent – First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 32:7-14

While Moses was up on the mountain conversing with God and receiving the law from him, the people below became impatient. “That Moses, the man who brought us here from Egypt – we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron, the brother of Moses, then collected all the gold that the women and children wore and melted it down to make a golden ‘calf’.

The word ‘calf’ is somewhat derisive because it was in fact the statue of a bull, a common symbol of divinity in the ancient East. It seems that a group in competition with Moses’ followers (or perhaps a dissident faction within Moses’ group) wished to have the figure of a bull symbolise the presence of God. However, the God being worshipped was still Yahweh, who had brought them out of Egypt. The dissidents would also likely view the Ark of the Covenant simply as a symbol of Yahweh, rather than recognize that the actual presence of God resided in it. So, they would have no problem substituting the familiar symbol of the golden bull for the Ark.

In paying worship to the bull, they saw the saviour who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. But they were worshipping a god of their own making – something people in all ages, including our own, tend to do.

God is portrayed as reacting very angrily to this and asks Moses, who is still in his presence, not to stand in his way:

Now let me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…

But Moses, while not denying their sin, pleads on behalf of his people. Later, he will plead on behalf of his sister, Miriam, and frequently on behalf of the people all during their journey through the desert. His intercession foreshadows that of Christ, who won forgiveness for our sin on the Cross.

Moses’ argument is that, if God destroys his people, he will become a laughing stock among the pagans for rescuing his people and then destroying them in the wilderness. In addition, Moses reminds God of the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob of the great and unending future of their descendants. So God, seen here in very human terms, relents and withdraws his promise of vengeance.

Of course, this is not at all the kind of God the New Testament asks us to believe in. We should be careful about speaking of our God in such anthropomorphic terms. God does not get angry, he does not take revenge…our sinfulness brings its own punishment because every sin is a denial of what we are meant to be and become.

As with most passages of Scripture, what we need to look at here is not what is being said and done, but at the underlying meaning of the passage. The emphasis here is on the thanklessness of God’s people and on God’s readiness to forgive again and give them another chance.

We are constantly in the same situation. Let us be aware at this time of the countless gifts God has given us and continues to shower on us. At the same time, we know that, when we fail, his mercy and compassion are there for us always. But let that compassion draw us closer to him and to Jesus, and help us to leave behind every lack of love in our lives.

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