Monday of week 17 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Exod 32:15-24, 30-34

Before we actually look at today’s reading, we need to see the context in which it takes place.

In today’ reading we skip several chapters in which God gives instructions to Moses on the design and furnishings of a sanctuary which is to accompany the Israelites on their journey, as a sign of God’s continuing presence among them. Central to this sanctuary was the Ark of the Covenant which contained the tablets of the Law which Moses had brought down from Mount Sinai after his dialogue with God.

The instructions cover items like the Ark, the table on which it is placed, the seven-branched lampstand, the altar of holocausts, oil for the lamps, the priestly vestments, priestly vestments, consecration of priests, ordination sacrifices, altar of incense, anointing oil and incense. Much of what is described seems to apply more to the situation that existed in the Temple after it was built at a much later date.

In the meantime, while Moses was getting these instructions from the Lord up on the mountain, the people below began to become impatient. They asked Aaron to provide them with a god as their leader. “As for this man Moses, who brought us to this place, we have no idea what has happened to him.”

So Aaron told the men to get all the jewellery from their wives, sons and daughters and to bring it to him. From these offerings Aaron made a golden calf.

The ‘golden calf’, a term of contempt, was in fact the statue of a young bull, a common symbol of divinity in the ancient east.

It seems that a group in competition with Moses’ group, or a dissident faction of his own group, had or wished to have the figure of a bull to symbolise the presence of God, instead of the Ark of the Covenant. It is not, however, an idol in the strict sense because it represents Yahweh, the Yahweh who brought Israel out of Egypt.

The people then cried out with enthusiasm: “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” The bull was not even intended to be an image of Yahweh; like other Eastern parallels, it was regarded as the footstool of the unseen deity, which was also the role played by the Ark of the Covenant.

On the following day, having seen the reaction of the people, Aaron built an altar before the calf and proclaimed, “Tomorrow is a feast of the Lord.” It is clear from this that the golden calf was intended as an image, not of a false god, but of the Lord himself, his strength being symbolised by the strength of a young bull. The Israelites, however, had been strictly forbidden to represent the Lord under any visible form. It was part of the First Commandment, which we saw the other day, cf. Ex 20:4.

Early in the morning, the people offered holocausts and brought peace offerings before the calf and then celebrated with food and drink.

Meanwhile, up on the mountain, God began to tell Moses what was going on. He was not at all pleased. “Let me alone, then,” said the Lord, “that my anger may blaze up against them. Then I will make of you a great nation.” “Let me alone” – the Lord anticipates the remonstration Moses is going to make. And indeed, Moses, immediately pleaded on his people’s behalf.

Moses is regularly presented as the great mediator: at the time of the plagues; on behalf of his sister Miriam; and especially on behalf of the people on their journey through the desert.

He gave two reasons why God should not take vengeance on his people. First, the Egyptians will say that the Hebrews were led out into the desert just so that their God could exterminate them. Secondly, he reminded the Lord of the sacred promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. So the Lord relented and held back his anger against his people.

It is at this point that our reading today begins.

Moses leaves the presence of God and comes down the mountain bringing with him the two stone tablets on which the Law was written. They were written on both sides and had been engraved by God himself.

When Joshua heard the noise in the Israelite camp, he thought there was a battle going on. Moses replied that they were neither the sounds of victory or defeat but of pure revelry, people having a good time. And, as Moses got near to the camp, he saw the calf and the people dancing around it.

He became so angry at the sight that he threw down the two tablets which were smashed into pieces. He took the golden calf and ground it to powder, scattered it on the water of the stream that flowed down the mountainside and forced the Israelites to drink it.

Moses then asked his brother, Aaron, what the people could have done to him that he should lead them into such a terrible sin. Aaron very blandly passed the responsibility to the people, who were so prone to evil. He told Moses what they asked him to do and how he had asked them to offer their jewellery. “They gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and this calf came out.” Just like that!

The next paragraph is omitted from our reading and it is not pleasant reading. When Moses saw the situation he immediately challenged all those who were for the Lord to stand by him. All the Levites rallied round him (Moses himself was from the tribe of Levi). He then gave them instructions to go round the camp and put to the sword even their kinsmen, friends and neighbours. Their kinsmen would have been Levites and hence especially guilty of idolatry. Altogether about 3,000 people were killed in the operation.

Moses tells those who had sided with him that, by their action, they are specially dedicated to the Lord and have brought a blessing on themselves. And, because of their zeal for the true worship of the Lord, the Levites were chosen to be special ministers of ritual service.

Now, back to the last paragraph of our reading.

Moses tells the people that they have committed a very serious sin but that he is going back up to the Lord to ask forgiveness for them. “Perhaps I will be able to make atonement for your sin.” In the presence of the Lord, he acknowledges the seriousness of the people’s sin and begs forgiveness for them.

“If you will not, then strike me out of the book you have written.” This ‘book’ is the list of God’s intimate friends. If it will save his people from destruction, Moses is willing to be excluded from this book. Paul speaks in a similar vein when expressing his grief that so many of his fellow-Jews have not accepted Christ. “I could even wish to be separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen the Israelites.” And we know how passionately close to Christ Paul was.

In reply, the Lord says he will strike from his book only those who have sinned against him. In the meantime, Moses is to continue leading his people according to the Lord’s instructions. God’s protecting angel will be with them. “When it is time for me to punish, I will punish them for their sins.”

The Chosen People are full of goodwill. They ratify the most solemn covenants with the Lord with sacrifices and holocausts. Yet, they can so easily fall away. It is not for us to blame them. For we, by and large, are no better. We have so many helps in our Christian faith for leading good lives and yet we fail so often.

Let us renew once more our promises to be faithful. It is something, of course, that we can only do with His help.

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