The Israelites were living in the tangible presence of God. They were miraculously delivered from slavery in Egypt, by crossing the red sea and escaping their Egyptian pursuers. A pillar of cloud by day and fire by night guided their daily journey. Every morning when they woke up, their food for the day was on the ground outside their tents (like divine room service). They had sworn a solemn oath before God to uphold the Ten Commandments, which forbade worshiping other gods or graven images.
But then Moses ascended Mt. Sinai – for 40 days and 40 nights to commune with God and to receive the Torah from God. Moses remained on the mountain, receiving instructions from Yahweh about the construction of the tabernacle as well as the vestments and procedures for the ordination of the priesthood. They are deep in the weeds and details when the scene suddenly shifts away from the mountaintop. It must have seemed like an eternity since Moses left the people to go up on the top of the mountain because his absence created an atmosphere of anxiety and impatience in the people. Who would lead them? What would happen to them? Who would talk to God for them? With too much time on their hands they get themselves into trouble with the help of the leader in charge. They propose to Aaron:
“Come make gods for us, who shall go before us”.
Instead of identifying God as the one who has liberated them from Egypt, they refer to “this Moses” as “the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt”. They threw all their jewelry into a melting pot so Aaron could make a golden calf to worship. The idol they request is meant to replace Moses. Then they challenge God’s sovereignty as well as they bow down before the Golden Calf:
“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt”.
In saying this, they broke the first commandment by refuting who liberated them from bondage:
“I am YHWH, your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”.
They then add that Aaron should “make them a god who will walk before” them, breaking the 2nd Commandment:
“You must have no other gods over me”
How did they succumb so quickly to idolatry? Had they stopped believing in Yahweh? The Israelites had witnessed one wondrous sign after another: the 10 plagues, the Red Sea parting, pillars of cloud & fire guiding their way; Manna in the wilderness. They had seen God’s power. Why did want an idol? Perhaps they wanted a god they could see, something solid and tangible, not this God who declared “I am that I am”. It’s hard to relate to a transcendent, invisible God. That requires faith in things unseen. Perhaps the prospect of facing the wilderness without a leader created deep anxiety. They feel abandoned and start to doubt. Their faith begins to wane, as God’s presence seems withdrawn from them. They turn their attachment to something else. And they did what we tend to do when we’re anxious—seek comfort of the familiar. There is a strong desire in us for predictability and control.
In times of uncertainty and anxiety, we can get unmoored and are tempted to create golden calves. Everybody worships something has an ultimate concern. A crisis will often reveal the object of our worship. When the world is shaking, our foundations are exposed. When times of stress or fear or boredom or crisis come, and God seems far away, what is it that you turn to? We all have a golden calf. And some of us, if we’re truthful, have a herd of golden calves. Whether those are habits of self-medicating or indulging in habits or thinking that we know are not good for us, these idols can lead us down unhealthy paths. When we are anxious, fearful, angry, or in pain, we want relief. The desire to have life feel predictable again or feel that someone somewhere has control or an answer helps us feel safe. This is a normal response. But there is danger in the easy answer. If we go back to chapter 32 In the book of Exodus, we see that the danger for the Israelites evoked divine displeasure. The God of Exodus wants to destroy the people, but is persuaded by Moses to give them one more chance. God’s reaction suggests that the people have committed more than a minor infraction.
God tells Moses to hurry down to “your people”. God no longer claims them as God’s people, calling them a stiff-necked people. God is angry. And Moses may well be afraid – afraid of anger, and afraid of the destruction of his people for whom he cares deeply and to whom he has dedicated his life.
In the past, Moses’s fear caused him to withdraw. Now, he pleads with God:
“Do not let Your anger, O Adonai, blaze forth against Your people”.
Moses challenges God. He could run and hide, thinking to himself, God will destroy everyone else, but I’ll be fine. At that point, he possessed that kind of privilege. Moses instead calls on God to be merciful, almost like saying to God: I will not leave You be until You forgive and pardon them. Moses’s fear invites him to draw closer to God, as a person would a friend. I am afraid. I think you are too; I am with you. Don’t abandon to Your anger.
God hears Moses’s plea and restrains Godself from destroying the people. And when the incident is over, when Moses has broken the first set of tablets and the golden calf is destroyed, Moses says to God: “Oh, let me behold Your Divine Presence!” We will hear this story next week in ch. 33. Let me see You. I want to know You. The Israelites respond to their fear with old patterns, old idolatries. Moses responds to fear by drawing nearer to God.
Perhaps there is a message in this for us as well. In our fear, we, too, can draw near to God in our fear and anxiety and feeling unmoored.
The Israelites were dislocated from every routine, familiarity in which they found identity and a sense of belonging. In the midst of this pandemic, we too, are dislocated from ways of gathering and routines that tether us to our sense of identity and belonging. Their dislocation was chosen. Our dislocation is imposed. Part of our promised land is a vaccine that can be safely administered worldwide to provide immunity from this particular virus.
The other part of the Promised Land is turning and returning to God. There’s a powerful temptation to turn to old patterns, to avoid, to hide, to use, to push people away. These are comfortable patterns. They are our golden calves. But Moses shows us another way: draw near to God.
Life in the wilderness is hard. When we want it to be over, and try to gain control, what we really need to do is acknowledge our sadness at what we have lost and take steps toward an uncertain future.
How do we cultivate hope when wandering in the wilderness, looking for home? One way is traveling this shared journey of struggle & uncertainty weaving us together into a community of belonging and belonging to God.
In the wilderness, we walk with God, day by day, step by step. We accept where we are. We eat what we have. We camp for the night. We move on the next day. This is the cycle of wandering in the wilderness … and how we can respond during this pandemic. We may not know where we are going. Our vision is limited to where we presently are. We try to worry less about the future by grounding ourselves in what is present, accepting that we can only know this step ….
We will not be returning to “home” anytime soon … if ever. There is grief to acknowledge in that. Perhaps this new place has lessons to teach us. Maybe there are promises there that we cannot quite fathom yet. But for now, we’ll pack lightly, walk one step at a time, continue to follow the signs that God has given us, and try to get used to the taste of manna.
I believe God has given us, and is giving us gifts even now to be the people we need to be, that God needs us to be for this chapter in human history. The Israelites thought they could go their own way, but it turned out, they needed some rules to live by for the sake of their community, in order to survive. In our wilderness experience, there are two commandments: stay 6 feet away from people not in your household AND wear a mask when you leave home. “Don’t Share Your Air.
Our faith story can shape who we are becoming. It can build a road to resilience as we recall the stories of our faith. God led the Israelites through their wilderness experience by day and by night: a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.