What a difference a week makes!
Last Sunday we heard one of the most important stories of the people of Israel, God giving them the Ten Commandments.
The commandments are not just a list of rules; they are a covenant between God and God’s chosen people. As God says to Moses, God’s hand-picked leader of the people, “Tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to myself.
“Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
Moses delivers this divine message to the people, and they all answer at once, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”
The Ten Commandments are at the heart of the covenant, words spoken directly by God to all the people of Israel gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the holy mountain.
Once they have been delivered to the people, God calls Moses to meet face to face at the top of the mountain, where he will get the commandments engraved in stone by God’s own hand, and further instructions on how the people are to live.
Of course, we know what happens next. The people, who have so recently promised to do everything that God has spoken, break the first two, and arguably most important, commandments – they make an idol and begin to worship it.
Or as one commentary says, “This moment of great importance in the drama of Israel’s salvation by God is followed by a shameful denial by the people of the very love and power that has saved them.”
In fact, the people now claim that the golden calf, made by Moses’ brother Aaron, is the god who brought them out of Egypt. The personal, active God has been traded for an impersonal object that cannot see, speak or act, a domesticated god made and controlled by humans.
Or as Psalm 115 says of idols made of silver and gold by human hands:
“They have mouths, but they cannot speak; eyes have they, but they cannot see; they have ears, but they cannot hear; noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but they cannot feel; feet, but they cannot walk; they make no sound with their throat.”
The people have put their trust in an inanimate object made by human hands.
The most important commandment has been violated. Israel has broken its end of the covenant with God.
These two events, the receiving of the Ten Commandments and the worshipping of the golden calf, are the pivotal experiences of the Exodus.
Old Testament scholar Avivah Zornberg writes that the central question following the golden calf incident is whether the people of Israel are fit for this covenant with God. Or how are these people to be redeemed?
At first, the answer seems to be that redemption is not possible.
God, on the mountain with Moses, sees what is going on below and responds in anger.
“Go down at once!” God commands Moses. “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them.”
As the people have forsaken God, so now God forsakes them. They are no longer God’s people; they are Moses’ people.
“Let me alone,” God rages to Moses, “so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”
God’s wrath in this situation is certainly justified. It seems that the people’s only hope is for Moses to come to their defense.
But Moses does not do that. Moses’ own anger against the people rivals God’s, as we shall see as the story goes forward.
Moses makes no excuses for the people of Israel. His response to God is much bolder than that. Instead, Moses challenges God on God’s very nature. Moses throws himself against God’s wrath.
First, Moses appeals to God’s reputation, in effect asking God what the neighbors would think if God destroys the people.
“Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?’” Moses demands of God.
Why give the Egyptians the satisfaction of seeing their enemies destroyed at the hand of the very God who once saved them?
Then Moses reminds God of God’s own promises, not just to those who are now reveling at the foot of the mountain paying tribute to a false god, but to their ancestors – to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, those with whom God first made the covenant.
“Turn from your wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster upon your people,” Moses commands God.
“Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, how you swore to them by your own self, saying, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of the heaven, and all this land I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”
Moses has the audacity to challenge God in the midst of God’s wrath. One might expect that to be the end of Moses.
But then a surprising thing happens. God takes the divine relationship with Moses seriously. God listens to Moses.
And instead of raging against Moses for daring to challenge God, instead of turning the divine wrath against him, instead of knocking Moses off the mountain to be with the stiff-necked people God intends to destroy, Moses’ challenge is met with this one simple sentence:
“And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on his people.”
God listened and God changed God’s mind.
That is one of the most remarkable lines in scripture.
We live in an age where truly listening has become a lost art. What passes for listening is usually waiting for the other person to be quiet so that we can talk. Those who change their minds are accused of being indecisive or “flip flopping.”
So it is all the more remarkable to be reminded that our God is one who listens and changes.
“The God of Israel is revealed as one who is open to change,” Exodus scholar Terrence Fretheim says of this story. “God will move from decisions made, from courses charted. God treats the relationship with Moses – and by extension the people of Israel – with an integrity that is responsive to what they do and say.”
The truth is that we are not so different from the people of Israel. We don’t throw our jewelry into the fire to make a golden calf to worship, but we put our trust in plenty of other false gods – into guns, into worship of the military, into adoration of money and power, into political leaders who make false promises.
The first two commandments – to have no other gods but the true God, and to make no idols — are broken with regularity.
The same question can be asked today that was asked about the people of Israel – how are we to be redeemed?
Exodus tells us that redemption comes not from ourselves, but from a God whose mind can be changed..
Fretheim says it is this openness to change that reveals what it is about God that is unchangeable – God’s steadfastness, grounded in love; God’s justice, grounded in mercy; God’s faithfulness, grounded in promise; and God’s desire for the salvation of us all.