Lesson 8 — Exodus 32:1-24; 34:1-6
The fellowship hall was full of people from 90-year-olds to babies. The adults were having a grand time chatting and eating. But after an hour of worship and an extended time of food and conversation, the children got restless. I was talking with a woman when her son came up and pulled on her sleeve, saying, “Momma, can we go now? Please!” The boy was tired of waiting.
Many people don’t like to wait. Grocery store lines, stoplights, highway construction with its resulting crawl-along pace — all of these can bring out the impatience in us. We buy instant oatmeal, fast food lunches and frozen dinners ready in six minutes. We want our computers to search the Internet in seconds. We want speedy pain relief. We want to feel better fast.
Out in the desert, the Israelites are getting antsy. Moses has been gone 40 days. Speculations rise and rumors fly as the people get anxious and fearful. Why has Moses been gone so long? Any sign of him? Maybe Moses became ill and a pack of desert dogs got him. What do we do without our leader? Perhaps he just decided to hang out permanently with God and leave us hanging out to dry. Slavery was better than dying out here in the middle of nowhere!
Anxiety produces a need to do something, anything, that will take the edge off the feelings of dread. We find all kinds of ways to take the edge off our fear — shopping for what we don’t need, drinking too much, driving too fast, working longer and longer hours, complaining, blaming, watching hours of television.
A security blanket is what the Israelites want and we want. We want some comfort when nightmares close in. When my son was very small, he got attached to an open-weave baby blanket. It ended up, after years of use, more like knotted yarn than a blanket, but he couldn’t go to sleep without it. We took our son with us to a conference, and somewhere along the way, the blanket was dropped. We were frantic to find it before bedtime. Someone turned it at the lobby desk. We were so relieved!
The people of Israel opt not for a security blanket but for an idol. They willingly trade in gold jewelry for something they can see right now, right here — an idol just like the other nations have. It is odd how easily people trade idols for God. An idol is something that becomes the center of our attention, replacing God as the primary focus of our lives.
Our idols are sometimes made of gold, but our idols can be many different things. We worship security, a comfortable life, status, knowledge, beautiful bodies, sports, winning, material goods and fame. We worship individualism and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. The “American Idol” television show (interesting name, isn’t it?) is often rated number one, and the last season had 750 million votes for the contestants. We love the American iconic myth of an ordinary person making it big.
We would far rather trust in ourselves than trust in a God who is outside of our control. I have heard it said that human beings were made in the image of God, and we returned the favor. We make God in our image in an effort to make God more manageable, working according to our rules and preferences.
Israel has sworn allegiance to God, but quickly turns its back on God. This is like breaking marriage vows. Indeed, the prophets describe Israel as adulterous. When we turn away from God by worshipping the values of our culture, we also break relationship with God.
God gets angry at the idol-making Israelites. God is ready to wipe them out. It is a disturbing image for us. We prefer God as only loving. We would edit God’s wrath out of the Bible. HarperCollins Bible Dictionary says God’s wrath is “a word, denoting the active feeling of God against sin, expressing in human categories an important attribute of God: that God is holy and righteous and rejects everything that is not.” Like a parent seeing a child making disastrous choices, God gets angry out of love and concern.
God, as portrayed in Exodus 32, is not cool, aloof and impenetrable. God gets mad. God and Moses argue. Moses stands up to God on behalf of the pain-in-the-neck, anxiety-ridden and idolatrous people. God repents and does not bring down fiery destruction on Israel.
The story of Exodus is one of people who fail at loving and trusting God. As the story continues, it is also a story of God who, despite anger and disappointment, never gives up on Israel or on us.
Editor’s note: The theme of Horizons magazine’s 2013-2014 Bible study lessons is “An Abiding Hope: The Presence of God in Exodus and Deuteronomy.” This article is part of a Presbyterian Outlook series on that theme. Horizons magazine is a publication of Presbyterian Women.
ROSALIND BANBURY is associate pastor for adult ministries, First Church, Richmond, Va.