Today’s reading: Exodus 32-40, Psalm 11
It doesn’t take much for the Israelites to abandon their commitment to the covenant. Just a little impatience over Moses spending so much time on the mountain with God is enough to do the job. In the absence of their leader, they look for a substitute who will let them do what they want. Aaron, perhaps propped up by newfound popularity and position, is more than happy to oblige them.
Of course, Israel’s story is ours as well. I’m reminded of a couplet from a favorite hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” Ever gone on a retreat or had a powerful worship experience where you said, “Yes, God,” only to blow it the very next day? It’s amazing how quickly we can turn away.
Yet, the reading today also reminds us that the message repeated over and over in the Psalms is true: even when we humans fail to be obedient, God responds with steadfast love. Though God may be angry with the behavior, God relents from bringing destruction on the Israelites.
Ironically, when Moses comes down from the mountain and sees what the people have done, it is he who appears to be the one not able to hold back his anger. In a fit of rage (temper tantrum?), he smashes the stone tablets, then orders the execution of three thousand people. He even plays the God card as he instructs the Levites to carry out the order. It is quite a contrast from God’s decision to practice mercy, seen just moments earlier in the reading. Even leaders are prone to wander, apparently, and can cause pain and suffering when they claim to speak for God.
At the end of the episode, God again demonstrates compassion and mercy, telling Moses that it is time to move on. They will not be forced to wallow in the place where they have behaved so badly. In spite of their disobedience, God will still lead them home.