19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it. (Exodus 32:19-20, NIV)
READING EXODUS 32
Often, all you can do with a story is read it and let it sink in and accept that God and the Bible come with their own set of terms and ways that we cannot fathom. Reading stories like this is also best done in community.
The setup is that Moses had been on the mountain forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:18). Then the people expected Moses to return sooner, grew impatient, and mysteriously asked Aaron to make them an idol, and inexplicably Aaron obliges them.
From their offerings of gold–plundered from Egypt–Aaron fashions a golden calf, which gets credit for bringing them out of Egypt. We know–and we figure they knew–that Yahweh brought them out! This was one of the most valuable pieces of information for the formation of the life of Israel: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery!”
This is the famous chapter where Moses breaks the tablets of the ten words of God (v. 19). When Moses comes down from the mountain, approaches the camp and sees the calf and lewd dancing like the pagan rituals and homage paid to this idol and not Yahweh for bringing them out, Moses is furious. Boom! He throws down the tablets, smashing them into pieces.
There is a lot to deal with here, and we’re not finished. Moses calls for the Levites and any who are with him to strike out against the people honoring the calf and not Yahweh. Moses commanded the Levites–these men set apart for God’s service in the tent of meeting–to strap on swords and go back and forth through the camp and strike down brother, friend, and neighbor.
Some people read such stories and decide they don’t want a god like this who metts out violence or has people like Moses do it for him. Others may read violence in Scriptures and justify their own or national violence and war. Still others ignore the violence altogether and spray perfume on every Bible text, even if it stinks like a pig.
Is there another way? Is there a way to read the Bible on its own terms and live with the mystery? Read the action steps for starters.
This is a terrible scene and hard to fathom. What are we to do with it? First, how about letting it sink in and leaving it be on its own terms without having to explain it away? Second, we can start asking good questions, such as, “Is this Moses or God who’s angry and acting to kill?” Both? Third, we can remember that God gets to do what He wants. He’s God like that. We don’t get to dictate how He gets to act or not act. This doesn’t mean we get to take the place of God or even Moses and justify killing. There’s just a lot to take in here. Take it slow, and don’t choke on all this.
This prayer is for people who read the Bible and instead of coming to faith come to doubt. Be with us, Lord.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey. Greg’s wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.