Sunday, November 19, 2006

You Have Hidden Your Face From Us (Exodus 32-40)

As the Lord is spelling out the glories of the tabernacle to Moses, the people are preparing to break the very first commandment they were given. With the help of Aaron, they make a cast-metal idol of a Calf, and begin a festival worshipping a plethora of gods (including, of course, the Lord).

The Lord is furious:
Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them … Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.
Notice the Lord disowning the people. They are not his, but Moses’. This seems to be a constant temptation for God in the early chapters of the Bible – to throw away his corrupted creation and start with a clean slate. This is an easy feeling for any artist to relate to – the same love that prompted the initial creation turns to wrath at it falling short of the artists intentions.

But Israel’s representative lives up to the name, and wrestles with God. Moses will hold fast to the Lord until He agrees to bless His rebellious people:
O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? … Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’
As Abraham pled for Sodom, so now Moses pleads for Israel. And God relents, stopping short of full destruction and settling on a single plague. Now all the people have to worry about is Moses. He grinds up the idol, dumps it into water, and forces the rabble to drink the stuff. Then he sends the Levites through the camp to decimate the people – killing a token 3,000 as a warning to the rest.

The Lord is still fuming. He agrees not to destroy the people, but He’s not about to be seen anywhere near them:
You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you.
The people are horrified at this, but Moses keeps interceding on their behalf. Here is one of the most beautiful conversations with God in all of scripture:
Moses said to the Lord,

“See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”

And he said,

“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

And he said to him,

“If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”

And the Lord said to Moses,

“This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
Moses descends from the mountain a second time, with a new set of tablets the replace the ones he broke. This time his face, though bright with the glory of God, is filled with kindness. Bezalel and Oholiab begin constructing the Tabernacle precisely to the given specifications, and the people are so generous that they have to be restrained from brining contributions for the sanctuary. And Exodus ends with the glory of God descending to the new tabernacle, condescending to live amount his stiff-necked people.

This is the opening story of the people of God. There is no period of great faith and innocence. There is no great height from which they have fallen. No, while they were yet a pathetic rabble, the Lord agreed to walk alongside them.

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