Lent Devotions: Cavorting with a golden calf

Design by Doug Puller/Bread for the World.

Editor’s note: This Lent season, Bread Blog is running a series of devotionals written by staff, alumni, and friends of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).           

By David Altshuler 

Exodus 32:9-14

If we take this text in isolation it reveals a forgiving God. But placed in the broader story of Moses’ time on Mt. Sinai and his exchanges with God, Aaron, and the Israelite people, a comforting message is obscured.

God accuses the Israelites of violating the first commandment, “They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it…,” says God (Exodus 32:8, JSB). Maybe it’s true that the ancient Israelites were worshipping false idols, but it’s interesting to note that God spends the majority of time with Moses on Mt. Sinai instructing him on the fabrication of fine goods, material goods if you will, most made with “pure gold,” acacia wood, and other fine textiles. Chapter 25 begins, “Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts…gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linens…” So maybe it’s not so strange that the Israelites squandered a few days cavorting with a golden calf. If we want to talk about the “turning” or changing of one’s mind, Moses and God do a great job of it. God “turns” from “blazing anger” renouncing God’s plan to kill the Israelites and then sends a plague upon the people shortly thereafter (32:34). In the same way, Moses, the saving arbiter of the people of Israel, aware of their so-called sin, becomes enraged by their behavior as if he never knew of it, breaks the tablets at the foot of Sinai, and orders the slaughter of 3000 Israelites (32:27-28). Neither Moses nor God need “turning,” only commitment to their word.

That leaves us with this question: When is turning a move into freedom and righteousness and when is it an affront to it?

David Altshuler is an institutional research associate and a 2015 Master of Divinity graduate at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

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