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Exodus 32:7-14

Okay, I know the reading in the lectionary just encompasses verses 7-14, but I need you to read the whole chapter. It’s just too good. Some important context; the ten commandments (along with a bunch of other ordinances) have already been given to Israel, and affirmed by the assembly. They’ve already promised: no images; no other gods in YHWH’s presence. Aaron’s already been designated as chief priest. God has been abundantly clear about His intentions, and expectations.

But then Moses goes up the mountain again, and walks beyond a thick veil of smoke and fire engulfing the mountain top, and he hasn’t come back down for a long time. He took his assistant/apprentice, Joshua, with him, so while he’s gone, Aaron is de facto leader by virtue of being Moses’ brother, and YHWH’s priest. Aaron, unlike Moses, is a people pleaser, and is extremely conflict averse. It takes no time at all for the others in his camp (most likely the people talking to him are the other elders of the Levites) to convince him to break at least one of the first two commandments. They tell him to make gods for them, to go before them and protect them; and voice their fears that the big, scary, fire and smoke God on the mountain was too dangerous, and had killed Moses.

Aaron agrees to make an idol for them, apparently in a misguided attempt to appease YHWH (I’ll explain in a second). He tells them to bring him the golden jewelry they had brought with them out of Egypt, and he melts it down, and fashions a crude statue of a cow out of it. The elders see it, and declare “this, oh Israel, is the god that brought you out of Egypt.” But Aaron amends their language, and declares a feast day to honor this statue of ‘YHWH’.

This seems to be the compromise Aaron is making; they’ll break the no images command, but not the no other gods one. The people don’t seem to care, they were more than ready to serve other gods, but at least if YHWH has a statue, an image they can hold, understand, and carry around with them, then He doesn’t seem so dangerous. In fact, I assume part of the reasoning for making the idol in the first place was a fear that the ‘no images’ thing, which was a radical departure from every expression of religion they’ve ever known, was an innovation of Moses, not YHWH, and was the reason Moses must have died up on the mountain.

Why a cow? The cultures most closely related to Israel all worshiped a storm and fertility god of the mountains who is represented as either 1) an uncut boulder, 2) a herdsman flanked by cattle, or 3) a cow with a crown. They looked up at the giant, fiery storm at the top of a mountain where the presence of the God who had been feeding them apparently was, a God whom they’ve been worshiping through sacrifices on altars of uncut stone, and they made the connection. The crime they’ve committed isn’t apostasy as much as it is syncretism and heresy. I try to emphasize that point any time I read this story for a congregation or Sunday School, because in the broad span of history, the people of God always seem to be most vulnerable to this temptation; the temptation to merge God with the parts of our culture we are used to worshiping, even if those things contradict God’s character and commands. Syncretism with Gnosticism, nationalism, tribalism, Aristotelian or platonic cosmology, and social Darwinism all appear to be constant pulls of temptation in different segments of the modern church.

But wait, we haven’t actually gotten to the Lectionary reading yet. The lectionary reading begins back up on the mountain where Moses is, in fact, very much not dead. God has literally just given Moses the designs for the Tabernacle, the place where his presence will dwell with His people, when He stops instructing Moses, and tells him to “go down and look at what your kids are doing.” God actually says “your people who you brought out of Egypt”, just straight up disowning the Israelites like a 90’s sitcom mom whose kids just wrecked the family car. But God’s not done ranting, so before Moses can go down and sort things out, God says “no, wait. I’m just going to wipe them out instead. I’m starting over with you. I brought them into this world, and I can take them out.”

And this is where some people get a bit tripped up; 1) because the anger and vengeance of God is an uncomfortable topic for moderns, and 2) because God’s about to change His mind.

Moses pushes back on God’s plan to kill everyone, and start over. He tells God to consider the reputation of His name among the nations, and the promises He made to their forefathers. What the Israelites have done, it shatters their responsibilities in the covenant they just made. This is not the last time this exact mistake will be made by the people of Israel. This choice is going to cause pain, misery and death. God’s justice and holiness are violently opposed to sin and corruption. It is entirely consistent with His nature as one who is perfectly just to put an end to this sinful trend right away before it can spiral out of control.

But God’s nature is also perfectly merciful. He’s the perfect representation of hesed, that is, faithfulness to one’s covenant partner which far exceeds the strictures and requirements of the covenant as written. Moses calls on God to act upon that aspect of His nature. Both paths are consistent with God’s perfect character; God declared His intention to go down the one, but by Moses’ intercession, He is consoled in His wrath, and acts instead out of mercy. Mercy does not remove all of the consequences of the Israelites’ actions, but it does preserve a remnant from those consequences.

After petitioning God for mercy, Moses heads down the mountain to see what exactly it is he just laid his own life on the line for. A ways away, Joshua (who remember was on the mountain with him) hears the sound of horns blaring, and asks if they’re being attacked. Moses responds (in verse, because he’s just that cool) that no, it’s not a battle, it’s a party.

Moses finds the golden cow, finds Aaron, and basically says “explanation, now.” And Aaron, who again, is a coward, says “this is not my fault. The people; you know the people, they bad; the people told me to make a god for them. I felt threatened, so I just did what I was told to. You remember that golden jewelry we walked out of Egypt with? Yeah, I threw that into a fire, and this cow jumped out…”

Moses: “It… jumped out?”

Aaron: “Yep.”

Moses: “That’s the story you’re going with?”

Aaron: “um…”

Moses: “Josh, get my sword.”

And scene. That’s how it always plays in my head anyway. So Moses reduces the idol to ash and gold dust, mixes it with water, and makes everyone who worshiped the thing drink the ashes. Then he goes to the camp of his own tribe, the Levites, who were to be the priestly tribe, and he purges it of those who remained unrepentant of idol worship. Again, it might seem harsh to modern readers, but remember that these are the people who represent YHWH to the people who represent YHWH to the people of the nations. The Levites, more than even the rest of Israel, must take the fact that they bear God’s name deadly seriously.

That’s the essence of the command “do not take the Name of the LORD your God in vain”. It’s not some petty restriction on saying God (btw, that is not His name) as a curse word. It’s a command to carry God’s name with the gravitas it deserves, to recognize and take seriously that, as His people, your actions and words inform others about His character. Misrepresenting God’s character interferes with God’s plan to redeem the world, because it misleads the world to an inaccurate view of God. The closer the world associates you with God, the more this commandment should weigh on you; and for the Levites, and Aaron in particular, that association was very, very close.

Christians, I hope you take at least these two things away from this. 1) God’s Character is both perfectly just and perfectly merciful, and He considers the petitions of His people when choosing which of the many paths compatible with His nature He will take. Our prayers do not fall on deaf ears, nor are we petitioning a being bound by determinism to a single path regardless of our prayers. God can, and does, change His mind. 2) As Christians we bear God’s name into the world. The world associates our words, our actions, our attitudes with the God we worship. When we misrepresent Him through syncretism, or through behavior that contradicts His character, those around us see God through the distorted lens we have given them. We must not take that responsibility lightly.