Proper 23, Year A
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23,
Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14
As with many Lectionary readings, this one is a part of a much larger passage, in fact the entire section this is a part of runs through Exodus 34, and is the story of the loss and renewal of the covenant. The section of that which is today’s reading is divided into three parts.
First, verses 1-6, is the dialogue between Aaron and the murmuring people while Moses is up on the mountain with Yahweh. Aaron, the great paragon of faith, plays the great wuss and capitulates, seemingly without an argument, when the people demand a god they can see and touch. (One wonders why Yahweh did not include him in the “burn ‘em” section later on, but whatever...)
Missing unfortunately from our reading today is Aaron’s all time classic defense of stupidity and idolatry, which occurs just a little further on. That is, when Moses returned from the mountain and saw the mess below, he asks him, “what did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” And Aaron responds by saying it wasn’t his fault (of course), but his excuse is one of the best ever. He says all he did was to ask them for their gold, “so they gave it to me and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (33:24). Yes, of course, he had nothing to do with it.
The second section, verses 7-10, is mainly Yahweh’s speech to Moses up on the mountain in which Yahweh decides they are not worth it and it’s time to bring out the “burn ‘em” weapons. Notice that when Yahweh does this, the people—the ones whom Yahweh rescued from the fleshpots of slavery in Egypt, carried through the parting of the Nile River, fed with manna and quail in the desert, and did so by great power and a mighty hand, these people—when he describes them to Moses, he suddenly calls them “your people, whom you brought up....”
The third section, 11-14, is mainly Moses chewing out Yahweh for Yahweh’s facile willingness to
send hot burning wrath upon them—ingrates though they are. Notice that his appeals are not for the worthiness of the people (that would be a stretch) because both agree they are scum. But instead, Moses first, appeals to Yahweh’s vanity: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that [Yahweh] brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? And then second, he makes the argument that, with all that has gone on so far with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, etc., to bury the crowd now would ruin everything.
The arguments were evidently convincing because “Yahweh repented of the evil that he planned to bring on his people.”
Gene Tucker lists three themes for theological and homiletical reflection that can be found in this passage. If you move fast over them, you could probably construct a three-point sermon using all of them. On the other hand, at least two of them (one and three) could be developed more deeply into individual sermons.
(1) The sin of the people, always a popular topic for preachers. More than simply a violation of the first and second commandments, it was also a lack of trust, both in Moses’ leadership (v. 1) and in God (v. 4).
(2) Moses as mediator. He immediately intercedes for the people even though they obviously don’t deserve it. “Although there is no threat to him (v. 11b), he identifies with the people, the same ones who have grumbled about his leadership so many times.”
(3) God’s capacity to repent. It is the ground of the prayer of confession, and the key factor that makes renewal of the covenant possible.
To this list, I could add:
(4) Idolatry, possibly implied in the first one, but could also stand alone.
(5) Covenant, or their lack of understanding of it.
Here are a few possible titles on the Exodus text. Some I made up, some I borrowed from other, far more creative, people. “Gold Rush,” “Who Done it?” “The Gold Standard,” “Idolatry 101” (implying they need a refresher on monotheism), “Let’s Take it One More Time, From the Top” (implying they need a refresher on the meaning of covenant), “Moses and the Calf of Many Earrings,” and finally, “And Out Came That Calf” (if you spend time on Aaron and his painfully bad excuse for caving to their desires for a second god to worship).