Impatient, forgetful, and terrified at the base of the mountain, the dusty clothed, wilderness-weary Israelites were tired of waiting for their leader, Moses, to return from his solo backpacking trip up Sinai. To ease the growing anxiety in the face of his absence, the people misguidedly call for an idolatrous representation of the Lord to be fashioned, and their interim leader Aaron obliges. After constructing a golden calf from gilded adornments to serve as a physical object of the Israelites’ worship of the Lord, Aaron constructs an altar and even declares a festival in honor of this graven image. As the story goes, the Lord does not take too kindly to this.
Up on the wind-blown mountain, Moses is privy to what seems like a divine fit of rage as YHWH threatens fiery retaliation and retribution in the wake of this most gutting betrayal. Stuck between a rock and a holy terror, Moses begins desperately interceding on behalf of the Israelites, pleading with God not to follow through with such threats of revenge and urging the divine to remember their enduring covenant even though the memory of God’s people might be short.
In an act of bravery (or foolishness?), Moses stands up to his God, calling on the divine to choose mercy over condemnation, and it apparently works. This scripture, found in Exodus 32:7-14, is a fickle one — begging questions around the nature of God in relation to change. Can God change, can the divine be influenced? If so, how? If not, where does the change occur in this story?
Question: What change occurs in this story?
God seemingly changes God’s mind.
Perhaps God presents an opportunity for Moses to take up the cause of mercy.
God never changes, we simply cannot grasp the fullness of the divine.
Relationship/love requires opening up, risking vulnerability, and being affected by the other.
God remembers / Moses remembers
Mount Sinai as a place of transformation for Moses.
Thomas Merton, one of the most influential Catholic monks and writers of the twentieth century, was the son of artists. Born in France to a New Zealand-born father and an American-born mother, Thomas Merton’s early life was filled with caked on paint palettes and all kinds of intellectual company. After the death of his parents, Merton gained an education at Columbia University, taught school, and converted to the Catholic faith — ultimately taking vows to become a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky a few years later. Thomas Merton’s life was marked by intellectual and spiritual pursuits. He authored book after book and produced poem after poem within the cloistered life of rural monasticism, living as a man in contemplative pursuit of the mystery of God and the ideal of a just world. He inspires readers still, even decades after his death. A product of passion, creativity, and a reverence of knowledge, Merton was no stranger to the imaginative work of putting ideas to paper — wrestling the divine with a keen mind for matters of the heart. However, he did so ever aware of the human limit to grasp infinite truth and ever mindful of how much of ourselves we tend to project onto God.
In one of his seminal works, Merton states, “Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than it does God.” In other words, our understanding of God is always filtered through the limited lens of our human experience — often serving as a mirror reflecting back to us what we think and believe about ourselves rather than reflecting who God reveals God’s self to be and who God says we are. And I don’t know about you, but that’s good news. You see, I’m not always very kind to myself; we are not always very kind to each other. Out of fear and ignorance, we have the propensity for self-loathing, violence, greed, and if we are not mindful, it can be easy to project those feelings and attributes onto God and end up casting God in our own image. It is good news to know that God’s love of us is free from the conditions of love that we place upon ourselves. When I can remind myself of this, that God’s love is so much infinitely more than what my insecurity and ego projects it to be, I am transformed, changed, even if only for a moment. “Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than it does God,” and I wonder if this is part of what was happening on top of Mount Sinai as Moses stood between his people and his idea of God.
As an infant, Moses was a hidden political refugee with a hit on him. As a child and young adult, he lived in close proximity to an oppressing power. As an adult, he was marked a murderer and hunted yet again — but was ultimately called to venture back into the violence of the state in order to liberate his people. Moses’s life was quite the journey, literally and figuratively, defined by the retaliation of outside forces and the desperation that so often and understandably accompanies the need to survive. And he does survive, his people survive, but I wonder how much of the trauma of his lived experience survived in his heart and mind. And I wonder how much of that painted his understanding of God. Moses got Israel out of Egypt; but it was another story to get Egypt out of Israel – to liberate Israel from their own internalized imperialism and oppression.
It’s hard to reconcile such violent, threatening, disowning words with a God of love, mercy, and grace. And I want to suggest that one way of reading this text is to read it as Moses having a hard time reconciling this as well. I want to suggest that Moses, the survivor, is perhaps working through his own casted image of God: having molded a depiction of the divine out of an image of the lived experience of violence and retribution that he is coming to terms with as not quite congruent with who God actually reveals God’s self to be. “Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than it does God,” and I think Moses is standing up to his idea of God in a moment of miraculous self-awareness and transformation. In this sense, it is not the mind of God that changes in this story but, rather, it is Moses’s mind that changes regarding the nature of God.
As Moses is reminding God of God’s covenant, Moses is really reminding himself of God’s covenant — that the nature of the divine is marked not by violence but by steadfast, enduring love, which has always been the case. To quote the theologian Walter Bruggemann, this text calls us to remember that “Justice is only justice when tempered with mercy.” Hearing the words of God through the filter of his own suffered experience, Moses remembers: challenging a coercive, controlling, and forceful image of the divine to make way for the covenantal, compassionate, and forgiving nature of God to reflect itself to him.
This walk of faith calls us into an awareness of our direction of reflection — rather than God being a reflection of our own image, we are created as and called to be a reflection of God’s own image. The former will always be a crude and incomplete sketch, so often leading to an image of God casted in the limited light of violence and exclusivity. Whereas the latter presents itself as a masterpiece of the most transformative quality — calling us back to a God who is love and to a life reflective of that love.
That’s what Jesus did. At the dinner table, He said do this in remembrance of me. In other words, as the incarnation of the divine, do this in remembrance of who I am and who I have always been — a God who interrupts the cycle of violence with with an ever continuous brush stroke of love and a God who risks vulnerability and relationship ever opening God’s self to us. Christ is not the revelation of a new God, but the revelation of the God that has always been: a God who answers violence with love and who privileges personal relationship over personal vendettas. And we are called to go forth and live accordingly.
“Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than it does God.” In Moses’s moment of self reflection, God reveals God’s self to Moses in his own capacity to stand up to his preconceived notions and to choose love. May we be brave enough to stand up to our ideas of God that do not serve the purpose of love – a love that is liberated from any conditions of love that we might place upon ourselves and a love that liberates us so that we might participate in the liberation of all.