The Inevitability of Absence (Ex. 32)

This is the message I gave at Camas Friends Church this past Sunday. 

We’ve been doing a series on the book of exodus with an eye, or an ear, or both, to God’s concern about liberation and concern for the poor. A couple of weeks back I shared about the 10 commandments as the founding documents for Israel in becoming an alternative society to Pharaoh’s empire. The “commandments of love” as we called them seemed most interested in shaping the community in the direction of love rather than in the direction of oppression.

And you remember that the children of Israel could not handle hearing YHWH’s voice directly so they asked Moses to intervene. “Moses you take notes and then let us know what you and God decide. We’d rather stay down here.” As a pastor, I’m surprised by how long we as humans have been deferring the responsibility of our own formation to others. When we talk about the church being called to be a participatory community, this isn’t what we mean. This passivity of the people lands them down at the bottom of Mt. Sinai while Moses enjoys a mountain all to himself with YHWH.

Then Brad gave us a wonderful picture last week of what was happening above the clouds, where Moses and YHWH were discussing the kind of people these runaway slaves were to become – a people who cared for the resident alien, the people who sided with the underdog, and, as Brad put it, the egg rather than the wall. That was only some of the conversation Moses was transcribing, there are 11 chapters (21-32) of law and other details YHWH gives Moses. Clearly YHWH is concerned with the formation of his people and the very ways they operate together as a community.

But now we move back down to the drama unfolding under the clouds. And, as you probably noticed, all hell is breaking loose just under YHWH’s and Moses’ noses. The people have grown impatient and have turned to the next theologian in authority to do something about it. The Israelites plead with Aaron to make a calf and seemingly without hesitation he’s happy to be seen as the new guy in charge. Aaron then ran down to the local icon hardware store and purchased the mold of a calf and poured gold inside (actually, this isn’t really how he made the calf but no one is really sure exactly how he would have done it!). And while it seems Aaron realized there was a difference between the calf and YHWH (in v. 5 he says tomorrow will be a festival to YHWH) the people have already drifted off.

The rest of the story is YHWH knows and tells Moses these are no longer my people, these are your people. Sort of like when your kids are into something they aren’t supposed to be and you look to your spouse across the room and say “look what your daughters are doing!” In any case, what unfolds in the narrative is Moses response to YHWH and it is a beautiful model for prayer. The bible says “Moses implored the Lord his God… (v.11)” And then it says in v. 14 “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

The root word used here in Hebrew to describe what it says about God changing his mind means to be sorry, to be moved with pity, to have compassion for others. It’s also the word to suffer or repent for one’s own doings. Here we see something extraordinary — Moses convinces God to have compassion on his people, could it be that Moses’ words causes God to feel sorry and literally repent from what he was planning to do? And this image of Moses as interceding on behalf of his friends is a powerful picture.

So this is where we’re at. This morning I want to focus on two aspects of this story. First is the Golden Calf vs. YHWH and second, I want to consider, from the point of view of the children of Israel why they might have made a golden calf.

The Golden Calf vs. YHWH

It’s worth saying a few words about the calf and what it may or may not have represented. In the time that Exodus was compiled there were many gods that surrounded the Hebrew people. There were gods in Egypt, there were gods in Babylon, and there were gods in Canaan whose god Ba’al was well-known to be a bull. Plus, male calves were popular in religious iconography of the time. Culturally speaking gods were everywhere and most of them were in some kind of tangible, image-based form. To make an icon of you god wasn’t necessarily bad thing (at least for non-Hebrew people), it meant that you were bringing that god near to you to take care of you and your family, it meant to essentially bring it out of the sky. So given the fact that Moses and YHWH are literally up on a mountaintop, it’s not all that surprising that the Hebrews not only borrowed a neighboring image of a calf but wanted to bring their god out of the sky. And, as we soon learn, one sure-fire way to bring YHWH down out of the sky is to make an idol in hopes of bringing him out of the sky.

There are a lot of problems with Israel making its own calf and not least of which is the fact that just before Moses went up the mountain YHWH asked them directly to not do this.

Why not? (Here are some ideas, see if you can draw some connections)

For starters, to bring your god out of the sky is also to bring that god under your control. And who doesn’t want to have a god in their back pocket to do their biding for them? Often don’t we pray to God as though he is a big vending machine in the sky, rather than the way Moses interacts with God in a more give and take?

Another problem is that if the Hebrew people are to be a counter-society to empire then image-based worship is out. Pharaoh was understood to be a god and had images and gold statues made of himself all over the empire. In the empire, gods are subject to the control of the rich and powerful and are used not only to justify their economic and political structures but too often to oppress the masses. To do away with image worship is to subvert and bring an end to that kind of religion. Here Aaron’s calf begins to reinstate a religion that is at the mercy of those who are powerful.

Another problem with the calf is a stand in for something else. Scholars debate whether the calf was made to replace Moses who the people clearly had a tenuous relationship with, at best, or whether it was a graven image of YHWH. Either way, this calf is a stand in drawn from what they know of their previous lives in Egypt. Here the calf enables them to cope. Lost in the wilderness, leaderless and afraid, the calf helps to take the edge off. It reverts them back more stable, if not easier times.

Finally, one other problem with the calf, and speaking of protest, is that it is clearly connected to economics. Aaron takes the gold from the people to craft a calf. First, wasn’t this the gold they were commanded to take from the Egyptians? Second, isn’t it interesting that freed slaves are being asked to give up what little resources they actually had. This makes Aaron’s actions even more dubious, almost as if he’s against their best interest, especially in contrast to Moses whose up on the mountain this very moment pleading for them.

And isn’t this quite possibly one of the clearest connections to the golden calf for us today?

Consider these two images from the current Occupy Wall Street campaign [Image one is the “charging bull above” the second is of a golden calf from the Occupy Protest.]

It is all to easy for each of us to rely on a belief that “means leads to happiness,” and “means makes right” (as in, if I can afford to do it, I should be allowed to do it), but isn’t it also the case that there are many leaders just like Aaron floating around out there looking to pillage all they can from the poor in order to make their own golden calves?
Today not only do many of us know what it’s like to wrestle with the a “golden” calf of our own, but also to be at the mercy of others who are crafting their own, sometimes at our own expense.

Absence and Bringing God out of the Sky

Now that we’ve looked at some of the possible interpretations of the calf. In closing, I want to take a step back and try to get into the cause of why the Hebrews might have crafted a calf in the first place.

Back in 1992, my family (all 8 of us) had recently relocated outside of the city of Canton in a small rural town, everyone was adjusting to life in new schools, but no one had really plugged in. My parents had hit a rough spot in the transition and were finding unhealthy ways to cope. One day, not long after this move, my step-dad, was in a really bad car accident. He was driving home from work. On his way home from something like a 12 hour day, his car was hit by a cement truck. Bam! That was it. That was the last time he ever worked. He would have said that before that moment he was metaphorically lost, like driving a car in an unknown city, without a map, he was lost. And then bam, a cement truck hit his car and sent him to the hospital. In that moment Bernie saw what happened to him as a wake-up call to get his life back in order, he needed to find out which direction he needed to head in.

I think we could say that the cement truck opened his eyes to the fact that he was naked. Have you ever had this feeling where you’re going along and then all of a sudden you’re totally exposed? You realize you don’t know where you’re at, or where you’re headed and you freak.

I had similar experience when in 2003 I got a phone call I took a phone call in our Pasadena apartment from my mom saying that my step-dad had committed suicide. It caught all of us by surprise but Emily and I had just moved to Los Angeles two months before. Emily had started her first year of teaching, I was in my second month of grad-school. Being from po-dunk Ohio and now living in 11,000,000+ LA, we literally didn’t know where we were at or what we were doing. And then bam, I get this call that he took his life.

I stood there by the phone in darkness. Feeling naked. Lost and unsure of anything.

I believe that this is the feeling that the Israelites had when Moses didn’t come back. The text goes to great lengths to let us know that Moses took a really long time, as it says a “shamefully long” time, and it turns out that the word in Ex 32 for shameful is the same word in Gen. 3 for naked (When Adam and Eve are naked and feel no shame).

While Moses and YHWH were up on ol’ Mt. Sinai having a grand old-time the people feeling naked and exposed. I think this may have been the first moment they took stock of what was really going on. With Moses nowhere to be found, they didn’t have him to reassure them or explain what was going on. Now they are stuck out in the middle of a desert for going on forty days, with no leader, no word from YHWH, and no place to go.

The freaked.

And so do we. In those times when we feel the absence of God don’t we freak? When we feel absolutely naked and are unsure where to go don’t we too feel naked?

In those moments of feeling naked don’t we too reach for the first thing to cover our exposure, to cope with the loss, to try to control the situation, or to turn to some other kind of stand in, whether it be money, substance, anger, etc?

In this sense, I can totally get why they made they calf.

When we experience that deep absence and loss it is easy to lose our way, to lose sight of the bigger picture, and to resort to “golden calves” of our own making.

And this is where our Quaker tradition can teach us something.

Among other things, the practice of silence is the practice of learning how to remain calm in the absence. The practice of listening in the quiet is the practice of not grabbing the first idol that walks by to distract us. The practice of silence and listening is what the children of Israel had been doing for 40 days before they gave up.

I think we know this all too well as Quakers when we quickly resort to an “idol of words.” We struggle with silence and silent worship, which for us simultaneously signifies both presence and absence. Isn’t this why Friends Churches so often shorten or completely do away with silence? Dealing with absence is a scary thing. But when we refuse this practice and turn instead to the comfort of our own words are we any different from those who asked Aaron to fill the absence with a golden calf?

There is an inevitability of nakedness and absence in our lives. What happened to my step-dad and our family is not the exception to the rule. But in those dark moments where we lose our understanding are we quick to grasp at idols of our own making, or can we learn to sit quietly and hold form? We can trust that even in the midst of absence we are called to wait rather than to begin crafting calves.

Just as in our narrative this morning – God is still there, God’s is still paying attention, even if absence is all we feel.

Will we be tempted to fill the absence with our own making or wait for Christ’ Light to shine again?

Open Worship

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

2 thoughts on “The Inevitability of Absence (Ex. 32)”

  1. I appreciate a great deal of what is said, but I think the one addition I would make from the Friends tradition with respect to “absence” and the substitution of an idol for the “real thing” is the concept of needing an intermediary between YHWH and the people. This led to the “curtain” in the sanctuary of the temple that was torn from top to bottom on Good Friday. Friends insisted that no intermediary was needed and thus no priest or “pastor” (sorry about that Wess but do appreciate your advocacy for “released ministry” rather than “clergy”).
    The reliance on Moses, and then Aaron, and then on an “idol” showed a progression of substitution that Friends sought to “bypass” directly to YHWH not just through silence, but through ministry in word and deed of all.

Comments are closed.