Friday 4th September 2020
Anger and Murder
Exodus 31: 15 – 29
Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, ‘There is a noise of war in the camp.’ But he said,
‘It is not the sound made by victors,
or the sound made by losers;
it is the sound of revellers that I hear.’
As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
Moses said to Aaron, ‘What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?’ And Aaron said, ‘Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, “Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So I said to them, “Whoever has gold, take it off”; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’
When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), hen Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!’ And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. He said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbour.”’ The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. Moses said, ‘Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.’
This graphic story describes the breaking of the covenant between God and His people. It starts with Moses coming down the mountain with precious hand baggage, two stone tablets inscribed by God. Suddenly he hears an infernal racket. His companion wonders if it might be war but Moses quotes a snatch of an old poem-it is the sound of partying. We quail. We already know what is going on. The Israelites in the camp had forgotten the solemn promise they had so recently made to God. They no longer trust God’s leadership, they have made a statue of gold, a bull-calf, symbol of vitality and power, and they are engaging in a wild orgy of idol worship. Now when Moses sees this for himself, he reacts in blind fury, and smashes the tablets. God’s covenant with Israel is broken. Faced with abhorrent evil, Moses then annihilates the idol.
Moses asks Aaron to explain himself. He had after all, been left in charge. Aaron makes excuses – it was, he said, all the people’s fault. Exit Aaron. Moses realises that tough measures are called for. Having destroyed the idol, now he has to root out the devotees. And so, in God’s name, he summons the Levites, who alone remain loyal to God, to slaughter the renegades.
Horrifying as this story may be, we are left in no doubt that sin is to be taken seriously. The people experience the full weight of God’s righteous anger. There is no appeal here to ‘cheap grace’. Grace is costly. And yet God will renew the covenant; and through grace the gap will ultimately be bridged between a holy God and his sinful people.
give me today a strong sense that you are by my side.
Remember me in your mercy, and keep me in your grace.
Be my guide through all that is dark and doubtful;
be my strength in times of testing;
gladden my heart with your peace,
Through the grace of Christ my saviour. Amen.