Exodus: Betrayal

Impatience drives the Israelites into breaking the covenant.

Worship of the Golden Calf, painting by Nicholas Poussin, French, 17th century.

Impatience drives people to do many foolish things. We have a clear example in Exodus 32. This chapter tells the story of Israel’s apostasy. The Israelites construct and then worship a golden calf as their god. 

As the chapter begins, Moses has been on top of Mount Sinai in conversation with God. God has been giving him the instructions for constructing the tabernacle and its furnishings and setting up the priesthood and the rituals of Israel’s worship. During this conversation, Moses has been absent from Israel’s base camp for 40 days–a long time.

This long absence seems to have triggered a growing anxiety among the Israelites. They complain, 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 (Exodus 32:1). Behind this anxiety may be the hidden fear that Moses has died and left them abandoned in the wilderness. 

We as readers of Exodus are given a taste of how this anxiety may have arisen by the fact that six long chapters (Exodus 25-31) precede that comment. Those chapters give us the details of those instructions God is giving Moses on the mountain top.

Many readers find these descriptions tedious reading. We must wade through six chapters of boring description before we can land back into the narrative. Literarily these six chapters give us a taste of the tedium in the Israelite camp that set the stage for what was to come next. We long to skip over them and get on with the narrative. 

The Israelites want to get on with their journey just as we want to get on with the story. Impatience becomes the root cause of the incident of the golden calf.

One other factor may be feeding this anxiety, too. The God of Israel has no visible form. No image can capture his appearance. What the Israelites must rely on for confidence that God is with them is God’s presence and actions in their midst. 

But during the 40 days Moses has been on top of the mountain, God’s focus has been on Moses. The Israelites may be feeling they have been forgotten or abandoned by God. They feel a need for some visible token, some memorial or symbol, that God is with them. They demand a visible image to reassure their fears.

Violating the First Commandment

In response to these two factors, the Israelites pressure Aaron to construct for them the golden calf. Once it is erected, they gather around it to sacrifice. They acclaim it in the words: These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 32:4). 

These words repudiate the opening words God speaks when he gives the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (Exodus 20:2-4).*

Just 40 days after the ritual celebrations of ratifying the covenant (described in chapter 24), Israel violates the foundational principle of that covenant. This despite the fact that in chapter 20 we read of how Israel experienced God’s presence on the mountain in the spectacular natural phenomena of the earthquake, smoke, fire, and trumpet blast. Israel at that time had experienced emotions of terror. 

That can be a reminder that awesome religious experiences need not always be transformative. We would have thought that after their experience with God at the mountain, Israel would have settled into a profound trust. But the nation did not. Instead it slipped so quickly into apostasy.

The Corrosive Power of Impatience

When I read this Exodus narrative, I am reminded of the deadly, corrosive power of impatience, the demand for instant gratification that repeatedly afflicts mankind. To build anything lasting, anything of substance, in life–whether in personal character development, in relationships like a marriage, in academic achievement, in architecture, in business, in nation-building–takes time and persistence. 

We have the best evidence of this truth in God’s creation of the world through the evolutionary process. The arrival of homo sapiens upon the earth is the end result of a long period of development of the planet earth. Our planet is some 4.5 billion years old. Life has arisen and grown in complexity over the course of some 3 billion years. That is an awesome but also sobering fact to ponder.

The story of the exodus bears witness to this reality by telling us that it took 40 years for Israel to make its trek from Egypt to Canaan. Important spiritual and national developments were happening in that 40-year period to prepare Israel to take up life as an independent nation in its own land. Likewise human beings must go through a long process of childhood and adolescence before they are prepared to take up the responsibilities of adulthood.

This is why the exodus story is such an important paradigm for us in our spiritual lives. Our spiritual lives are always spiritual journeys. We may begin our spiritual journey with a one-time act of faith, expressed in the sacrament of baptism, but we do not grow into mature saints instantaneously. 

It is not accidental that Jesus turns to the agricultural world for parables about life in the kingdom of God. We grow into spiritual maturity through a process, a process which proves to be a lifetime process. And if the early church father Gregory of Nyssa is right, it is a process that does not end with death, but continues on into the next life.**

Impatience then can cause serious damage, if not thwart, those processes of development and growth.*** Patience, however, is not easy to endure. It can be painful. It causes us anxiety and a longing to speed up the process with easy shortcuts. Maybe that is why patience is one expression of the need to bear our cross that Jesus says describes the life of discipleship (see Mark 8:34).


* Note that God says I am the Lord your God… (singular). The Israelites, however, say in the presence of the calf, These are your gods…(plural). The Israelites have not only repudiated the command about idols, but have also denied its fundamental monotheism.

** Gregory of Nyssa saw the whole story of the exodus as an allegorical guide to the spiritual life. He expresses that interpretation of the exodus in his book The Life of Moses

In his book he states his belief that the spiritual journey does not end with death. It continues on into the next life without end. About the beatific vision of God which traditional spirituality sees as the end goal of the spiritual journey, Gregory says: This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in our desire to see him (The Life of Moses, Book II, Paragraph 239). 

*** One of the three vows that Benedictine monks take is the vow to stability. This vow means they promise to remain with their particular monastic community for their whole lives. This vow mirrors the vow married couples take when they promise to remain faithful to each other “until death do us part.” The vow to stability is a vow to perseverance. Perseverance is the key virtue in the journey to professional, personal, and spiritual maturity.  

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