God’s Temptation

Bible text: Exodus 32:7-14

This morning I was reading the story of Israel’s creation of the golden calf at Mount Sinai. Moses has been on Mount Sinai 40 days in dialogue with God. Israel gets impatient with his absence. They want action now, and so they ask Aaron to create them a god. He creates a golden calf.

This creates an interesting turn in God’s dialogue with Moses. Hot with anger, God tells Moses to leave the mountain immediately. God says he is about to destroy the people of Israel for their apostasy. Instead he will create a new people from Moses’ line of descent.

What caught my attention is how God introduces this conversation. He says to Moses: “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely….” [I added the italics.] Suddenly the people of Israel are not God’s people. They are Moses’ people. And Moses is the one who brought them up out of Egypt. God lays no claim to them.

Moses, however, will not allow God to wipe his hands of the connection. He retorts: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” [Again, I’ve added the italics.]

Moses does not allow God to cavalierly displace the connection between God and Israel. It is not Moses who brought Israel out of Egypt. It is God. And the Israelites are certainly Moses’ people because he belongs to them. But in terms of covenant ownership, they are God’s people because God called and created them.

Moses then reminds God of the stake he has in Israel’s fate. If God destroys Israel, it will reflect very badly on God’s reputation. The Egyptians will laugh in derision.

Furthermore, God has made a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If he destroys the Israelites, God will show himself an unstable god like all the fickle, unstable gods of the other ancient Near Eastern polytheisms. God will show himself to be a God in whom no one would be advised to place any ultimate trust and loyalty.

The text says Moses wins the argument. God changes his mind.

I find this a fascinating dialogue for two reasons. One is the effrontery exhibited by Moses. Moses is neither bribed by God’s promise to make a great nation out of Moses. Nor is he meekly cowed by God’s presumption to pass the buck of responsibility onto Moses. Moses does not accept the role of scapegoat.

Instead Moses stands up to God. He presumes to argue with God. And Moses wins.

The other fascinating feature is the argument Moses makes. If God is going to be God, then God must be true to himself. God may need to be flexible in dealing with humanity. The story of the Bible gives many examples of this flexibility.

But God cannot be untrue to himself and remain God. God cannot betray his eternal purposes and character and remain a God in whom humanity is called to place ultimate trust. In times when God is thwarted and frustrated with the erring ways of humanity, he may be tempted to act in ways that are less than God. But if he does, he will cease to be God. He will become the Devil.

God faces a temptation. He has been betrayed, and he is tempted to respond in kind. But Moses reminds God that if he gives in to the temptation in the heat of passionate emotion, he will cease to be God.

So God must work with recalcitrant humanity is a way that God remains true to God’s own self. How he does that is the story of rest of the Bible. 

Discerning God with Hindsight

Bible text: Exodus 3:7-12

I love reading the story of how God calls Moses to go to Egypt, confront Pharaoh, and lead the Israelites out into freedom. It is told in Exodus, chapters 3 and 4.

I love the story because Moses is such a reluctant leader. He raises one objection after another as to why God has chosen the wrong man. This series of objections climaxes with his blatant and direct statement to God in Exodus 4:13: “O my Lord, please send someone else.” Talk about hutzpah with God.

When we talk about God being in the transformation business, there is no better example than Moses before and after.

I was reading this call story recently when one thing God says jumped out at me as it had never done before. In Exodus 3:7-10, God reveals for the first time why he has confronted Moses out of the burning bush. He is calling Moses to the daunting task of leading the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage.

This evokes Moses’ first objection, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses does not see himself at being up to the task—at all. This is more than a big hairy goal. It’s an impossible goal.

God responds: “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

God promises to be with Moses. God also assures Moses that he will be with Moses with a sign: when Moses’ task is complete, he and the Israelites will worship God on this mountain of Sinai.

Now most of us when we seek a sign from God seek some kind of divine guarantee that God is truly with us. We want proof that the promise will be delivered. And we want that proof here and now.

But God gives a proof that lies in the future, not in the here and now. Moses will know that God was with him when in the future he arrives back at Mount Sinai. In the meantime Moses must live by trusting in a promise that has no guarantee in the present. He must, like all the faithful through the ages, walk by faith, not by certainty. He must trust in God’s promises, period.

The life of faith is challenging. And sometimes I worry that I have been deluded into adopting a way of life that is nothing but foggy illusion, illusion that will vanish when the burning heat of reality settles in. I long for certainty, but certainty is not given. We walk by trust, not clarity.

The clarity comes, paradoxically, by hindsight. I have found that when I am living out the life of faith, I have no certainty that God is with me and directing my life. Living can feel very confusing and sometimes disorienting. But as I look back on my life journey, I begin to see how God was at work in all that confusion, leading me forward into the man I have now become.

When that happens, I feel a sense of awe. The promise to Moses and to each one of us has proved true. God was with us. With hindsight, we see providence at work in a way we can never perceive as we look into the future.

I can never prove to you that God is at work in your life. All I can do is tell my own story and share the story of those whom we read in the Bible, people like Moses. The proof of what I say and the Bible says will be your own experience, as you step out fearfully into a life of trust.

So the life of faith always involves risk, but maybe that is also what makes it an adventure.