7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely;
The pronouns in the first reading are intriguing. Speaking to Moses, God calls the Israelites “your people.” But Moses answers God saying, “Why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?”
We can laugh as God and Moses argue over to whom this “stiff-necked” people belong, but a very important conversation is taking place. Who stands behind the exodus? Who stands behind the humbling of pharaoh? Who stands behind the parting of the waters? Has Moses come out of Egypt with a ragged band fleeing oppression, or has God brought them out to meet him at Sinai? Did Moses deliver them or God? The leaders of faith communities often get this wrong – as do the people themselves.
At this point in the narrative, of course, this is a question for Moses. He is on the mountain alone with God. The people have remained behind. They didn’t want to hear the voice of God directly. It frightened them. It confronted them with all the might and majesty and holiness of God. Waiting behind, however, they have grown fearful. They press Aaron to make for them a visible manifestation of the divine – a golden calf. Rather than stand before the mystery of the infinite, they want the concrete. Rather than worshiping God by the observance of his teachings, they want to worship in the way of the nations – a carnival of feasting, drunkenness and “dancing” (a euphemism for sexual behaviors). Drink and dancing are a shortcut to altered states of consciousness; much easier than prayer, obedience and submission to the holy.
But the argument between Moses and God is not that neither wants to claim this people. Moses is being tested. His heart is being revealed. Does he imagine that he is the hero of this narrative or God? Has he brought the people out or has the eternal and ineffable one called them? Something very important happens when we realize that we are not the hero of our own story.
The greatest temptation is that Moses should become the new Abraham – God will dispose of these “stiff-necked”, rebellious people and create a new people of God born from Moses’ descendants. But Moses doesn’t fall. He calls God to remember his promise to Abraham. He calls God to remember that God himself has brought out this people. He calls God to be the God he has shown himself to be – a God of mercy. In calling God to faithfulness, he shows his own faithfulness.
In the end, the narrative says that God repents. The people have not changed, but God has changed. Instead of his suggestion that he destroy this people, he will forgive. He acts in keeping with his nature: he saves.
And then pronoun changes:
14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
God is again God. And we are once again God’s people.