Imagine, if you will, life for the Israelites in Egypt.
They had been there at least three or four generations by the time Moses and Aaron are raised up to lead them back home to the Promised Land.
Over the previous generation the Egyptian authorities had turned the Israelite community in Goshen, who had originally been refugees from famine in Palestine, into an abundant and absolutely free workforce to drive the Egyptian economy. In fact, not only was their labour free, they had to produce their own raw materials for brick-making.
As the Egyptians enforce their slavery more and more harshly, the people would have lived in constant fear. Their lives were in the hands of their Egyptian masters, who could without any fear of punishment strike an Israelite dead. Maybe they didn’t make enough bricks in the day. Maybe they were talking too much. Maybe the brisks were too small. It didn’t matter. They were always so close to the terror of punishment or death.
While the Israelites lived in a somewhat segregated area, they could not avoid constant expose to the religious practices of Egypt. There, they had a myriad of gods – some depicted as humans with the features of animals and some depicted as animals.
They had gods for every situation in life – not unlike the practice some have developed in Christendom of having patron saints that help us in every conceivable situation, which is interesting in itself. Ra was the most important God. He was always depicted as a man with a Hawk’s head upon which rested a golden disk of the sun around which a cobra – one of Egypt’s potent symbols of power.
Being a nation dependent on the life given by the Nile River, there were many fertility gods that ensured good harvests if they were properly revered by the people. One of the most important fertility gods was Apis –a bull. Apis was represented by a number of other gods, multiplying his power over the fertility of the land. There were several temples to Apis and numerous shrines all over the place because the fertility of the land meant life or death to the people.
Now, as we enter into the story we have for today, we can carry a little bit of the life that had preceded it and maybe make some sense of it.
After the Water in the Rock story a couple of weeks ago, Moses brings the people to Mt Sinai, which the Hebrew Scriptures sometimes called Horeb, as well. Moses was told to bring the people to the mountain. Then he was to mark a line right around the mountain and warn the people that they could not cross that line – or they would die. He was going up the mountain a little way. God would cover the mountain with smoke and talk to Moses and the people would be able to hear God speaking – but not see him.
If you reread Exodus 19 you will see Moses going back and forth to the people reassuring them that this will be okay.
Then, as we read last week, God’s talk with Moses begins with his statement that we now call “The Ten Commandments”. The people were terrified by all this noise of God speaking, and Moses had to go back and reassure them, after which God called him back for more. Moses told the people “Don’t be afraid: God has only come to test you and make you keep on obeying him.” He then went back up the mountain – further up this time. And these instructions take up all of the intervening chapters – from 21-31. God provided them with rules for many many things.
And all this took some time.
The people waiting at the bottom of a smoking and rumbling mountain found their fears aroused again. Why is it taking so long? What has happened to Moses? Surely he is dead. So they went and complained to Aaron.
I suppose Aaron thought it would be good to do something – you know what men are like; they have to do something. So he got the people to bring all the precious gold they had carried away from Egypt, and with this all melted down, they created a golden calf in the fashion of Apis – the great Egyptian god of fertility and life.
Now the Israelites really liked this kind of God. They understood Apis. And they could see Apis. And Apis was not up on that mountain making all that noise. So they drank wine (not sure where they got that from) and sang and danced in what is described to us an orgy of drinking and sex.
Well, it is not surprising that the story tells us that God was pretty mad about this. Will these people never learn? God had just given them a short set of rules to live by and within days they had gone and broken one of the most important – “Do not make for yourself images of anything in heaven or on earth.” Commandment number two.
Did you smile when we read the words of God to Moses: “I know how stubborn these people are. Now don’t try and stop me. I am angry with them, and I am going to destroy them.” How human it is for someone threatening something dire to say to those around – “don’t try and stop me” – as if they really want them to try.
Well Moses stepped up to the mark on that one.
Moses seems to focus on the issue of honour in his intercession. He says that it would be bad form to allow the Egyptians to gloat over the waste if the Israelites all perished in the desert. The he reminds God of his promise to Abraham Isaac and Jacob – how would he keep this promise if he wiped out these stubborn and disobedient people?
And of course God changes his mind.
In the first place, I think this might lead us to an important message we can take from the story. Many Christians struggle with the idea of intercessory prayer. God knows everything and the needs of everyone before we pray – and it is his will that these be overcome – but somehow he wants to hear his faithful people pray. This doesn’t make God something like a computer which if we program the right inputs he will deliver the right outputs.
The act of intercessory prayer can be the ultimate act of identifying with those in need. And when we put ourselves in the place of those in need, God hears, and God responds – as he did to Moses’ prayer that day.
As a second thought out of this, I want to pick up something that may have been a mystery for you in the Gospel reading. What did you make of that encounter between the King and the guest who did not have wedding garments on?
Most commentators see this story as an allegory in which different elements of the story have meanings. In this case, they take this reference to a wedding garment to mean discipleship. The whole of this narrative of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness is about discipleship. During this time they are learning about the ways of God and how to be faithful to God. That seems to me to be a perfect description of discipleship. The question we need to ask is: if the goal of discipleship is to arrive at the Promised Land, is there ever a time in this life when we cease to be a disciple – when we have “arrived”?
Obviously the answer is no! The work of faith for us in this life is to so live in God that when we die we shall continue to live in God – not as a reward for being good enough (the Israelites never really deserved the Promised Land God had promised) but because God has walked with us and could not conceive of a future without us – that is how big his grace is.