FIRST READING – book of Exodus 32, 7…14
In those days,
7 The LORD spoke to Moses:
for your people have corrupted themselves,
whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt.
8 They Won’t Take Long
to deviate from the path I had ordered them to follow!
They made themselves a calf out of molten metal
and bowed down to him.
They offered sacrifices to him, proclaiming:
‘Israel, here are your gods,
who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’ »
9 Again the LORD said to Moses:
“I see that these people
is a stiff-necked people.
10 Now leave it to me;
my anger will ignite against them
and I will exterminate them!
But of you I will make a great nation. »
11 Moses appeased the face of the LORD his God
would your anger be kindled against your people,
whom you brought out of the land of Egypt
by your great strength and your mighty hand?
13 Remember your servants,
Abraham, Isaac and Israel,
to whom you have sworn by yourself:
‘I will multiply your offspring
like the stars of the sky;
I will give, as I said,
all this country to your descendants,
and he will forever be their inheritance.’ »
14 The LORD forsook
to the harm he had wanted to do to his people.
YOU WILL HAVE NO OTHER GODS IN FRONT OF ME
I will quickly remind you of the context (for a broader presentation, see the supplements): three months after the Exodus from Egypt, God proposed the Covenant to Moses and his people: and the people, unanimously, accepted the ‘Alliance. And then there was the extraordinary manifestation of God, in lightning, thunder, fire, cloud. And again the people pledged, “Whatever the LORD has spoken, we will do.” (Ex 19.8). Then Moses went back up the mountain to receive the tables of the Law.
The episode of the golden calf takes place at this moment: we find that Moses takes a long time to descend; we have just had an extraordinary religious experience, and here we are, falling back into everyday life. We no longer hear anything, we no longer see anything… Where is God? Where is Moses? Then the temptation is too strong; Aaron is required to make a statue. When Moses finally comes down from the mountain, the tablets of the Law in his hand, he is welcomed by hymns addressed to the statue!
Clearly, this making of a statue was considered by God and by Moses as a fault. One may wonder what is wrong with this? To understand what the prohibition of idols represented, and how the manufacture of the golden calf is a fault, it is necessary to reread the commandments, what is called the Decalogue. The first sentence, we often forget, is not a command, it is an affirmation: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . (Ex 20.1). Affirmation which precedes the commandments and justifies them, it gives their meaning. It is because God has liberated his people that he now gives them the commandments: these have no other purpose than to indicate the way to remain a free and happy people.
The first of these commandments has two points: first, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”; secondly, you shall not make idols for yourself… It is very clear: “You shall not make any idol, any image of that which is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters below the earth. You will not bow down to these gods to worship them. »
YOU SHALL NOT MAKE AN IDOL
This ban on making idols was very new for this people coming out of Egypt, where statues of all kinds of gods represented in the form of animals abounded. And besides, if the Hebrews barely left Egypt had the idea of making a golden calf, it’s because they had already seen one! For example, one found on a fresco of the necropolis of Thebes a young golden calf representing the sun at its rise. This brand new prohibition is therefore very demanding: the proof is that, irresistibly, the people disobey; it would be so reassuring to be able to put our hands on God: to touch him, to see him… but also to be able to move away from him, to hide from him…
But idol worship is just a red herring and God knows it better than we do; first, because any attempt to represent God, the All-Other, is inexorably doomed to failure; we cannot reduce God to a statue, quite simply because God is not in the measure of man. Then, more seriously still, any attempt to freeze God, to fix him, to claim to have any power over him, is a deception; this inevitably leads to magic, to fetishism, and also to the exorbitant power of the clergy since it is the priests who are in a way the servants of the idol… (In parentheses, this is exactly what happened in Egypt with the worship of Amun).
The worship of idols is therefore forever forbidden to the people who first encountered the liberating God. Better still, the ban on making idols is part of the enterprise of liberating the people of God: to put it another way, this ban meant a prohibited meaning, it reminded us that idolatry is a false track, a dead end. Freedom was at this price. For our authentic freedom requires that we accept this fundamental truth; then, and then only, can we enter with God into the Covenant that he proposes to us.
THE SOLIDARITY OF MOSES WITH HIS PEOPLE
The story presents us with an angry God and Moses pleading to appease him: God says to Moses ‘your people have disobeyed me’ and Moses begs ‘Do not be angry with your people’. Of course, it’s a way of speaking! We know today that God is not subject to anger like any of us and that he does not need words of appeasement to calm down. But, at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, we still imagined a God who strongly resembles men with the same feelings and the same outbursts. It took centuries of revelation for us to discover the true face of God. Ultimately, when the Bible speaks of God’s wrath, it is always to express his tireless refusal to let us go astray.
The same goes for God’s forgiveness: it took thousands of years for believers to discover that God’s forgiveness is not conditional on our pleadings! The discovery of God is very progressive and it is only very slowly that our ways of speaking about him evolve: what is extraordinary in this text is that the people are already experiencing God’s forgiveness: a God who persists in tirelessly proposing his Alliance after each of our infidelities.
Finally, the people will always remember the example of Moses: he, the beneficiary of God’s favors, since he is the only one to have met him face to face, he never dissociates himself from his people, even when the latter this is at fault!
1 – the context
This takes place during the Exodus, that is to say the march of the Hebrew people in the desert after the exodus from Egypt: such an important period which has deeply marked the memory of the people. First there was the exodus from Egypt, the liberation from Egyptian slavery under the leadership of Moses, and thanks to the miraculous protection of God; and that famous song of victory that followed: it was in chapter 15 of the book of Exodus; and then, immediately afterwards, the first stages in the desert were so many tests not only for the endurance of the people, but above all for their faith: we were no longer used to this nomadic life and to the insecurity of the desert… the lack of drinking water, thirst, hunger… with each new ordeal, the people revolt against Moses who dragged them into this crazy adventure, and finally against this God who promised his protection but who sometimes seems forget them… This God of Moses is at the same time so close at times and so elusive.
And then, three months after the exodus from Egypt, God proposed the Covenant to Moses and his people: “You have seen what I did to Egypt, how I carried you as on the wings of an eagle and brought you to me. Now therefore, if you listen to my voice and keep my covenant, you will be my private domain among all peoples, for the whole earth belongs to me; but you, you will be for me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. (Ex 19.4-6). And already, for the first time, the people, unanimously, accepted the Alliance; he replied, “Whatever the LORD has said, we will do.” (Ex 19.8).
Then Moses, at God’s command, ascended Mount Sinai: and the people, dazzled and trembling at the same time, witnessed an extraordinary manifestation of God, in lightning, thunder, fire, cloud . When Moses came down from the mountain, the people heard the proclamation of the commandments and solemnly made a Covenant with God: at the foot of the mountain, Moses built an altar and offered sacrifices. And again the people pledged: “All these words which the LORD has spoken, we will do. (Ex 24.3). Then Moses went back up the mountain to receive the tables of the Law.
The episode of the golden calf takes place at this time: for the rest, see commentary § 2 above.
2 – I come back to the expression “hard-headed”: I didn’t have time to approach it within the limits of the show; we will find her again for the feast of the Trinity (year A). “Head hard”, these are the terms of our liturgical translation; but, in Hebrew, the original expression is “stiff-necked people”; in passing from one language to another, unfortunately, we have lost the richness of the underlying image.
In an essentially agricultural civilization, which was the case in Israel in biblical times, the sight of two animals harnessed by a yoke was usual: we know what a yoke is: it is a piece of wood, very heavy, very solid, which attaches two animals to plow. The yoke weighs on their necks and the two animals inevitably come to walk at the same pace.
The biblical authors have a sense of images: they applied this image of the yoke to the Covenant between God and Israel. Taking the yoke was therefore synonymous with attaching oneself to God in order to walk in his footsteps. But here we are, the people of Israel are constantly stiffening under this yoke of the Covenant concluded with God at Sinai. Instead of seeing it as a favor, he sees it as a burden. He complains about the difficulties of life in the desert, and even ends up finding the daily windfall very bland. So much so that Moses experienced days of discouragement. Instead of allowing itself to be carried along by the strength of God, the team of the Alliance, in fact, is perpetually slowed down by the reluctance of this stiff-necked people.
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Sunday, September 11, 2022 – Catholic Church in France
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