Who are we when we get past the pain of betrayal? When we are deeply wounded and hurt, how do we navigate re-engaging in the relationship?
When God and Moses begin their fateful conversation in our passage today, they are feeling deeply wounded and betrayed. No sooner had the Israelites received the Ten Commandments with the instruction to have no other gods before the Holy God who brought them up out of the land of Egypt—than they betrayed their relationship with God by building and worshiping a golden calf. Even worse, their worship led to “revelry,” which is a polite way of saying wild parties ensued, orgies and all.
God is incensed; Moses is outraged. Indeed, Moses is so angry; he takes the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written and shatters them on the ground. He burns the golden calf, crushes the remains, and makes the Israelites drink it in their water. If they are so fond of this false god, they can consume it.
God, likewise, is so deeply hurt and angered by this betrayal. He complains to Moses, “‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you.’” (Exodus 33:5)
God’s vulnerability is on full display – God’s love has been exposed. God has invested heart and soul and salvation in this people and at the first sign of difficulty, at the first moment of anxiety, they betray God’s passionate love, and give their loyalty and devotion to mere gold. The relationship between God and the Israelites finds itself at a crisis point—they either must make up or break up—there is not a lot of in between here.
Moses knows he must do something. He informs the people that he will go to God and to atone for their sin. In God’s presence, Moses acknowledges to God that the people have committed a great sin. He then asks God to forgive them. Moses ups the ante: if you will not forgive them, “blot me out of the book you have written,” instead.(Exodus 32:32) Moses, either in a moment of self-sacrifice or using rich hyperbole that life just is not worth living if God cannot forgive, offers to take the punishment for the people. Moses was not even with the people when they went off the rails, and had nothing to do with this decision, but he is willing to take responsibility for Aaron’s lack of leadership and the people going astray. Blame me, says Moses.
But God refuses his offer. God sends a plague and then decides that the ingrateful Israelites will have to complete their journey to the Promised Land without God’s presence. God will send an angel as a token to lead them, but that is all they will get.
This is where our conversation between God and Moses gets interesting. Moses sympathizes with the depth of God’s pain and sense of betrayal, but he will not accept God’s answer—to abandon the people and send an angel instead? Moses argues that this is completely unacceptable. In that moment, Moses becomes Israel’s lawyer, advocating for mercy. Moses further presses his case by becoming God’s character witness, pushing God to display Who Moses knows God truly to be.
Here is this servant Moses, who first refused God’s call because he could not speak well, he was not good with words, and now he woos God with words of remembrance and affection. Like King George VI overcoming his stammer in the iconic speech of 1939 as Britain entered WWII, Moses boldly rises up, finds his voice, and bargains with God. He appeals to his own good character, and to God’s true nature. How can they be a distinct nation if God is not with them? How can Moses believe he has earned God’s favor without God’s presence leading them? Now is the moment, Moses implores, to fully and finally, show the height and depth and length and breadth of God’s love and mercy to a sinful, limited people.
Moses rests his case and wins his closing argument. God does not even have to deliberate, because God knows that Moses is right. God has promised to be with them, and God will not break that promise: "I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name." (Exodus 33:17) Moses, with new-found confidence in his negotiating skills, pushes a little further—he wants a concrete sign, a good-faith gesture, a deposit of trust of God’s presence. God agrees. God is willing to give Moses a glimpse of his backside, since to see God face to face would overpower any mortal.
The following day, God instructs Moses to make two stone tablets and ascend to the mountain so God can etch Ten Commandments anew. With the two new stone tablets in his hands, God says to Moses:
“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. He said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” Exodus 34:6-8
This God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, makes a new covenant with Israel promising to perform marvels such as have never been seen before. Moses receives the assurance he needs that God will remain with the people of Israel into the future. Moses trusts that even when the people’s sins betray and hurt God, God’s nature and character will always turn to steadfast love, forgiveness, and mercy, even to the thousandth generation.
We, who are traversing our own wilderness in this time, are particularly susceptible to hurt and betrayal. It sometimes feels like God has abandoned us and is indifferent to our plight. Moses did not give up or hide from this God, but sought him out, expressed his own anger, negotiated, and held God accountable to be the God that Moses knew God to be—the God who’s majesty and mystery we can never fully behold or comprehend, but who invites us to advocate and argue with God anyway.
So, seek the Lord, pour out your anger, negotiate with all your might, demand that God reveal God’s self to you, trusting that’s God’s gracious and merciful nature will overcome all things, and embrace you with an abounding steadfast love and faithfulness which endures until the thousandth generation.
• How have you handled betrayal in relationships? Have you forgiven and built a deeper trust, or needed the relationship to end and go your separate ways?
• Have you ever thought of God feeling vulnerable and exposed by God’s love and devotion for us? That behind the judgment we read in the Old Testament is really the pain of rejection, hurt and betrayal? Does this shift how you view God’s anger or God’s needs and desires for a relationship with you?
• Do you think Moses was willing to sacrifice himself for Israelite’s sin? Or was he engaging in dramatic hyperbole—kind of bating God—that if God cannot muster up forgiveness, then life just is not worth living?
• Have you ever argued, or negotiated with God, refusing to accept God’s answer for you or someone you love? How did this engagement with God affect, change, or deepen your faith? Have you considered the idea that you can change God's mind?
• Have you ever asked God for a sign and received one? What are the signs of God’s presence and love that you notice most often?
• If you were to take God to task right now, and hold God accountable to being Who you know God to be, what would you say to God? How would you ask God to show up and be true to God’s nature? Be bold and give Moses’ conversation with God a try!