Tag Archives: idolatry

Exodus 32: The Golden Calf Threatens the Covenant

 Exodus 32: 1-6 The People Ask for Gods

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” 6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

Being the people of God involves learning patience: patience with the LORD and patience with the leaders who mediate between the people and their God. While Moses has been up with the LORD receiving the instructions for the tabernacle where God can dwell among the people, the people and Aaron go against the covenant they have made and cast the golden calf and prepare to worship it. This is a pivotal scene in the relationship between the people and God. The covenant has been broken by the people and the next couple chapters must reconcile the brokenness of relationship between God and the people.

The people heard the prohibition of creating an idol at the head of the decalogue in Exodus 20 and in Exodus 24 they sealed the covenant ritually as the people when the blood of the sacrificed oxen was dashed on them. The people have heard the LORD’s commandments and agreed to them and yet the absence of Moses creates a crisis of faith for them. Whether the cast image of the calf was meant to represent the LORD the God of Israel whose voice they had heard or whether the calf is not clear, it could be read either way. In either case the people have either, with Aaron the high priest’s assistance, abandoned the LORD their God or attempted to make an image for the God who refuses to be limited to any image on the earth or above the earth or under the earth.

One of the threads in this reading is control. The people and Aaron want an image for god, something they can carry and use as a symbol but there is also a limiting function to having a god in the image of a calf or any other form. Yet, fundamentally the LORD refuses to be limited or controlled by an image. Images of the LORD or any other god were not to be made by the Israelites, even the name of the LORD was only spoken in the greatest of care. From chapters 25-31 we have seen how God has worked with Moses to set aside a space where a little bit of heaven can come down to earth and where the LORD would meet with the people. In contrast the people have attempted to create an earthly god to replace the LORD of heaven and earth.

The golden calf is an incredible resonant image. It can become in any age and time the safe gods we choose instead of the LORD the God of Israel that Exodus presents us with. Even in our time the image continues to hold power. It is perhaps the height of irony that the largest amount paid to a living author for a piece of art was to Damien Hirst for ‘the Golden Calf’ a week before the financial collapse of 2008. (Sacks, 2010, p. 259) During the time while the initial draft of this sat these lines were written by me:

Security may be the golden calf we sacrifice to and worship
We dance in the glow of the images of fertility and strength
Following the masses in the shadow of Sinai as they celebrate
That which they can cast and control, tame gods that don’t speak
Metallic beings of the valley rather than the master of the mountain

There will always be the temptation to worship that which we can see or to model the things we worship upon that which we value. As a religious leader there is the temptation to provide that which the crowd desires rather than to be the prophet in the uncomfortable position of standing between a wounded God and a stiff-necked people. Yet, the golden calves of every age tend to lead to our fragmenting into tribes of like-minded worshippers and sometimes to intertribal warfare like we see at the end of this chapter as Moses and the Levites attempt to bring the people back to the LORD and the LORD’s ways.

Exodus 32: 7-14 Moses Between God and the People

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; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” 9 The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

11 But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, 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? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Moses stands between the people and the LORD and he is the one unbroken strand in the covenant. For the LORD this is a betrayal that threatens not only the relationship of the people and their God, but a betrayal that threatens to overcome the people with God’s anger. The LORD takes this relationship seriously! There are many things that can be said about the portrayal of the LORD the God of Israel depending on one’s perspective but this God is never the enlightenment’s unmoved mover. The LORD is engaged in the redemption of the people of Israel from slavery and is invested in this people and the people’s actions can wound God emotionally. Yet, the LORD’s tie to Moses also remains strong and the LORD considers starting over with Moses and even presents this offer to Moses, the same offer that Abraham received.

Moses stands between the people and the LORD, that is where the prophet stands. In the coming verses we will see Moses’ anger but in this time before God Moses is the logical one calling to mind not only God’s honor but also God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Moses calls upon God, even in God’s anger and grief, to honor the promises that have been made. Moses calls God back to the covenant, even though the covenant has been broken in a spectacular way by the people. Prophets stand between God and the people and God listens even when God wants to be left alone. When the LORD desires silence, for the sake of the people the prophet speak so that they might change God’s mind and avert disaster for the people.

Image from Rt. Rev. Richard Gilmour, Bible History Containing the Most Remarkable Events of the Old and New Testaments, with a Compenduim of Church History (1904)

Exodus 32: 15-24 Broken Covenant, Broken Relationships

15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant1 in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18 But he said, “It is not the sound made by victors, or the sound made by losers; it is the sound of revelers that I hear.” 19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.

21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off ‘; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

Moses risked entering the furnace of the LORD’s anger for the people but now his own anger burns hot. Moses knows the danger the people have put themselves into, he knows the consequence of the broken covenant with the LORD. He has seen not only the LORD’s hopes but his own hopes dashed in this sudden act of rebellion. The tablets, the work of God, have been made worthless by the work of the people. A broken dream and a shattered covenant. The object which Moses had waited to bring to the people now lies shattered at the base of the mountain.

The tablets are broken, the calf is destroyed and scattered on the waters for the Israelites to drink in the bitter taste of their betrayal. Yet, it is Aaron who in this moment receives Moses’ first attention. Aaron who will be the high priest of the people, whose role will be to atone for the people has been active in their betrayal. In a manner like Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, Aaron immediately attempts to deflect Moses’ anger onto the people. Yet, Moses and Aaron here are in strong contrast: Moses interceded for the people while Aaron blamed them. In one way this is oversimplified since Aaron is down the mountain with the people and feels pressured by them, yet the role of leaders is to restrain the people from a path that would lead to their destruction. Aaron minimizes his role within the creation of the golden calf (I threw the gold into the fire and out popped the calf). Atonement will need to be made for Aaron before he can make atonement for the people. The only one able to make the needed atonement is Moses.

Exodus 32: 25-35 Sin, Brokenness and Consequences

25 When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 He said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.'” 28 The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. 29 Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves1 for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.”

 30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will only forgive their sin — but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” 33 But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin.”

35 Then the LORD sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf — the one that Aaron made.

Moses and the sons of Levi violently restore order to the camp. I struggle with the violence unleashed in this scene even though I can appreciate the seriousness of the situation. For Moses this is a struggle of life or death. If order cannot be restored he knows the consequences of the LORD’s wrath continuing to burn and break out against the people. The Levites here are set aside for their future ministry in the service of the LORD. The cost of the earlier celebrations has been high indeed. This is nothing short of intertribal warfare and its conclusion determines the direction of the people of Israel.

In what, to me, is one of the most courageous scenes in the book of Exodus and perhaps in all of scriptures, Moses returns to the LORD and still stands with the people. He dares to ask God to forgive the people, but if God cannot forgive the people then Moses stands with them and asks for his own name to be removed. Moses refuses to give the LORD the option of starting over with him. There is consequence to this sin and brokenness but it is not immediate. God has turned aside from the threat of letting God’s anger consume the people, even though there is the plague which comes at the end of the chapter. There is judgment but not annihilation. The relationship and the promise of the land continue but trust has been broken and the relationship is not the same.

 Deuteronomy 13: The Challenge of Exclusivity

Willem de Poorter, 'De afgoderij van konig Solomo'-Solomon's decent into idolatry (between 1630 and 1648)

Willem de Poorter, ‘De afgoderij van konig Solomo’-Solomon’s decent into idolatry (between 1630 and 1648)

Deuteronomy 13

1 If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, 2 and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” 3 you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. 4 The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. 5 But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God– who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery– to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

 6 If anyone secretly entices you– even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend– saying, “Let us go worship other gods,” whom neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 any of the gods of the peoples that are around you, whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to the other, 8 you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. 9 But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people.10 Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.11 Then all Israel shall hear and be afraid, and never again do any such wickedness.

12 If you hear it said about one of the towns that the LORD your God is giving you to live in, 13 that scoundrels from among you have gone out and led the inhabitants of the town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods,” whom you have not known, 14 then you shall inquire and make a thorough investigation. If the charge is established that such an abhorrent thing has been done among you, 15 you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it– even putting its livestock to the sword.16 All of its spoil you shall gather into its public square; then burn the town and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the LORD your God. It shall remain a perpetual ruin, never to be rebuilt.17 Do not let anything devoted to destruction stick to your hand, so that the LORD may turn from his fierce anger and show you compassion, and in his compassion multiply you, as he swore to your ancestors, 18 if you obey the voice of the LORD your God by keeping all his commandments that I am commanding you today, doing what is right in the sight of the LORD your God.

 

As modern people the language of Deuteronomy, particularly the voices heard in sections like this can be difficult to hear. This does come from a different set of experiences and a very different time and culture and so I’m going to deal first with what it says and then reflect on how we might engage this within our own time, culture and struggles in a modern (or postmodern), secular and pluralistic world. If Deuteronomy reaches its final form in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile, which many scholars believe, as the people are wrestling for answers for how they retain their identity in a foreign land then Deuteronomy provides a voice arguing strongly against accommodation with the surrounding culture and provides a blame on the previous generations’ unfaithfulness to this as the reason for their current desolation. Deuteronomy is not the only voice in this conversation but among the scriptures that make up the Hebrew Bible they form one of the dominant voices.

We often think of decisions in terms of individual choices in a disenchanted world, but that was not the worldview of the people in the ancient world who received the book of Deuteronomy and who passed it on from generation to generation. This was a world in which belief was a communal activity which kept the demonic forces at bay, some of these forces like disease or famine would be looked upon today as a part of the measurable scientific worldview but in ancient times they were either ‘acts of God’ or acts of some other divine or demonic forces. If one person either turns away from or refuses to participate in the communal worship, beliefs and practices then it endangers everyone. As Charles Taylor says about the ancient worldview, “Villagers who hold out, or even denounce the common rites, put the efficacy of those rites in danger, and hence pose a danger to everyone.” (Taylor, 2007, p. 42) In more recent history this may be some of the paranoia behind witch hunts, or why the church as it entered into the crusades or the conquest of the new world often had a ‘convert/be baptized or die’ mentality. It may be alien to our time and as Walter Brueggemann states:

Church readers of this text might conclude that a large measure of accommodation is preferable to even a small amount of brutalizing vigilance. Deuteronomy of course is unpersuaded by such a judgment, unpersuaded but not self-critical about its own urgings. (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 156)

The text begins with prophets or dreamers who lead the people astray both by their words and by the actions that come to pass. No longer is merely the efficacy of a prophecy the measure of a prophet’s truthfulness but also now is introduced the reality that they must also remain faithful to the LORD. This leading astray is treason, and in a world where the religious and political authorities are merged as they are in Moses and the judges that will follow him, betrayal of God is also betrayal of the people. There is an interesting interpretation that the LORD is testing the faithfulness of the people through these false prophets, and throughout the telling of Israel’s story in Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings (commonly known as the Deuteronomic history because these books share a common perspective with Deuteronomy) there are numerous times where military leaders, religious leaders and kings will lead the people into the worship of other gods, which is the ultimate betrayal in Deuteronomy’s perspective. The penalty for this is harsh, it is death. That these decisions of loyalty for the people of Israel are matters of life and death for them as individuals and for them as a nation.

In the ancient world the closest bond is family, and so the second set of instruction in verses 6-11 involve a family member or a friend who tries to introduce unfaithful practices. The two examples that come to mind immediately is Solomon who begins to practice what his foreign wives practice and Ahab and Jezebel in their struggle with the prophet Elijah. Deuteronomy is unyielding even toward these closest of relationships and enhances the closeness by highlighting with terms like ‘the wife of your embrace’ or ‘your most intimate friend.’ In a culture where a husband may have many wives it is highlighted that even the favorite must be shown no accommodation, nor any child or intimate friend. In an uncompromising set of negative commands: do not yield, do not listen, do not pity, do not have compassion and do not shield; the family member is commanded to not only participate with the community in the execution of the offender but to throw the first stone. The peoples’ loyalty to the LORD is to be stronger than their loyalty to blood or companionship.

Finally the situation is discussed where a village or a community turns away from following the LORD to following other gods. The people who lead others astray and those led astray are together to bear the judgment of the broader community.  Yet, with a village or community there is to be a thorough investigation to discover the truth of the charges, but if true the entire village, all of its people, animals and wealth are to be destroyed. On the one hand this seems harsh, especially to the animals who had no choice in the matter but perhaps there is a gracious edge in this. If the spoils of the destruction of the village, both the animals and the wealth, are denied to the ones carrying out the destruction perhaps there is less incentive to make an accusation of unfaithfulness. Especially if they are also unable to rebuild the cities but are expected to leave them as a perpetual ruin. The reality is that if this sentence was ever carried out the city probably did not remain a perpetual ruin, and there are many stories in the book of Joshua and throughout the story of Israel where the people are to consign everything to destruction and hold back taking either the livestock and wealth or the women as a part of their conquest. This will be an ongoing struggle in the story of the people.

As modern people, who can look back upon the Salem witch trials, the Crusades and conquest of the new world, and countless other events where the practice of an exclusivist faith led to a betrayal of the practice of faith that would be consistent with many people’s reading of the person of Jesus, passages like this are difficult to read. We live in a world where faith is an individual decision and we can look upon people of different faiths or no faith and not see them as traitors or uneducated and so this exclusivist world of Deuteronomy seems alien to us, so how do we approach it in our time? Part of the answer for Christians I think does rely on the understanding that not all scripture holds equal weight. Different traditions approach this differently, but as a Lutheran Christian what lifts up Christ becomes central as a revelation of the character of God. For the Jewish people the first five books of the Bible may occupy a central place but for Christians there is the mutual flow of the New Testament interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures but the Hebrew Scriptures also helping us to understand the New Testament. That does not mean we can cast aside the parts or either set of books we disagree with, but it does give us a different set of tools to engage and wrestle with them. As Martin Luther could understand correctly that the first commandment does mean that “We are to fear, love and trust God above all things.” But we no longer live in a society where killing a person because they are of another faith is acceptable. We live in a much more secular world. Yet, I do think the wisdom that is present in texts like this is to highlight the seductiveness of alternate worldviews which encourage us to trust in other gods, which may not have a religious system associated with them in our time. We live in the constant struggle for where our trust and allegiance will lie and the temptation can come from others whose words seem to be trustworthy in other things, or a close friend or family member, or from the community around us. It is perhaps more challenging to live a faithful life in a secular world where the plethora or alternatives are paraded before us in diverse media and the ancient struggle of the people now becomes the internal struggle of the individual to live a faithful life. Yet, we need the communal aspect and I believe this is where the community of faith comes in to help and support us in our struggle to be faithful to the God who calls us.

Deuteronomy 12: Expounding on the Law

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

 Deuteronomy 12

1 These are the statutes and ordinances that you must diligently observe in the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has given you to occupy all the days that you live on the earth.

                2 You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree. 3 Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places. 4 You shall not worship the LORD your God in such ways. 5 But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there, 6 bringing there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, your votive gifts, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. 7 And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your households together, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed you.

                8 You shall not act as we are acting here today, all of us according to our own desires, 9 for you have not yet come into the rest and the possession that the LORD your God is giving you. 10 When you cross over the Jordan and live in the land that the LORD your God is allotting to you, and when he gives you rest from your enemies all around so that you live in safety, 11 then you shall bring everything that I command you to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, and all your choice votive gifts that you vow to the LORD. 12 And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you together with your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, and the Levites who reside in your towns (since they have no allotment or inheritance with you).

13 Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place you happen to see. 14 But only at the place that the LORD will choose in one of your tribes– there you shall offer your burnt offerings and there you shall do everything I command you.

15 Yet whenever you desire you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as they would of gazelle or deer. 16 The blood, however, you must not eat; you shall pour it out on the ground like water. 17 Nor may you eat within your towns the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, the firstlings of your herds and your flocks, any of your votive gifts that you vow, your freewill offerings, or your donations; 18 these you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God at the place that the LORD your God will choose, you together with your son and your daughter, your male and female slaves, and the Levites resident in your towns, rejoicing in the presence of the LORD your God in all your undertakings. 19 Take care that you do not neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land.

                20 When the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as he has promised you, and you say, “I am going to eat some meat,” because you wish to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you have the desire. 21 If the place where the LORD your God will choose to put his name is too far from you, and you slaughter as I have commanded you any of your herd or flock that the LORD has given you, then you may eat within your towns whenever you desire.     22 Indeed, just as gazelle or deer is eaten, so you may eat it; the unclean and the clean alike may eat it. 23 Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat. 24 Do not eat it; you shall pour it out on the ground like water. 25 Do not eat it, so that all may go well with you and your children after you, because you do what is right in the sight of the LORD. 26 But the sacred donations that are due from you, and your votive gifts, you shall bring to the place that the LORD will choose. 27 You shall present your burnt offerings, both the meat and the blood, on the altar of the LORD your God; the blood of your other sacrifices shall be poured out beside the altar of the LORD your God, but the meat you may eat.

                28 Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.

                29 When the LORD your God has cut off before you the nations whom you are about to enter to dispossess them, when you have dispossessed them and live in their land, 30 take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, “How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.” 31 You must not do the same for the LORD your God, because every abhorrent thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. 32 You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take anything from it.

 

In the first eleven chapters of Deuteronomy we heard the story of the people of Israel re-narrated, the Ten Commandments re-stated and some of the central practices highlighted for the people to hear and know. Beginning in chapter twelve we begin to see these practices expanded upon and within these commandments the practices that form the people to live out of this command are expressed. The exposition of chapters 12-26 roughly follows the pattern of the Ten Commandments with twelve and thirteen referring back to having no other Gods. As the author of Deuteronomy reflects upon how the people of Israel will live out these commandments in the Promised Land they will impact the everyday life of the community. As Deanna Thompson can state, “These laws concern practical matters of worship, politics, economics, business and judicial practices, sexuality and marriage, family life and relationships.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 113)  The people of Israel were not attempting to create a community that happened to have a few religious practices but rather a community shaped by the covenant with their God and practices deriving from the Ten Commandments and the Shema where their lives are oriented around serving and loving their LORD. This is the beginning of a contextual theology where they try to understand how to form a people around these principles.

Part of covenant loyalty is celebration and feasting. It may seem strange to us that a chapter which is oriented on not worshipping other gods is so heavily concerned with eating together as a community but this is part of where identity is formed. The people are to come together for their offering and the offerings are not just burned up, they are eaten together with the priests and with others around the gathering place. Much like people gather together and tailgate before sporting events and they celebrate their common identity around a sports team, eating has always been a part of the celebrations around worship. One of the struggles of religious communities in a secular world has been the displacement of festival eating to other places, but it is not something that is gone from every religious tradition. My congregation is located next to a Hindu temple and they gather together to eat together frequently, especially on Saturdays. Orthodox Jews have a festival almost every month where they come together as community and part of that celebration is eating. Rather than allowing family and friendships to be the only places where people gather to eat if this is going to be a community that is able to love God and love their neighbor they need to come together to worship and eat together.

Priests for the Hebrew people also served a functional role as butchers in the land. Their job was not isolated from the dirty aspects of life, they may not have had farms and flocks to manage but they were woven into the agricultural system through their cultic role of preparing and offering the sacrifices of the flocks and fields. There will be stories of wandering Levites throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and while a part of their role was probably as story teller, the other part of their role is to make sure that the meat is properly prepared.

Deuteronomy also recognizes the struggle of distance in a larger community prior to the advent of motorized transportation. Most people probably did not make it in to the tabernacle or later temple for more than the occasional festival. People who lived in the rural areas certainly could not worship weekly at the tabernacle once the people were dispersed in the land. Distances made the journey impossible on foot very frequently while managing fields and flocks. So people are allowed to eat meat at times other than celebrations if it is available, and they are given only the restriction that they are not to eat the blood. These practices had less to do with health concerns and were about a recognition of their lives dependence upon the provision of the LORD. These actions have meaning assigned to them: “Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat.” (Deuteronomy 12: 23) The blood is to be poured out before the LORD since the LORD is the source of life, but the people are not to consume the life since their life is derivative not of the animals that are killed but on the LORD their God.

The worship of the LORD is contrasted with the worship of other gods in relation to their practices as well. They are to come together, to offer their first fruits, their goodwill offerings and other offerings and to eat together and enjoy they bounty of the LORD in their land. The worship is primarily a gift to the gathered people and a celebration of their unity under the LORD. The worship of other gods may have been attractive in many aspects to the Hebrew people, but ultimately those practices are not to be followed. Especially the practice of child sacrifice is lifted up as something abhorrent to their LORD. In many cases the offering of a child was viewed as offering the very best to the deity which it was offered to, but the LORD is not a God who demands child sacrifices. Even the troubling story of Genesis 22 where the LORD commands Abraham to offer Isaac ends with the angel of the LORD providing the lamb instead of Isaac for the offering.

Often our identity is formed by the things we don’t do and the things we consciously do. As people of the LORD they do:

  • Gather together at a common place of worship and offer sacrifices
  • Gather together to eat and celebrate around this worship and sacrifice
  • Bring their donations to the LORD
  • Eat meat in their communities when they desire

But there are also things they do not do:

  • They do not allow other worship sites to remain in their land
  • They do not eat blood
  • They do not worship other deities
  • They do not sacrifice children.

Deuteronomy 9: The Promise of God and the Stubborn People

 

Deuteronomy 9: 1-5 The Promise of God

 

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld woodcut for "Die Bibel in Bildern" (1860) God telling Abraham to Count the Stars

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern” (1860) God telling Abraham to Count the Stars

1 Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan today, to go in and dispossess nations larger and mightier than you, great cities, fortified to the heavens, 2 a strong and tall people, the offspring of the Anakim, whom you know. You have heard it said of them, “Who can stand up to the Anakim?” 3 Know then today that the LORD your God is the one who crosses over before you as a devouring fire; he will defeat them and subdue them before you, so that you may dispossess and destroy them quickly, as the LORD has promised you.

4 When the LORD your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to occupy this land”; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you. 5 It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the LORD made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

 

In the first three chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses takes the people through a retelling of their failure the first time they explored the Promised Land and then the conquering of King Sihon of Heshbon and King Og of Bashan there is a continual reference to a fear of the Anakim, a group of people larger and stronger than the Israelites. Already in the narrative of Deuteronomy we have seen how this narrative of fear kept the people out of the Promised Land a generation before and how the people have already begun to conquer nations more powerful than themselves with great cities. Moses continues, in the narrative, to prepare the people to continue without him. Moses wants the people to understand that it is not because of their might (Deuteronomy 7) that they are chosen by God, or by their prosperity (Deuteronomy 8) or by their own righteousness or piety (Deuteronomy 9) that God is acting on their behalf. As a people their future is dependent upon their God and the promises that this God has made.

In seeking to make sense of the world the Deuteronomist provides his reason for the LORD’s action against the nations that currently occupy the land the people of Israel are preparing to occupy. It is not the righteousness of the people of Israel but the unrighteousness, or wickedness, of the people of the land. Israel has not merited God’s favor, but the nations of the land have somehow merited the divine disfavor. Much as in Romans 11, the Apostle Paul can make an argument against arrogance by the new Gentile Christians not to boast about their being grafted onto the tree of God’s faithful people, here Moses tells the people not to become arrogant over their new position in the Promised Land for their position is contingent upon God’s faithfulness to God’s promise. Moses casts back to the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that their descendants would become a great nation. In Genesis 15 the LORD promises Abram (later Abraham) that his descendants shall be as numerous as the stars of heaven and in Genesis 12 there is the promise of the land to Abram’s descendants.

 

Deuteronomy 9: 6-29 An Unrighteous and Stubborn People

Antonio Molinari, Adoration of the Golden Calf between 1700 and 1702

Antonio Molinari, Adoration of the Golden Calf between 1700 and 1702

6 Know, then, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people. 7 Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness; you have been rebellious against the LORD from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place.

8 Even at Horeb you provoked the LORD to wrath, and the LORD was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you. 9 When I went up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant that the LORD made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water. 10 And the LORD gave me the two stone tablets written with the finger of God; on them were all the words that the LORD had spoken to you at the mountain out of the fire on the day of the assembly. 11 At the end of forty days and forty nights the LORD gave me the two stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant. 12 Then the LORD said to me, “Get up, go down quickly from here, for your people whom you have brought from Egypt have acted corruptly. They have been quick to turn from the way that I commanded them; they have cast an image for themselves.” 13 Furthermore the LORD said to me, “I have seen that this people is indeed a stubborn people. 14 Let me alone that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven; and I will make of you a nation mightier and more numerous than they.”

15 So I turned and went down from the mountain, while the mountain was ablaze; the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. 16 Then I saw that you had indeed sinned against the LORD your God, by casting for yourselves an image of a calf; you had been quick to turn from the way that the LORD had commanded you. 17 So I took hold of the two tablets and flung them from my two hands, smashing them before your eyes. 18 Then I lay prostrate before the LORD as before, forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin you had committed, provoking the LORD by doing what was evil in his sight. 19 For I was afraid that the anger that the LORD bore against you was so fierce that he would destroy you. But the LORD listened to me that time also. 20 The LORD was so angry with Aaron that he was ready to destroy him, but I interceded also on behalf of Aaron at that same time. 21 Then I took the sinful thing you had made, the calf, and burned it with fire and crushed it, grinding it thoroughly, until it was reduced to dust; and I threw the dust of it into the stream that runs down the mountain.

22 At Taberah also, and at Massah, and at Kibroth-hattaavah, you provoked the LORD to wrath. 23 And when the LORD sent you from Kadesh-barnea, saying, “Go up and occupy the land that I have given you,” you rebelled against the command of the LORD your God, neither trusting him nor obeying him. 24 You have been rebellious against the LORD as long as he has known you.

 25 Throughout the forty days and forty nights that I lay prostrate before the LORD when the LORD intended to destroy you, 26 I prayed to the LORD and said, “Lord GOD, do not destroy the people who are your very own possession, whom you redeemed in your greatness, whom you brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 27 Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; pay no attention to the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their sin, 28 otherwise the land from which you have brought us might say, ‘Because the LORD was not able to bring them into the land that he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to let them die in the wilderness.’ 29 For they are the people of your very own possession, whom you brought out by your great power and by your outstretched arm.”

 

In C.S. Lewis’ classic book the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe there is a scene where the children are discussing Aslan, who they have not met yet, with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. With Aslan being a lion one of the children asks if he is safe, to which Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe?…Don’t you hear anything that Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” In that story the lion Aslan can be fierce but also gentle but is not domesticated. The LORD that the people of Israel come to know in their story is good but certainly not safe. Their narrative reminds them that they continually tested God throughout their Exodus and there were several times where their very existence was at risk because they offended their LORD and Moses had to intervene on behalf of the people and their leaders. The people often sought in the past and will continue to seek in the future more domesticated gods that provide for them without expecting who they are to change as individuals and as people. These gods of the nations around them that are placated by various offerings and activities rather than the LORD who demands their obedience and is never safe.

The narrative of Deuteronomy reminds the people of the story of their ancestors and gives a time period to the time Moses is up on the Mountain of Sinai (Horeb) receiving the ten commandments, the regulations for the priests, the design for the tabernacle, and several other ordinances.  This part of the story where Moses receives all of these things is laid out in Exodus 20-31. This story in Deuteronomy is used to show the contrast between Moses’ faithfulness and the people’s unfaithfulness. While Moses spends the forty days on the mountain fasting and receiving the stone tablets from the LORD, the people at the base of Mount Sinai (Horeb) are violating the very heart of the commands Moses is receiving. For the LORD declares that they are not to cast images or to follow other Gods, and the LORD their God is indeed a jealous God. Wonders and signs may make the people trust in the moment but they rarely in the bible seem to create a lasting sense of trust, and so Moses takes them back to the story again so they can remember how time after time they put their own future in jeopardy in the past by trusting other gods and tries to encourage them not to repeat this practice in the future.

Moses in this story represents what Israel is to be. Moses stands between God and the people and intercedes for them, fasts for them, places his own safety at risk with this unsafe God and reminds God again of the promises God has made, of God’s reputation, and daringly calls upon God to be God.  Moses wrestles with God (which is where the name Israel comes from) on behalf of the people and on behalf of Aaron and on behalf of God as well. Moses and the people stand in sharp contrast, Moses is engaged with the one LORD while the people craft an image of gold. Moses does not eat or drink for forty days twice while the emphasis is on the people eating and drinking and reveling in Exodus 32. Moses emphasizes that both they and Aaron where close to being consumed by the LORD’s wrath before this wrath turned away. Moses also lifts up Taberah, Massah and Kibroth-hattaavah (Numbers 11: 1-3; Exodus 17: 1-7 and Numbers 11: 31-34) as well as Kadesh-barnea (which was already highlighted in Deuteronomy 1: 19-45) as additional times where the LORD’s anger was kindled and with each of these stories the people failed in their calling to trust and obey the LORD. Moses argues like a lawyer laying out the case before the people that they are far from righteous on their own, but rather they are the beneficiaries of the divine provision in spite of their and their ancestor’s stubbornness. Their reception of the land is a result of God’s promise rather than their own abilities or piety.

For the people of Israel the god of moralism is not to be their god. They are a covenant people claimed by the LORD, the God of Israel and to be a covenant people is to be set aside because of God’s calling. If the book of Deuteronomy is compiled in the Babylonian exile, as many scholars believe, and the people are reflecting upon how they, with the temple and a Davidic king and the land, now found themselves in exile. They are reexamine their own story critically, trying to discover where they failed in their calling as the people of the God of Israel. Perhaps in the tradition of Jeremiah they are looking toward the time when the LORD will make a new covenant with them and put the LORD’s law within them and they shall all know the LORD (see Jeremiah 31; 31-34). They are a people who are ultimately dependent on their God’s righteousness and to use Martin Luther’s famous language about this righteousness it is an ‘alien righteousness’ that is given to them but does not belong to them. They are a people constituted by God’s calling. Perhaps Moses, in Deuteronomy, like many of the great revival preachers of the 1800s is trying to call the people back to the LORD, appealing to the fear of what would happen if their covenant with the LORD is dissolved. But they stand at the edge of the Promised Land due to the favor of a good but unsafe and not domesticated God. The narrative of Deuteronomy takes the reader back to this point and leaves them in this place and begs them to live in a way that is faithful to the calling they have received and the learn to trust and obey their LORD because their lives do depend upon it.

Margaret Hofheinz-Doring, Worship of the Golden Calf (1962)  shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike  3.0

Margaret Hofheinz-Doring, Worship of the Golden Calf (1962) shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Rhetorical Overkill: Jeremiah 2: 20-37

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Jeremiah 2: 20-37
20 For long ago you broke your yoke
and burst your bonds, and you said, “I will not serve!”
On every high hill and under every green tree
you sprawled and played the whore.
21 Yet I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock.
How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?
22 Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap,
the stain of your guilt is still before me,
says the Lord GOD.
23 How can you say, “I am not defiled, I have not gone after the Baals”?
Look at your way in the valley; know what you have done—
a restive young camel interlacing her tracks,
24 a wild ass at home in the wilderness, in her heat sniffing the wind!
Who can restrain her lust?
None who seek her need weary themselves; in her month they will find her.
25 Keep your feet from going unshod and your throat from thirst.
But you said, “It is hopeless, for I have loved strangers,
and after them I will go.”
26 As a thief is shamed when caught, so the house of Israel shall be shamed—
they, their kings, their officials, their priests, and their prophets,
27 who say to a tree, “You are my father,” and to a stone, “You gave me birth.”
For they have turned their backs to me, and not their faces.
But in the time of their trouble they say,
“Come and save us!”
28 But where are your gods that you made for yourself?
Let them come, if they can save you, in your time of trouble;
for you have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah.
29 Why do you complain against me?
You have all rebelled against me, says the LORD.
30 In vain I have struck down your children; they accepted no correction.
Your own sword devoured your prophets like a ravening lion.
31 And you, O generation, behold the word of the LORD!
Have I been a wilderness to Israel, or a land of thick darkness?
Why then do my people say, “We are free, we will come to you no more”?
32 Can a girl forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire?
Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number.
33 How well you direct your course to seek lovers!
So that even to wicked women you have taught your ways.
34 Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor,
though you did not catch them breaking in.
Yet in spite of all these things
35 you say, “I am innocent; surely his anger has turned from me.”
Now I am bringing you to judgment for saying, “I have not sinned.”
36 How lightly you gad about, changing your ways!
You shall be put to shame by Egypt as you were put to shame by Assyria.
37 From there also you will come away with your hands on your head;
for the LORD has rejected those in whom you trust, and you will not prosper through them.

One of the things you will see if you spend much time with the prophets is what I and others have called rhetorical overkill. Not only is the person unfaithful, but they are having sex under every green tree, they are like a wild ass in heat, etc….that is the language and it is what it is. You can try to explain it away, you can say it is a metaphor, you might find it offensive, it might work differently in different cultures, but it is using figurative language to express the depth of pain of the betrayed by the betrayer. In this case God is the betrayed one and out of the language of God’s pain comes this set of metaphors shifting from sexual to agricultural and back to sexual to cultic and legal and back to sexual. This is the language of a person in pain trying to make sense of how their view of a person could be so different from the reality. What is the offense that caused this level of pain and disillusionment? Two are lifted up in this section: idolatry and injustice.
Idolatry may constitute a whole range of things from people at this time going out and doing practices which honor other gods, conducting worship of other nations gods, conducting practices which are not approved by God or they may not be worshipping God correctly (away from the temple in Jerusalem or it may be worship without justice). Somehow there has been a distortion of the vision that God had for God’s people. Injustice is lifted up when the prophet says : 34 Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor, though you did not catch them breaking in. Justice in the ancient world, even more than in the modern world, often depended upon one’s social standing, wealth and power more than any modern understanding of guilt or innocence, and yet this was not the society that the Lord envisioned.
The vine and vineyard image is one that recurs several times throughout scriptures because the vine was one of the most important and common agricultural images. In Isaiah 5, Isaiah morns of a vineyard that the vineyard’s owner did everything for and yet it does not produce, in Mark 12: 1-10 and parallels the image is once again brought up with a vineyard and unfaithful tenants and here in Jeremiah it is a choice vine which goes wild. People would have understood the agricultural imagery because this was an agrarian society.
One additional thing to consider is that we have a theological interpretation of reality going on, which we should expect from the prophets. This is not the world of power politics which the kings and princes are dealing with, they are trying to appease Assyria and Egypt, the powers that could conceivably invade and conquer Judah and they are attempting to maintain security through political alliances, military power and economic policy. Judah is a very desirable piece of property because it is at the trade crossroads between Assyria, Babylon, Persian and the far East and Egypt and Northern Africa and as N.T. Wright notes over the course of its history of 4,000 years on average every 40 years another army will march in or through it. (Wright 1992, 3) The prophets, kings and people are all looking at different strategies of survival and security. Security becomes the most important thing, more important than justice, more important than God, more important than freedom.
Security is perhaps the greatest idol that many in America face. We want to ensure that we have enough for ourselves at the exclusion of a societal concern for others and this runs headlong in contrast with the prophet’s and by extension God’s vision of shalom and justice. While many would read these words and be immediately drawn to condemn personal immorality as a method of societal corruption the prophet reverses this societal corruption, the loss of justice and trust in God’s way, is pointed to using a rhetorically inflated image of personal immorality where the woman in this image represents Judah.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com