When God Loses It

As a church we have been working our way thru the book of Exodus and reflecting on the issues of following God as a community.

This week we land up in the one of the most crazy chapters of the entire OT – Exodus 32. Its the story of how Moses is away up the mountain with Joshua getting the 10 commandments and while he’s gone the people ditch God and set up a golden calf to worship.

It has some great insights into our foibles and frailty as people, and it offers a great contrast in leadership approaches (Aaron and Moses) but it also raises some serious questions about the nature of God. And they aren’t easy questions. I’ve spent a couple of hours this morning just reading and thinking and pondering how to hit it.

Here are some of the issues:

vv9-14 is a conversation between God and Moses where God wants to completely obliterate the people and Moses goes into bat for them. In this conversation it certainly seems like Moses talks some sense into God – to put it crassly… God is losing the plot with anger and Moses says ‘chill… that aint such a good idea… remember the plan?… covenant?…’ And God says ‘oh yeah… ok’.

You have to admit that it does read a bit like that… no?…

Then when Moses comes down from the mountain and sees all that’s going on he has his own meltdown. He really loses it and burns up the calf, grinds it to powder and makes the people drink it. You can literally feel the intensity of his anger.

After calling the people to make a choice he sends out the levites under God’s orders to wipe out the rebels. The story reads:

Then he said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”

God orders the Levites to go around and kill their brothers/friends/neighbours… Harsh?… I think we’d all agree its pretty extreme measure.

After this Moses tries to get God to let up on the rest of the people and even offers himself in their place. The chaptr ends:

The LORD replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.” And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.

Now much of how you interpret / teach this passage will depend on your pre-existing theological framework. Some would argue that if God is holy then this is a natural outcome. Open theists would see this as a classical example of God changing his mind.

But I can’t help wondering how you would explain it to people who don’t have any faith, or who view Christianity with some skepticism. It can appear as a pretty bizarre and disturbing story.

I could just focus on the issues of idolatry, rebellion and leadership, but you simply can’t read this chapter and not be challenged to wonder what God is like.

Love to hear your reflections!

11 thoughts on “When God Loses It

  1. I love that you’re willing to tackle this question. Now I’m going to wrestle with it some more and discuss it with friends. This is something I’ve wrestled with before, and this isn’t the only place where it seems that God changes His mind, isn’t a God of grace, etc. I’m looking forward to discussing it more with friends. Thank you.

  2. I’m gonna take some time with this passage. The thing that sticks out to me is v.7 where God uses the term “your people…who you brought out” stating that the people of Israel are Moses’ people, not God’s. Of course, Moses ascribes the people to God not himself as the visible sign of the Abrahamic covenant.

    The other part is Moses’ question to Aaron in v.21. “What did they do to you to force you into this?” Moses cannot understand what circumstances would have made him abandon God. Only complete ignorance could explain it.

    The last part is Moses saying he will try to make atonement for their sin and offers himself as satisfaction. (v.30 and v.32).

    I think this is less a story about a golden calf and more of a story about Redemption history. One who empties himself of glory, pleads for his people, and offers himself but in that position still holds the power of life, death, and judgement.

  3. I was thinking about this story the other day (I forget why) and yeah – ‘grinding the gold to dust and making the people drink it’… that takes a while. This was no ‘smack in the mouth’ out of anger, it was slow & deliberate rage and fury at what the people had done in his absence. It was wondering what he had to do so that the people would ‘get it’, in regards to ongoing faith & relationship with God, as opposed to having a superstition to follow like other nations.

    I guess for me, that is where the crux of this story hits – comparing what was going on with Moses relationship with God and what he was trying to model to the Israelites versus the terrible stuff that was happening in the name of religion in other nations at the time, and the Israelites propensity to follow this superstitious mindset.

    In regards to Moses ‘changing God’s mind’, I’ve always thought there were a couple of ways I could read it…

    – God pushing Moses to lead the people out of love, even love that would cause Moses to die.

    – Moses is the writer – he wants to convey the enormity of God’s anger to the people that he is leading, and forgot to do a theological expose of the story.

    The 2nd idea would get me into trouble with the infalibility-of-the-bible crowd, and the 1st could only ever be a best-guess.

    Both ideas would cause problems in mainstream churches, which is probably why it normally gets down to a sermon about idolatry, rebellion and leadership.

    I’ll look forward to reading what others (particularly those who have wrestled extensively with OT and the broader cultures of the time) think about the matter.

  4. I just spoke with Mrs Toddy who studied this stuff at BSF (Bible Study Fellowship) about 10 years ago, and she was quickly able to offer the following. It provides a little bit of context, and a timely reminder that we are dealing with prophets (where process is paramount) and tribes where roles are prescribed:

    “The Holy spirit wasn’t internal so there was no ability to have self control when ‘laws’ were not imposed. That is, there was weak leadership on Aaron’s behalf and we know later how weak he was when he decided to get drunk and desecrate the alter of God, for which his life was taken.

    “Also, it takes a while to fashion a golden calf…so Moses was gone for a while. A million people without good leadership and no self control and foreign god ideas in the midst (because they didn’t get rid of all the foreign women like they were told to)- well really that has got to cause some issues somewhere around the traps….

    “There had to be a sacrifiece of blood for sin – hence the killing (old covenant) of the poeples.

    “The natural/spiritual lawa of ‘you reap what you sow’ – hence the plague

    “God knew his covenant – he wanted to know if Moses did and Moses was the intercession between God and the people…

    … And that’s all she wrote!

    Food for thought at least.

    Prophets, intercessors etc will probably best describe the context of stories like these

  5. Is Moses maybe a type of the intercessor that would ultimately be Christ? God is enraged by His people’s idolatry, apathy and ingratitude (just a marriage partner would be if their spouse acted like we act towards God – let me tell you from my (career) experience!). We need someone to plead clemency on our behalf. Moses took that role until the system of sacrifices was implemented and then, of course, Christ paid the price once and for all. May be a bit simplistic, but that’s the best I can do with a daughter yabbering constantly in one ear!!

  6. g’day folks

    good comments and insights.

    I liked all of the thoughts. agree with Bob that its interesting how God calls them ‘your people’!

    At this stage thinking I will approach it by looking at the different people involved and their actions/responses:

    The people





    Or not…

    Its only tuesday yet 🙂

  7. I was musing over this during breakfast this morning and trying to address the question you posed here about God “losing it” and how the horrific scene of Levites slaughtering (unarmed?) brothers and sisters would appear to someone outside the faith.

    I guess it would seem horrific…the same way it appears to me.

    But how would you rewrite it? Should God have given them a stern warning and a “pass”? Given the deliverance just accomplished, what should God’s response have been?

    But this story joins with myriad other stories of merciless death and destruction. Death and life are recurring themes in the Bible and one of the major tasks it tries to accomplish is their redefinition. Ultimately, Christ comes solely to conquer death as we know it and to raise all of creation to a new life that can only be known in Him. Basically, there is more to everything than what we see.

    But a story like this *should* bug you. It is terrible and nonsensical in the limited presentation of this chapter. Now the question is: do you respond with “that’s all I need to know to say I would never worship a god who does that”. Or do you respond with “this is so bizarre that I have to be missing something. I won’t bow down and worship but I will accept the challenge and use this as a starting point of a journey towards understanding.”

    The point is, Christianity isn’t a topic you can approach casually, hear a story and expect to fully comprehend. It is a description of another world–another way of being–that is told by a God who inhabits that space and has made every effort to reveal it to us–even to the point of taking on flesh. It is for thinking people (like you). It is challenging. It requires effort.

    If it didn’t or wasn’t, I wouldn’t pursue it.

  8. I had to write something on this passage for E100 in the UK. Not sure how you write a 250 word blog post on this kind of thing, but what I was struck by was how much God demands all our praise to be directed towards him.

    I guess one passage on its own can struggle to put that in a good light, but if you consider everything that God did for those people…

    What worries me is that we know all that – how much more could he expect from us!


  9. If you ever have a chance to do some extra reading have a look into Rene Girard (Theologian James Alison writes extensively from a Girardian perspective).

    The concept of mimetic desire and the process of scapegoating is explored in a way that has changed the way I understand the way (and why) the Bible was written, the nature of God (and the nature of humanity), and the life and purpose of Christ.

    here’s to continued challenge and change 🙂

  10. I see several levels in this passage.

    One is the image of Moses offering himself as a sacrifice for the people, as has been mentioned above, with parallels that are obvious to us now.

    Another is that God did in no way ‘lose it’ but the actions of the people fully deserved their extermination, though it would be hard to extend that to the children in modern thinking.

    There is also the possibility that God wanted the people to realise the seriousness of what they’d done, and knowing what Moses response would be, would be will to relent. Nothing short of imminent annihilation would carry that understanding across, and so God suggested He would treat them as they deserved instead of offering immediate mercy. What would He have done if Moses had not interceded? Probably destroyed the lot of them (i.e. it was no idle threat/mind game).

    In Moses actions I very much see him lining himself up with God’s heart. It was not God’s will to destroy them, but the penalty they deserved was death, and without a substitute (who we all know really WAS Jesus, even though Moses stands in the gap) then righteousness required their deaths.

    It’s a difficult passage to really get meaning from because the way it’s recorded is half history & half folk tale. Would Aaron really have told Moses that he tossed some ear rings into a fire and out popped a calf? Yet we can ‘see’ quite clearly the Levites strapping on their swords before they work their way through the camp.

    As for talking to non-christians about this, I’d avoid as far as possible unless they have an understanding of both righteousness and judgement.

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