It seems like I’ve been reading/hearing/telling the story of the Ten Commandments continually since I was six. I’ve listened to teachers, pastors, speakers and cynics talk about how they are very important… or not important because we are no longer under the law. This year the Ten Commandments describe sin, but last year they were a yoke that legalists used to oppress the people. This speaker is telling me I need to let go of the Old Covenant, but this other pastor is telling me these rules were the building blocks of God’s moral code. And then this other Bible scholar spent an hour and a half on the radio carefully dissecting these scriptures to prove to me how innocuous and impotent they are. An hour and a half to tell me “don’t waste your brain power on this.” I feel like the people making up the rules on this are the same people that can’t make up their minds about whether or not eggs and milk are good for you. IT CHANGES EVERY 6 MONTHS!
It’s to the point that I’m over it. The protagonist in this story is not a set of stone tablets. What I find interesting in this chapter of The Story is the people, the Israelites. It’s so hard to read this story with empathy because their world and their culture were vastly different. Survival was paramount, while entertainment seems to be our focus. Death was a daily consequence of bad choices. And the bitterness, rage, and sense of abandonment had to be overwhelming. They had just escaped slavery as a people, but that is not an easy mindset to shake off.
America outlawed slavery in 1865 but I’m not really sure when we “abolished” it. To this day we suffer the repercussions of that cultural influence. Issues like racism, reparations, and oppression are still a thorn in our sides even though there is not a person alive who experienced American slavery first-hand. We are generations removed from those atrocities, yet the events that take place in the wilderness happen when the Israelites have only been free for a few days. Most of these people have never known a time when they were free. There has never been a moment when they weren’t told what to do, how to do it, and driven to do it by an outside force.
So then there is Moses. He has sympathy for his people but not empathy for their oppression. While they were slaves, he lived on the plantation. When he came to set them free they weren’t exactly happy to see him. This sounds like a recipe for reluctant following and conflicting leadership. Later, we will throw in some grumbling, whining and the blame game, because those are just some of the residual affects of someone actively trying to dehumanize you your whole life, and then someone who doesn’t completely understand your plight tries to lead you through it.
Once the Israelites find their way to Mount Horab things get really crazy. A giant cloud descends on the mountain filled with smoke and fire and thunder and lightning and if anyone goes near it or tries to climb the mountain they die… except for Moses. So he goes up and comes down. He goes up and comes down again. Then he goes up once more and disappears for six weeks. Then what could be considered one of the greatest insults to God ever committed was perpetrated right under his nose.
A-a-ron claims (when he is caught) that the people came to him and dumped gold into a fire and out popped this golden calf… so we thought, “Why not commit human sacrifices to it?” How stupid do you have to be to say that as a grown man? It sounds like my six year old trying to get out of a punishment. “Well Dad, that candy wrapper is in my room because that mean candy snuck up to my room while I was asleep and started crying ‘I’m so delicious and sometimes good for you!’ I knew that wasn’t true but what was I supposed to do, let it cry all night?”
What really happened is that the people lost hope. How could they lose hope in sight of the mountain? How could they lose hope when the giant cloud is swirling above their heads? When they’ve seen 10 plagues? When they’ve walked through Red Sea? It was because their physical manifestation of leadership was out of sight and out of mind. I’m going to make some assumptions here but I’m guessing while the Israelites were forced into back-breaking labor there weren’t a great deal of them with college level educations. Most likely, many had lost touch with the God of their forefathers. They were used to being betrayed and abandoned (by Moses when he was in Pharaoh’s house). So the sight of Moses leaving and not coming back isn’t a real shock. It is just one more religious leader abandoning them.
And they don’t ask Aaron for different gods. They ask him to make a physical manifestation of God. The angry cloud is too mystical, too charts-wacko, too nebulous, etc. A living God is too unpredictable, but I can worship a dead god, something I can see or touch. That isn’t scary or intimidating. It doesn’t make me feel small.
The applications of these thoughts burden my heart. As a religious leader… as a pastor… if I leave my people do they fall so easily? I believe that vision leaks. I believe that in the absence of leaders pointing people toward the true God and his promises the church settles for physical representations. I’ve seen just about every church that does not have a leader pushing for change fall into a sedimentary culture. We dig our heels in and start talking about tradition and other physical gods we can touch. We worship Christian bands. We worship Christian speakers. We worship crosses, communion tables, hymnals, memorial quilts someone’s grandma donated. We worship ourselves, our jobs, our ministries, our egos, our education, all the while saying, “God would want me to do this.” You’re right. But it shouldn’t be sacrificed to while God watches. It shouldn’t be loved because we are too afraid of the God we can’t control.
Thank God he cut out the middle man. Thank God Jesus tore the curtain in the temple and I don’t have to climb the mountain and then return to the people. We are a blessed generation that is invited “further up and further in.” We get to have the mountaintop experience. Not just the blessing. Not just the scary cloud. But the hard climb as well. That is… if a living God is not too scary.