Christians often utilize the image of Jesus as the advocate for humanity standing in the way of an angry God that is all-too ready to smite us. Within this view, our atonement comes because the mercy and faithfulness of Jesus off-sets and overcomes the wrath of God.
I don't personally hold to this view as I think that it pigeonholes God into someone who is one-dimensional. The Hebrew scriptures reveal quite often the characteristics of love, mercy and compassion for God. Christians also ascribe these to God but often from within the person of Jesus. As Trinitarians, we often forget our own doctrine that no one person of the Trinity has characteristics that aren't shared by the other two!
But in looking at today's text, I can see where the view of Jesus standing against the wrath of God might have emerged.
Moses stands up for the Hebrew people that have been freed from Egyptian slavery. They have sinfully adopted idol-worship in making a golden calf. The local Palestinian deities were influencing them as they would throughout the biblical witness. God is understandably disgusted with them. Moses feels that he must intervene.
It is not without precedence.
Moses is adopting a similar stance of mercy for humanity that Abraham exhibited when God was set to destroy Sodom in Genesis 18:16-33.
Both of these stories portray God as a judge ready to carry out a sentence. Moses and Abraham operate as defense attorneys that seek to plea for leniency. Moses doesn't dispute their guilt. He doesn't try to explain it away. Rather, he seeks to persuade God that genocide would be a public relations nightmare. What will people say about you?
Moses by Michelangelo
San Pietro in Vincoli, Italy
God seems to be ready to start over with the line of Moses. When presented with this idea, it may have been that Moses knew his own offspring weren't any better than the rest. After all, Joshua was chosen as his successor to lead rather than one of his own sons. Jewish Midrash gives explanation that the sons of Moses didn't give much time to their study of God's word.
If the line of Moses were used as a template, how long would it be before we were right back here with the people going astray?
Could it be that Moses needed to work out his own issues with God? It is possible that God didn't need a cooling off as much as Moses did. If we continue in chapter 32, we see in verse 19 that "Moses' anger burned hot" which mirrors language written about God in verse 10. As he continues in his anger, he calls the sons of Levi (of which tribe the priests would come) and orders them to kill those that we must assume were the greatest offenders. About three thousand were put to death by the sword and while Moses speaks of ordaining themselves at the cost of a son or a brother, his own brother Aaron was spared even though he was in charge of the mess!
It may be that the conversation with God was God's design that Moses would curb his own wrath against his people. Could this great slaughter have been restrained in comparison to his original desire?
When we pray with God, we are often seeking God's will. Sometimes we pray for mercy in circumstances that do not favor us. Even if we do not imagine God to be the author of our difficulty, we would like for God to take it away. But sometimes we may need God's help to stay our own wrath. We sometimes imagine that God mirror's our own anger so as to justify it. Yet the longer we stay in conversation with God, the hope is that we will remind ourselves of the love, mercy and compassion of God.
And sometimes we may just need to bounce our thoughts and feelings off God until we come to what we know is right.
We'll continue to meditate on this passage in worship on Sunday. You're always welcome to join us whether in person or online if that fits better with your schedule and location.
Photo by Patrick Rasenberg via Flickr.com. Used under the Creative Commons license.