Narrative Lectionary Reflection
October 11, 2020
Read: Exodus 32:1-14
What does God look like to us? For some people, God is an old white guy with a long beard and a flowing robe. The famous book, The Shack, has God coming down to earth in the form of an African American woman. The Chinese artist He Chi, frequently paints Jesus in his context as a Chinese man, which means Jesus looks more Asian, than what I’ve called “the Swedish Jesus.”
Maybe one of the most controversial depiction of God or Jesus is the statue Christa. It was created by British artist Edwina Sandys, who happened to be the granddaughter of Winston Churchill in 1975. It is what you think it is, a picture of Jesus on the cross, but as a woman. It was displayed at St. John the Divine Church in New York during Easter of 1984 where it had people talking, both words of praise and outrage. It is now back at the St. John the Divine permanently, but the work has been interpreted as depicting the inclusion of women in the work of Christian faith and also about the suffering of women. For some, it might seemed problematic to see Jesus as a woman. We all have an image of God in our minds and it can be hard at times to see God in a different viewpoint. It is why people can take issue with calling God , Mother . Many people have an image of who God is and it is difficult to switch and see that there might be another way of looking at God.
For the people of Israel, God was a bit of a mystery. They had seen God’s actions in the parting of the Red Sea and in the provision of manna and quail, but God seemed somewhat distant to the Israelites. That was especially the case when Moses left them to head up a mountain and commune with God for well over a month. Where was Moses? Moses was at least someone that they could relate to. Moses was sort of an intermediary between the people and God, and not having Moses around led the people to become a bit restless. They could look up towards the top of the mountain seeing it covered in smoke and fire wondering if this was God. Alas, there was no one around them to tell them if this was God.
Aaron decides to have the people collect all the gold among the people. He is able to fashion a golden calf. He decides to make an altar for the Lord and the people see this as a representation of the one that brought them out of Egypt.
Notice that this golden calf was not necessarily an alternate god. Instead, this is an image of the same God that led them out of Egypt. The Hebrew uses the same word they use for God, YHWH. But the Israelites had spent years with the Egyptians and mingled with other cultures that had physical representations of their gods, so they thought that’s what they needed to do here. This was their version of God. But the problem is that they contained God in this form. God was not the free being that was enveloped in mystery, but this golden cow. That’s what is wrong here, not that they worshipped an idol as much as it was that they fell in love with false version of God. They wanted a god that would live among them, and the calf was a way for God to be with them.
But it was the wrong way for so many reasons. First it was initiated by humans and not God. Second the humans decided to describe God instead of God. Third, and this is most important is that God was working on a place, a tabernacle where God would dwell with the Israelites. God was making plans to be closer to the people if they just had the patience to wait. “Let them construct a Sanctuary for me so that I can live among them,” God tells Moses in chapter 25. From Exodus 25 until chapter 31 we have God giving Moses instructions on what this tabernacle would look like. The people were nervous and worried and created an “avatar” a representation of God and all the while God was at work finding a way to live among the people. If they had only been patient and waited.
We aren’t that different from the people of Israel. Too often we want to define God instead of entering the mystery of God. We want to be able to define God, to make God palatable to our own tastes. A Methodist pastor friend of mine consistantly talks about how modern Christians in America try to make the faith fit our ideology. This is why Christians on the political left and right tend to fashion a god that is acceptable to them. We want a god that supports universal health care. We want a god that is anti-abortion. Instead of wanting to encounter a God that is a mystery, one that we are constantly getting to know, people make a god that is easy to understand and surprisingly agrees with us.
As I’ve said before, I have a thing for R&B songs from the 1970s. It comes from being a toddler in the basement of my childhood home back in Flint, as my Dad listened to the soul songs of that era. There is a song by the artist Bill Withers that is called “Who Is He and What Is He To You.” It’s really a song about a man who discovers that his wife or girlfirend might not be so faithful to him. The man in the starts to ask questions about the role this man has in her life.
Here are some of the lyrics:
Something in my heart and in your eye
Tells me he’s not someone just passing by
And when you cleared your throat
Was that your cue
Who is he, and what is he to you
God was pretty much saying the same thing to the Israelites as well as to us today. That thing, that image of God that we have; just what role does it have in our lives? As the song says, we are too much for one God, but not enough for two.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.