First and Second Commandments

from October 9, 2011


detail from Burning Bush by Ed Knippers

Exodus 32

The majority of Old Testament scholars will agree that the five scrolls of the Torah and the four scrolls, known as the Former Prophets were brought together by someone or some group during the years Israel was in Exile. In Hebrew scriptures I and II Samuel are on one scroll, “Samuel.” Likewise I and II Kings are on one scroll. Which means all of Israel’s history up to the exile can be found in a total of nine scrolls.

David Noel Freeman1 once made the provocative proposal that the editor or editors were sensitive to the question “If we ever were God’s people, how could he have let us go into Exile?”

These scribes knew the answer. It ran all the way through the story. It was even at the introductory chapters. Adam and Eve were given Paradise, but they disobeyed God’s one prohibition, and God exiled them from Eden. Turn to the next chapter. Cain’s murders his brother and the punishment was exile. When you will not live within God’s will you will not live long in the land.

Freedman thinks those scribes managed to arrange it so that there are nine stories, one in each of the scrolls from Exodus through Kings, that go right down the list of commandments in sequence. Each one threatens the community’s survival. And when the tenth one is broken the deal is off. The people go into Exile.

The story we are reading from Exodus this morning is the first example Freedman thinks. And it covers two commandments. If his theory is true, our text today is a great follow up to looking at the ten commandments last Sunday. The story invites us to think about those first two commands: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt and out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other God along side me/ over against me/ instead of me.

And the second command,

4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

In the episode of the ‘holy cow’, Israel broke both. With the ink scarcely dry on their contract with God, the vows still hanging in the air, they betrayed their promise to God. It was as if the bride went to bed with the groomsman. They had promised fidelity, and they had committed adultery.

How did it happen?

After giving the ten commandments, Moses goes back up into the smoke of Sinai to receive more instructions. He is gone 40 days. Sometime in that period, the people get nervous and impatient. That is a theme we already know.They have whined and complained almost from the first time Moses introduced the idea of exodus.

  • They are thirsty– why did Moses lead them here to die of thirst?

  • They are hungry– it would be better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in Sinai.

  • How much longer? Are we there yet?

  • Not manna again– we had that yesterday.

It sounds for all the world like a road trips of my childhood in that old unairconditioned Chevy, all packed in there for the duration. Getting on each other’s space, getting on each other’s nerves. Kids fidgety. Parents edgy. Not uncommon for everyone to arrive out of sorts. Lord have mercy. Those were not the good old days.

In the story today everybody is edgy. God says “I’m out of here.” Moses said, “Not so fast. You started this you finish it.” People threatening to explode all over Aaron. Aaron trying to come up with something that will distract them, “Let’s play a game. Let’s have a make believe God.” The game turns into a riot. Everyone gets out of control. Levites run around with swords. It is a disaster.

What ever inspired the people and Aaron to invent a special worship service? It’s a good thing to want to be religious I guess. But sometimes we don’t want to wait for God; we just create a little excitement of our own. “What would make this a fun event? What would make it relevant to the needs of these people?” “Are there any ideas out there on the Egyptian worship blog that we could copy?” “I read an ad for Canaanite worship. It looks risque but I understand that they really draw a crowd.” “That worship service at Sinai was just too stern. We need a service that will make everybody feel good?” “I have an idea for making it really impressive.” “Don’t you think we ought to check with Moses?” “Where is old ‘what’s-his-name’ anyway. Do we know if he is coming back?”

As someone put it “Moses was good at revelation; Aaron was good at religion.” He knew how to deliver what people wanted. He said “A really great worship service is not cheap. You have to have video projection and a great speaker system. And an interest center. A holy cow like they did in Egypt. ” So he does a very religious thing – he takes up an offering.

I can see the Hebrews very solemnly adding gold band and broaches to the offering plate. It’s going to take a lot of gold. But they had all the trinkets the Egyptians gave them to get them gone.

Now what is wrong with this so far? I mean it is good to want a worship service. It is all right to make it “exciting” and “inspiring” “Awesome” with everybody leaving saying “It was good to be in the house of the Lord.”

Why, it is that kind of experience that Israel had again in again when they gathered in the Temple or Tabernacle three times a year to celebrate the great feasts. “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘It’s time for church.’ ”

There is nothing especially wrong with great production values unless they become the focus and everything become a matter of style. There is a thin line between entertainment and worship sometimes. And it has to do with whether we are offering up our worship to God or to the congregation.

That is always the danger. From time to time there have been Christians who felt uneasy when things got flashy. In the fourth century some were nervous that paintings of Jesus were idolatrous. The Puritans took the command to heart and went around England destroying statues, ripping out screens till they left “bare ruined choirs,” stark empty spaces without ornament or picture. So in New England you find some churches even without cross ,and clear glass, instead of stained. And some not only dismiss guitars but organs and pianos as well.

Ironically what Moses is doing is getting detailed instructions for building a tabernacle complete with rich material, decoration, splendor. The difference is the tabernacle was not something that was an end in itself, but a space wherein to meet God. It drew attention to itself and then pointed beyond itself to the God who cannot be represented.

Beauty is a part of worship. But it goes beyond the eye to the mind and heart. Worship the lord in the beauty of holiness.

The style of worship is not as important as the simple question, “in this way of worship is you soul centered upon the God of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Moses.

The way the story goes there are at least two problems here.

1. They have forgotten the first two commandments and their restrictions on how to worship. They have forgotten the Word of God. When you no longer remember what God has said, you lose your spiritual G.P.S. Worship loses its mooring where the word of God is not read and pondered.

2. The result in this case is these Israelites substitute a lesser God for the Elusive, Free, Invisible God –They take for themselves –– a god thing they can shape to their liking, tinker with, see, visit when it is convenient, keep, manage, carry around with them.

There is something cautionary here. Aaron is a religious leader. He is the founder of a whole line of priests. Their religious leader misleads them in trying to give them what he thinks they want. What a subtle danger to try to “help God out.” Sometimes in trying to make everyone happy you can be tempted to preach what is popular. Sometimes in focusing on making people happy you can empty a worship service of reverence and sidetrack the mission of the church into self-indulgence.

Aaron who as a priest would be expected in coming years to have the special responsibility for teaching and explaining the law of God, has come up with a way to break 2 of the commandments at once. The temptation of religious leaders and people of faith is to make faith easier than it is.

It is not easy having a God that you cannot see. It is not easy serving a God who sometimes makes you wait and wonder if you will ever hear from him again. It is not easy holding on to God when the only guarantee you have his promise. The only security you have is his word.

The psalmist says, “I’ve been having a really rotten time. Things are falling apart all around me and people ask, ‘Where is your God?’”

Faith is not the easiest ground for life. But it is the only Jews had.

Martin Luther’s catechism asked, “What does it mean to have a god? Whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that is properly your god.”

Or as they put it looking at the golden calf– behold the gods who saved you from Egypt. What do you depend upon the most?

It would be correct to say that we depend on a lot of things– our hard work, our friends, luck, our investments, the military, our family.

So many things in fact do give our lives meaning and we serve them and love them and even sacrifice for them.

The question is does God call trumps. The Hebrew root for god, elohim, is “mighty.”2 The issue is not we cannot love anyone or anything but God. Rather the question is, does God have final authority in your life. Do you love God not holding back anything in yourself– all your mind, heart, strength, soul.

“Thou shalt have no other god in my presence, in my face.”

The way Luther put it, the problem is not with the object but with how attached I am to it. How much of me does it have?

One example is co-dependence, when a person relies on someone else so completely that they will often remain in unhealthy or abusive relationships rather than face the prospect of being alone. While all of us need emotional support from time to time, co-dependence is crippled. They think they are nothing without that person. The other person controls you totally. That is a sick relationship. That is letting someone substitute for god.3

Professionals build calves of their work, afraid of the insecurity

of trusting God for their identity. Single people build calves of marriage,

believing that they are incomplete, even in Christ, without a mate. Many

make performance and achievement a golden calf, believing that they have no

worth outside of what they do. Others make appearance into an idol of

adoration, hearing the voices …of a thousand TV ads that

equate beauty and attractiveness with narrowly defined qualities that can be

enhanced by the product of the moment. We all build golden calves.”4

In a strange way church or the Bible can go from being pointers to God to actually acting as our substitute for a relationship to God.

Someone once wrote a letter to the editor in a small-town newspaper “and the writer said, ‘I love God and country and cannot distinguish between the two.’” 5 That is making your nation a god.

It is possible for us to make our faith an idol. Listen. This is tricky. But when we place our confidence in our faith in God instead of the God, we are depending on something in us and not something in God. We are trusting ourselves and not God.

Listen, to be saved by grace means that it does not depend on how good I am at being good, or how successful I am at batting down all doubts. I trust God despite my sin, my doubt, my vulnerability. “On Christ the solid rock I stand all other ground is sinking sand”– including my inner religiosity.

All this is closely connected to image-making.

The human heart is a factory of idols…Everyone of us is, from his mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.” -John Calvin.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say, “Well look over here. This is my God.”

The newfangled atheists who rehearse arguments as old as Lucretius as if they discovered white bread, all ask for a God you can put in a test tube and run experiments on. They want a Divine White Rat they can put in a cage and see how it behaves. “Where is your God?”

It is not easy worshiping a God who you can’t control or see. Who is sometimes silent. Not mention a God with such high expectations.

The ancient world was littered with gods. The Canaanites with their bulls. The Egyptians with a whole menagerie of animals and chimeras. The Romans and Greeks with gods that looked like big versions of humans. The Hindu with scary looking creatures.

It is said that when the Greeks and Romans met Jews they started a rumor that they were atheists, because they had no images for a god. How can you have a god that cannot be pictured?

You heard the Sunday School teacher who asked Jimmy what he was drawing,

“I am drawing a picture of God.”

“Well, Jimmy, no one knows what God looks like.”

“They will when I finish!”

According to Anthony Tomasino one of the big toy flops was the Jesus doll. It was about the size of GI Joe or Barbie, only dressed in the clothes we associate with Bible stories and with the hair Jesus is pictured with. Manufacturers were sure it would be a big hit with the religious market, “for Easter baskets, confirmation.” . But “the few parent who bought them returned them to the store. The reasons? They didn’t like their children taking Jesus’ clothes off and leaving him lying around naked. Nor did they care for Jesus dating Barbie, riding in a dump truck or dropping toy bombs on toy soldiers, The problems with images is that they tend to do whatever we want them to, whether they should be doing it or not.”6

God remains beyond our control, free to be who he chooses.

Sometimes the image issue is not a physical idol. Sometimes the thing that we substitute for God is an image we have in our head.

It is not a unique thing to find out that a person who says they have a problem with God are operating with a messed up picture of God in their head. Sometimes the problem is they are taught to pray our Father in Heaven and just can’t feel warm because their father was a child beater or crazy when he was drunk.

But there are other ways our stereotype of God can be a false idol. Many years ago J. B. Phillips wrote a book called Your God is Too Small which catalogs some of the images people have of God which keep them from a grown up image of the infinite God of love and power and justice.

The closest thing to God is a human being. Remember? “God created the human in his image, in his image created he them”. Of course the problem is we often fail to look much like God. We fall short of the glory of God, again and again. Arguing, warring, betraying. But we have seen what humanity can be in Jesus. As Colossians puts it “He is the very image of God.”

That is what a real human is like, and in that Jesus we see the love and compassion of God, the self-giving, “He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians:1:13-15). Or as Hebrews:1:3 puts it: “[Christ] reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp/imprint of God’s nature.”

But in as much as it was not a different humanity than our which Jesus had, he shows us that the proper image of God which however marred and scratched is still upon every human life, even the most distressed. The image of God which we are allowed is the image God makes.

God forbids our making images of him which are full of our ideas and projections of our projects. God provides us images– in burning bush, and Jesus Christ, in the neighbor in need. But God forever transcends all we know of God. God is a God of surprise and creation and mercy and holiness, power and glory. Let those who speak of God do so reverently and with knowledge that God is who God will be.

Aware. Alive. and Able. Present. AMEN.

1David Noel Freedman (May 22, 1922 – 8 April 2008), was a biblical scholar, author, editor, archaeologist, and ordained Presbyterian minister (Th.B., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1944).

After earning a doctorate in Semitic Languages and Literature at the Johns Hopkins University in 1948, Freedman held a series of professorial and administrative positions at various theological institutions and universities.

As the general editor of several distinguished series, including the Anchor Bible Series (1956–2008), Eerdmans Critical Commentaries (2000–2008), and The Bible in Its World (2000–2008), and as the editor and author of numerous other award-winning volumes, including the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000), Freedman has produced over three hundred and thirty scholarly books. Recent seminal works as an author include “The Unity of the Hebrew Bible” (1991), “Psalm 119: The Exaltation of Torah” (1999), “The Nine Commandments” (2000)

2Most authorities agree that “Elohim” is derived from “El” meaning “mighty (one), strong (strength).”

3Anthony J. Tomasino, Written upon the Heart, 52

4Fred Kane, sermon. October, 2011.

6Written on the Heart, 62-63.