Read an Excerpt
How to Use This Guide
If you want to know how to respond to Jesus’ invitation to follow him as his disciple, the natural place to begin is the Bible. Because the Holy Spirit guided the authors of Scripture, the book they wrote is an always-fresh source of wisdom on everything concerning God and our relationship with him.
In this book we will read about the Israelites’ journey to the land God promised them, in order to learn from this story about our following Jesus. As we proceed, we will explore connections between what we find in Scripture and our own life. The goal is to grow in our response to Jesus’ invitation to follow him as his disciples.
Our approach will be a guided discovery. It will be guided because we all need support in understanding Scripture and reflecting on what it means for our lives. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in the community of faith, so we read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Even if we are reading alone rather than in a group, we need resources that help us grow in understanding. Our approach is also one of discovery, because each of us needs to encounter Scripture for ourselves and consider its meaning for our life. No one can do this for us.
This book is designed to give you both guidance for understanding and tools for discovery.
The introduction on page 6 will guide your reading by providing background material and helping you get oriented to the subject of our exploration. Each week, a brief “Background” section will give you context for the reading, and the “Exploring the Theme” section that follows the reading will bring out the meaning of the Scripture passages. Supplementary material between sessions will offer further resources for understanding.
The main tool for discovery is the “Questions for Reflection and Discussion” section in each session. The first questions in this section are designed to spur you to notice things in the text, sharpen your powers of observation, and read for comprehension. Other questions suggest ways to compare the people, situations, and experiences in the biblical texts with your own life and the world today—an important step toward grasping what God is saying to you through the Scripture and what your response might be. Choose the questions you think will work best for you. Preparing to answer all the questions ahead of time is highly recommended.
We suggest that you pay particular attention to the final question each week, labeled “Focus question.” This question points to an especially important issue raised by the reading. Do leave enough time for everyone in the group to discuss it!
Other sections encourage you to take an active approach to your Bible reading and discussion. At the start of each session, “Questions to Begin” will help you break the ice and start talk flowing. Often these questions are light and have only a slight connection to the reading. After each Scripture reading, there is a suggested time for a “First Impression.” This gives you a chance to express a brief, initial, personal response to the text. Each session ends with a “Prayer to Close” that suggests a way of expressing your response to God.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and twenty minutes. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of your discussions if you read the weekly material and prepare your answers to the questions in advance of each meeting. If participants are not able to prepare, read the “Exploring the Theme” sections aloud at the points where they appear.
What about leadership? You don’t have to be an expert in the Bible to lead a discussion. Choose one or two people to act as discussion facilitators, and have everyone in the group read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” (page 92) before beginning.
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need their own copy of this book. It contains the biblical texts, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each person will find it useful to have one. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussions. (See page 96 for recommendations.)
Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 92) or individuals (page 95).
Lessons from a Trip
If you visit Rome, you will find churches adorned with brilliant mosaics and frescoes of biblical scenes, Jesus, and the saints. Under some of the oldest churches, you will also find excavations. There, archaeologists have uncovered plain brick-and-concrete walls—remnants of houses, apartments, warehouses, factories, and shops from the first, second, and third centuries. Christians gathered in these homes and workplaces during this early period because they could not build churches. Christianity was illegal, and Christians were sometimes fiercely persecuted. When the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, around the year 300, Christians began to erect churches above these sites where they had already been meeting.
With their plain brick walls below and spectacular artwork above, these churches testify to the life of the Church in two eras. In the earlier period, many men and women whose names are unknown to us—and whose lives were as ordinary as the unadorned walls of their dwellings—followed Jesus faithfully, some of them even to the point of a martyr’s death. In the face of misunderstanding and hostility, these early believers shared the gospel with people around them, and the Church grew. After Constantine, the Christians who began to build beautiful churches also began to build the gospel into their society. Little by little, they shaped a culture that at least to some degree acknowledged God’s providence and presence and recognized the demands of justice and the dignity of the weakest members.
To visit these Roman churches is to be reminded of the debt of gratitude we owe all these Christians of earlier times. With the help of the Holy Spirit, they passed on the gospel to us and left us a rich heritage. There is an important similarity between these earlier Christians and us. Just as the Christian faith has come to us through them, so it will reach later generations through us. Hopefully, people in the future will thank God that we Christians of the twenty-first century responded to Jesus’ call and handed on to them a world touched by his grace.
Between us and the Roman Christians in the time of Constantine there is a further parallel. Like them, we seem to be passing from one era to another. Amid great technological, economic, political, and cultural changes, we have entered a new millennium that presents fresh opportunities for the gospel to reach men and women throughout the world, as well as new obstacles and problems.
As we face the challenges of our new era, it is natural for us to look within our heritage as a Church for helpful resources. Among the most valuable is sacred Scripture—God’s old but ever-present word to us. As Christian readers, we turn our attention primarily to the New Testament, where we find Jesus and the early Church. But if we look behind Jesus and his first disciples at the portion of the Bible that was Scripture for them—the Old Testament—we will also find much that is useful. Especially instructive for a Church traveling into a new era are the accounts of the Israelite people’s great trek from Egypt to Canaan—an account that fills the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Theirs was a journey from slavery to freedom, a journey on which God revealed himself to them, drew them into a relationship with himself, and formed them as a people. These events were foundational for the people of Israel. And they stand as the model of God’s dealings with us as followers of his Son. The Church, the community of those who are baptized into Christ, continues to travel from the slavery of sin to the freedom of love. God’s revelation of himself to the Israelites foreshadowed God’s greater revelation of himself to all men and women in Jesus. The covenant that God gave the Israelites foreshadowed the more intimate relationship with himself that God now offers to all through Jesus. The miracles by which God sustained the Israelites on their journey foreshadowed his presence with us in Jesus and in his Spirit, and, in a particular way, in the Eucharist. Thus, referring to the Israelites’ experiences on their journey, the apostle Paul tells us, “These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). In this guide, then, we will read about the Israelites’ great journey, seeking the instruction it contains for us.
Who were the Israelites? What was the purpose of their journey? The Israelites’ ancestors were a small group of shepherds in the ancient Near East who went to Egypt to escape a famine and then stayed on. Their descendants became enslaved by the government. The men were forced to make bricks for building projects. The Bible does not name the Egyptian kings, called pharaohs, who oppressed the Israelites, but one of them, it seems, was Rameses II, an especially powerful pharaoh who ruled Egypt during the thirteenth century before Christ. Rameses commissioned the construction of an enormous city in the Nile Delta, and named it Rameses, after himself. A modern archaeologist who has been excavating the ruins of Rameses says that after forty years of digging he has only begun to uncover the ancient city. He estimates that the city of Rameses was some four square miles—huge by ancient standards, and requiring a heck of a lot of bricks!
The Israelites suffered in their enslavement, and God paid attention to their situation. He commissioned an Israelite named Moses to confront the pharaoh and to lead the Israelites to freedom. Aided by miraculous displays of divine power, Moses did just that. He brought the twelve tribes of Israelites out of the Nile Delta. When the escaping slaves encountered a body of water blocking their way, and the pharaoh’s army was coming up behind them, God staged a spectacular rescue, bringing the Israelites safely through the water. Moses then led the people east into the Sinai Peninsula. At Mount Sinai, God formally established a relationship with the people and gave them instructions for a way of life based on justice and compassion. (An earlier Six Weeks book, entitled God to the Rescue, offers a guide to this earlier portion of the story.)
It is at this point, with the Israelites encamped at Mount Sinai, that our readings in the present book begin. Over the next six weeks, we will follow the Israelites as they set out from Mount Sinai and travel north into the Negev, a desert area that is today in the south of the modern state of Israel. From the Negev they head east, then north, into what is now the kingdom of Jordan. Their journey will end on the east side of the Jordan River, where they will camp across from Jericho, preparing to cross over into Canaan—present-day Israel and Palestine.
The journey involved radical, probably terrifying, changes for the Israelites. The Nile Delta, where they had been living, was and is flat, moist, and lush—today the ruins of the city of Rameses lie beneath rice fields. Waterfowl and fish live in the canals. But the delta is an oasis in a vast desert. Vegetation abruptly ends at the edge of the area watered by the Nile. As soon as the Israelites left the delta, they found themselves in an unfamiliar wasteland. In the Sinai Peninsula, they encountered a wilderness of towering granite mountains and rock-strewn valleys under a blazing sun. Depending on the lay of the land and the composition of the rocks, the temperature rises to extremes that bring rapid dehydration and death. The difficulties of travel through such terrain are obvious. The scarcity of water was an immediate and constant problem. In the Sinai, one travels from oasis to oasis. The Israelites needed guidance to find the oases—and to stay clear of treacherous slopes where loose rocks may suddenly slide away under travelers’ feet. For people who had spent their lives in the muddy, green Nile Delta, the barren, jagged Sinai wilderness was a difficult and dangerous place.
The wilderness put the Israelites under pressure, and the effects of the pressure begin to appear in our reading in Week 1. Moses climbs Mount Sinai to receive instructions from God and remains for weeks at the top of the mountain. Not having any indication of what has happened to him, the people below become restless. They resort to a means of coping with their anxiety that provokes a crisis in their relationship with God. A complete rupture is only narrowly averted. Once the relationship is restored, the Israelites get organized for their trip and set out—our readings in Week 2. But almost immediately, physical hardships provoke them to complaints and rebellion (Week 3). Envy causes further disarray (Week 4).
After a while, God brings the Israelites to the southern border of Canaan and tells them to enter. Fearing the people who already live there, however, the Israelites refuse. In fact, they make plans to return to Egypt. (The incident is told in Numbers 13–14.) God responds with anger tinged with disappointment: “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (Numbers 14:11). Moses intercedes for the people, and God forgives them. But their cowardice and lack of trust in God have consequences: God condemns them to go on wandering in the wilderness for an entire generation, until those who escaped from slavery in Egypt die. Their children will enter the land God has promised to give them. Thus a trip that could have taken a few months stretches out to forty years.
The barren Sinai Peninsula and Negev desert are sparsely populated. But in the hill country east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan River, the Israelites find villages and cities. Problems inevitably arise with the local inhabitants, as we see in Week 5. First there is a military confrontation. Then the Israelites fall under the influence of the local people’s religion.
Finally, beside the Jordan River, Moses delivers a farewell sermon to the people. Afterward he climbs a hill from which he can look west over the river valley to the land of Canaan, and dies (Week 6). The Israelites’ entry into the land—and their continuing journey through the centuries—is recorded in the historical books of the Old Testament.
We get to know both God and the Israelites better as we read about their interactions on the journey. The people’s many needs and their lack of cooperation with God provide frequent opportunities for God to demonstrate his helpfulness and patience, and also to communicate his insistence on being trusted and obeyed. Tracing the emerging portrait of God is one of the chief interests in reading the accounts of the journey.
The Israelites learn about God as they go. Back in Egypt, they probably had some traditional stories about God’s dealings with their ancestors, but they do not seem to have a close relationship with him when he intervenes on their behalf against Pharaoh (see Exodus 5, especially verse 21). Because they do not know him very well, God does not at first expect a high level of faith from them. For example, when they run out of water and food soon after escaping from Egypt, they complain despairingly, but God does not reproach them for their lack of faith; he just provides what they need (Exodus 15:22–16:36). Over time, however, as the Israelites experience his care, God expects them to grow in faith. As readers we may observe their growth—and failure to grow—and may ask ourselves how we are like them.
The strange environment through which the Israelites travel presents them with a range of challenges. They leave behind the familiar flora and fauna of the Nile Delta and now awake each day to unfamiliar sounds and smells. Their diet changes. No more fish! Their work changes, too. No longer having to make mud bricks from dawn to dusk is a relief, but now they have to learn how to tend sheep and goats in a wilderness of sparse vegetation. In every respect, they are wrenched out of old ways and forced into new ones. Their reactions to this demand give us food for thought about our own willingness to relate well to change.
The changes required of the Israelites involve more than a new menu and different work. The people go from being made to work as slaves, but being supplied with food, to being free of overseers, yet having to provide for their own needs. Released from slavery, they must learn to take responsibility for themselves. Thus, what starts out as a journey from slavery to freedom becomes a journey from freedom to freedom: given freedom from injustice, oppression, exploitation, and racism by the Egyptians, they must now seek freedom from their own old habits, expectations, and fears. By rescuing them and giving them his laws, God gives them the opportunity to lead a dignified life of justice and mutual responsibility. But to take hold of this opportunity, they must resist doubts and fears and put their trust in him. Until they can stand up to the allurements and threats they meet on the way, they will not be able to receive God’s promises. Will they take responsibility for responding to God’s invitation amid difficulties? Or will they become impatient, indulge in complaints, and blame others for their problems? As we follow their story, we will see much of ourselves reflected in these former slaves.
As Christians, we read about the Israelites’ journey through the lens of faith in Jesus. Our own journey is a journey with him. The home toward which he is leading us is not the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea but the kingdom of God. Unlike Canaan, toward which the Israelites traveled, God’s kingdom is not just up ahead of us but is already present, in Jesus. Despite these differences, however, the Israelites’ journey is, as St. Paul says, instructive for us, for it brings to light a lot about God and about human beings that remains true and relevant for our journey with Jesus.
I should warn you that there are some distasteful elements in the accounts we will read. For example, God is sometimes said to send plagues as a punishment for people’s sins. This raises theological and historical questions that are too knotty for us to try to untangle here. It is, however, helpful to realize that in these Old Testament accounts we see God and the world through the eyes of people who lived in a culture much different from ours. They accepted a kind of “after, therefore, because of” reasoning: if a plague came after a sin, the sin was regarded as the cause of the plague, which was viewed as punishment for the sin. There are shortcomings in this way of thinking, but they do not detract from the basic message of the biblical accounts. What the biblical authors regarded as sin is indeed sin, and sin is harmful, even if it is not the immediate cause of disasters. The biblical authors’ “after, therefore, because of” reasoning was to be corrected in the process of God’s revelation of himself. The book of Job marks one stage in this process. Jesus’ teaching marks a further stage. Jesus remarked that a man’s blindness was not a punishment for sin (John 9:1–3). By the same token, plagues, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, and so on should not be interpreted as punishments, although they may be taken as images for the toll that sin exacts (see Luke 13:1–5).
In one of our readings, God commends an Israelite named Phinehas for acting in a murderous rage against an Israelite who publicly flaunted idolatrous behavior (Numbers 25—Week 5). We may wonder how such an action could be acceptable to the God who has revealed himself in Jesus. Here it is useful to realize that God revealed himself to the people of Israel in a progressive way, leading them from a partial and incomplete understanding of him to a fuller knowledge. Texts such as Numbers 25 are evidence of the process. Such passages raise questions about the manner in which God adapted his word to the Israelites’ understanding. What was God’s real message to them? How well did they grasp what he was saying to them? Exploring these questions would take us far beyond the scope of this book. But the basic principle by which we proceed as followers of Jesus is clear. When we encounter Old Testament texts that present a message about God and his will that falls short of or diverges from the example and teaching of Jesus, we interpret those texts as somehow a partial preparation for Jesus or a prefigurement of him. Thus, for example, it seems possible to find in the Phinehas story not a divine affirmation of religious violence but an authentic message about the fundamental importance God places on people recognizing him alone as the source of life and about the value of an individual taking action to help the community of believers recognize this truth.
While we can learn from the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, we will not, of course, find specific answers in the biblical accounts for our twenty-first-century problems. We will, however, find profound insights into God and ourselves. And the readings will spur us to ask questions about our relationships with God and with one another. The Israelites’ long trip through the wilderness brought them to a greater state of readiness to enter the land where God wished them to dwell. Reading about their journey can help us move forward together in the new millennium that God has begun to give us—and to use it well.
An Awesome Thing
Questions to Begin
10 minutes Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 What’s your favorite piece of jewelry?
2 When have you been more impressed by seeing or encountering something than by just hearing or reading about it?
3 Can you remember a time when you were impatient but later regretted it?
At that time they made a calf, offered a sacrifice to the idol, and reveled in the works of their hands.
Opening the Bible
10 minutes Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns reading paragraphs.
The Israelites are camping next to Mount Sinai, in the Sinai wilderness, where God has established a covenant—a formal relationship—with them. God has summoned Moses to climb the mountain to receive further instructions. Moses has gone up the mountain and stayed for forty days (Exodus 24:18)—a number that, in the Bible, implies a period of time set aside by God for a special purpose. But to the people who are waiting in the camp, Moses’ absence does not feel like part of a carefully scheduled divine plan.
The Reading: Exodus 32:1–16, 19–24, 30–34; 33:3–4, 12, 15–23; 34:1, 4–11, 28
The Calm Above, the Turmoil Below Exodus 32:1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. . . .
19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?”
22 And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” . . .
Moses Goes Up the Mountain Again
30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”
31 So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” 33 But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin. . . . 33:3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
4 When the people heard these harsh words, they mourned, and no one put on ornaments. . . .
Moses Talks with God at the Foot of the Mountain
12 Moses said to the Lord . . . 15 “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?” . . .
17 The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21 And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
Moses Climbs the Mountain Once More
34:1 The Lord said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. . . .” 4 So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone.
5 The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, “The Lord.” 6 The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.”
8 And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. 9 He said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”
10 He said: I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the Lord; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. 11 Observe what I command you today. . . .
28 He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
5 minutes Briefly mention a question you have about the reading or one thing in it that surprised, impressed, delighted, or challenged you. No discussion! Just listen to one another’s reactions.
Exploring the Theme
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Reflection and Discussion.”
32:1–6. Moses has been the Israelites’ go-between with God and their guide in the wilderness. His absence arouses anxieties. If Moses has abandoned them, who will show them the way? They feel the need to replace him with a new means for being in contact with God. They meet the need by making a metal statue of a bull.
It was common for people in the ancient Near East to picture a god standing on a bull, which symbolized strength. Probably the Israelites regard their bull statue, too, as a pedestal for God, who, they imagine, stands invisibly upon it. They seem to regard the statue not as a replacement for God but as a symbol of his presence. This, at least, is how Aaron relates to it. He welcomes the bull as a manifestation of the God who has brought the people out of Egypt. In Hebrew, the same word stands for both God and gods, so the people’s acclamation of the bull as the gods who brought them out of Egypt sounds like an acknowledgment of the God who brought them out. Notice that God does not accuse the people of turning to other gods but of using a statue of a bull in their worship (32:8). This violates his first command to them (20:4).
Symbolizing God with a bull might seem to express confidence in his power. But there are problems with this approach. It implies that God is part of nature rather than its creator. Thus demoted, God would be subject to other natural forces—perhaps even subject to the demands of his worshipers. They might consider their image of him as a kind of lever by which to get him to provide the goods and services they desire. The slide from worship to magic would begin.
In addition, the bull image harkens back to the religion of Egypt, with its numerous animal-like gods. Those gods reflected a false value system. They supported the pharaoh and his dictatorial regime, which oppressed other peoples, such as the Israelites. Unlike those gods, the God who has revealed himself to Israel never supports injustice. He is on the side of the underdog, as he has demonstrated to the Israelites. So they should avoid representing him in a way that tends to confuse him with the gods who support an unjust social order.
The Israelites offer sacrifices before the bull statue, hoping to strengthen their relationship with God (32:6). God would prefer them to obey his instructions (see 1 Samuel 15:22). After eating the remainder of the sacrificial food, they begin to “revel” (32:6). The Hebrew word refers to dancing (Judges 16:25, where it is sometimes translated “entertain”) and sexual activity (Genesis 26:8, sometimes translated “fondling”; 39:14, 17, sometimes translated “insult”).
32:7–14. Up on the mountain, God has been giving Moses instructions for constructing a shrine that will be the focal point for his presence among the people (Exodus 25–31). There is no point in continuing the instructions now that the people, in their impatience, have made their own focal point for God’s presence—one that violates their relationship with him.
The people are “stiff-necked,” God says (32:9)—not teachable, unwilling to change their ways of thinking and acting. God declares his intention to punish them (32:10). Why, then, does he ask Moses to step aside? St. Gregory the Great remarked that it is almost as if God wishes Moses to hold him back. It would be a mistake to see here a struggle between divine vengeance and human mercy. After all, Moses is God’s servant. God chose him. And God implicitly invites him to intercede for the people. In fact, Moses expresses what is in God’s mind. The interplay of justice and mercy within God is made visible by being projected outward into a conversation between God and his human servant.
God responds positively to Moses’ pleading (32:14). Biblical scholar R. W. L. Moberly comments: “It is God’s faithfulness alone which is the basis for forgiveness; and yet this faithfulness is only revealed and made actual when Moses’ bold intercession calls it forth.” To intercede on behalf of others, as Moses does, is to enter into the heart of God and play a role in the unfolding of God’s purposes in others’ lives.
In his appeal (32:11–13), Moses does not minimize the people’s offense or argue that their good deeds outweigh their sin. He appeals to God’s loving intentions. “You decided long ago to show your mercy,” he argues. “Well, continue to do so!” Moses recognizes that God can fulfill his good promises to human beings only if he is willing to practice constant mercy and forgiveness, because we humans constantly fail to cooperate with God’s plans. St. Paul will make the same point (see Romans 4:13–15).
32:15–24. For Moses, hearing about the Israelites’ unfaithfulness is one thing; seeing it is another (32:19). By angrily shattering the stone tablets, he signals that the covenant between God and the people is broken. Moses’ strange requirement that the people drink water containing the pulverized statue (32:20) may be part of a trial by ordeal designed to identify the guilty parties (compare Numbers 5:12–31) so that the punishment (32:25–29) falls only on them.
Aaron excuses his own behavior and shifts the blame onto the people (32:22–24). His only concern is to escape punishment. Apparently he would be happy to see the people punished for their sin. What a contrast with Moses! Moses cares less for himself than for the people. He is willing to stand with them to shield them from punishment, even though it would be to his own advantage to stand aside (32:10–11). Yet for reasons unexplained, Aaron escapes punishment.
32:30–34. Moses persuaded God to relent (32:14), but nothing was said about forgiveness. So Moses now seeks complete restoration of the relationship between God and the people. Like a heartbroken parent praying for a wayward child, Moses prays for the Israelites, declaring that if God will not fully restore his relationship with the people, he has no further interest in living (32:31–32).
God’s response is ambiguous (32:33). It can be interpreted as making no concession: Israel has sinned; all will be punished. Or as a partial concession: God will punish the ringleaders but will be merciful to those who were only indirectly involved in the idolatry. Or as a complete concession: since Moses, who has not sinned, identifies himself with the people, God will not destroy the people, for he will not destroy Moses. Whatever interpretation one is inclined to accept, God’s words are less than a declaration of forgiveness. The Israelites remain under a cloud of guilt.
33:3–4. God offers to guide the people—from a distance. If he were “among” them, their sins would provoke his anger (33:3). This is not a denial that God is present everywhere but a way of expressing the chasm that separates God from sin. The announcement of God’s aloofness grieves the Israelites (33:4), although their response falls short of a clear-cut acknowledgement of their sin.
33:12–23. In Moses’ eyes, being guided through the wilderness, even getting settled in the land of Canaan, is not enough. The important thing about being God’s people is having a personal relationship with God. What are God’s gifts worth without God? So Moses seeks God’s presence with the people—and the forgiveness that makes reconciliation possible.
Moses seems to achieve his purpose (33:17). Yet he knows the people are still prone to sin. If they start out on the journey with God in their midst and fall into further rebellion, will a worse punishment befall them? Moses feels the need of a further revelation of God’s mercy to undergird the relationship between God and the people. This, it seems, is why Moses asks God to reveal himself (33:18). By asking to see God’s “glory,” Moses is asking to see God in his goodness and mercy.
In his answer, God speaks of his “goodness” (33:19) and his “glory” (33:22), which seem to be identical with himself, since all will pass before Moses (33:23). God is glorious, splendid, majestic, blindingly radiant—yet his glory is not raw power but goodness. At the same time, God makes it clear that there is freedom and mystery in him: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (33:19). There is nothing mechanical about God’s mercy, nothing on which we can presume. Furthermore, God’s revelation of himself to Moses is limited because Moses is limited: no human being, no matter how highly favored, can know God completely (33:20–23). Among human beings, only Jesus knows God fully, for he is God’s Son (John 1:18; 14:9).
34:1–11, 28. The idea of God standing with Moses seems odd (34:5). But the Hebrew can be interpreted as meaning that God came down and Moses stood in his presence.
God proclaims his name—the enigmatic Hebrew word is here translated “the Lord”—and spells out its meaning (34:6–7). In other words, God declares the kind of person he is. God is merciful, even if humans are not. God is forgiving to human beings, who continually fall into sin. Verse 7 seems to express a contradiction: the forgiving God does not forgive. But a rabbinic interpretation—“He remits punishment for the penitent, but not for the impenitent”—is probably on the right track. In any case, the note of judgment sounded here puts us on notice that we cannot blithely go on sinning on the assumption that God will automatically forgive us—the attitude captured in German poet Heinrich Heine’s supposed deathbed pronouncement: “God will forgive me. It’s his job.”
In the presence of the merciful God, Moses asks God to forgive the Israelites and live in their midst again (“let the Lord go with us”—34:9). In Moses’ appeal, the “although” could be translated “because”; that is, because the people are sinful, God should be forgiving! In Moses’ view, God is so loving that the sight of our sins draws from him a response of compassion, just as a physician is spurred to action by the sight of an injured person being wheeled into the ER.
God’s incomprehensible mercy will be the foundation of the Israelites’ relationship with him on their journey. They will still be sinners, but God’s mercy will be greater than their sins. Mercy will make possible an ongoing relationship between the good God and the people who often fail to be good. The “awesome thing” that God will do (34:10) is to have an ongoing covenant relationship with sinners. His acts of forgiveness toward the Israelites will be “marvels” (34:10) greater than the miracles by which he set them free from slavery.
Earlier, the Israelites self-confidently declared, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (24:7). They know themselves better now. And they know God better. They have learned that he is serious about being obeyed, yet also merciful when they disobey. They will march away from Mount Sinai not as a people proudly able to proclaim their loyalty to God. Rather they will set forth under a banner proclaiming, “The Lord, a God merciful and gracious” (34:6).
As the Church, we too go forward into the new millennium under the banner of divine mercy, emblazoned with the cross of Jesus Christ. We present ourselves to the world not as paragons of virtue but as men and women who have experienced God’s forgiveness—and invite others to experience it.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
45 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Compare the statements about who led the Israelites out of Egypt and whose people the Israelites are in 32:7 and 11. How do you explain the differences?
2 Reread 32:7–8. What do you think God expects Moses to do when he goes down the mountain?
3 In 32:1, the people seem to assume that God is absent. How do God’s statements in 32:7–8 refute this assumption?
4 Compare Aaron’s account of events (32:22–24) with the biblical author’s account (32:1–5). Where does Aaron’s account follow the author’s? Where does it diverge? Why? What opinion of Aaron do you form from this?
5 When, like Aaron, have you gone along with something wrong at school, in your family, at work? What did you learn from the experience?
6 Reread 34:6–7. God describes himself as “merciful,” “gracious,” “slow to anger,” “abounding in steadfast love,” and “forgiving.” In your relationships with people, how have you learned the meaning of these words? How much can a person understand these words if he or she does not express these qualities? How is God calling you to embody these qualities in a relationship with someone in your life?
7 What kinds of things can we know about God? In what ways does he exceed our ability to know him? What has helped you to know God? What has helped you realize that God is greater than you can understand? How can a person develop a true picture of who God is and what he is like? What role does Scripture play in this? What role does the Church play?
8 When has God kept you waiting? What are you waiting for now? Are you trusting God in the meantime?
9 Do you ever wish to see people suffer for the wrong they have done? Do you pray that God will show them mercy? In this regard, are you more like Aaron or like Moses?
10 Can sin and repentance be a route to a deeper knowledge of God?
11 What qualities of good leadership does Moses demonstrate? How could you imitate him in some situation in your own life?
12 For Personal Reflection: Do you ever try to relieve your anxieties with something false or destructive? What would be a more constructive way of dealing with anxiety? Do you turn to God for help when you are anxious?
13 Focus question. How have you experienced God’s mercy? Is God’s mercy to you something you let other people know about? How do you reflect God’s mercy in your relationships with other people? What opportunity do you have this week to show mercy? How does the Church bring the news of God’s mercy to the world? How do you contribute to it?
Prayer to Close
10 minutes Use this approach—or create your own!
? Pray together: “O God, you are gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. You never stop forgiving sins and showing mercy.”
Leader: “For our impatience,”
Group: “Forgive us, Lord.”
Leader: “For our idolatry,”
Group: “Forgive us, Lord.”
Leader: “For our failures to take responsibility for our sins,”
Group: “Forgive us, Lord.”
Leader: “Because we are stiff-necked,”
Group: “Have mercy, Lord.”
Leader: “On our families and all who are close to us,”
Group: “Have mercy, Lord.”
Leader: “On all our neighbors, near and far,”
Group: “Have mercy, Lord.”
Leader: “On those who have hurt us,”
Group: “Have mercy, Lord.”
End by praying together Psalm 89:1–2 or an Our Father.
Between Discussions A Messenger of Mercy
Moses acted as intercessor on behalf of the Israelites at Mount Sinai and, as we will see in further readings, he continues to do so on their journey through the wilderness. In this way, Moses foreshadowed Jesus Christ, who offered his life on a cross to reconcile the human race to God. Jesus was the perfect intercessor with God—a role he continues to fulfill on our behalf (see Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25; 1 John 2:1). But the completeness of Jesus’ intercession does not eliminate the opportunity for others to intercede with God. On the contrary, Jesus shares his intercession with us. He invites us to participate in his redeeming love by entering into his offering of himself to the Father on behalf of all. In the history of the Church, some men and women have responded to this invitation to such a degree that they stand as models for the rest of us, reminders of our calling. In the twentieth century, one such person was Helena Kowalska.
Helena was born in 1905 in a village near Lodz, Poland. At the age of nineteen, she entered a convent in Warsaw. She did not have much formal education, and her health was poor, so the directors of the convent assigned her simple tasks such as cooking, answering the door, and taking care of the vegetable garden. But there was more than met the eye with Helena, now called Sister Faustina.
In the first few years after she entered the convent, Faustina went through a period when praying, even thinking about God, became difficult. She felt rejected by God. Those who gave her spiritual advice could recognize the common pattern of testing that God often uses to deepen the trust of those who seek him. Through this dark time, Faustina developed a profound sense of her smallness as a creature in the face of God’s immensity. At the same time, her desire for God and her determination to obey him grew. She tried to be of service—and to be a source of cheer—to others in the little ways possible within the restrictions of convent life.
From the time she was seven, Faustina had occasionally heard Jesus speak to her. Now, after several years in the convent, she had a vision of Jesus. He was standing before her in a white robe, with rays of white and red light shining from his chest. She asked him what this vision meant. The bands of light, he told her, symbolized his love, which sets sinners right with God and fills them with God’s life. He told her that he wished her to have the vision painted and publicly displayed as a reminder of his mercy. He also told her that he wished the Church to focus on God’s mercy by establishing an annual Feast of Divine Mercy. The picture and the feast would emphasize the openness of his invitation to everyone to experience God’s forgiveness and grace. “Let the sinner not be afraid to approach me,” he told Faustina.
Jesus also gave Faustina instructions for a set of simple prayers to be repeated with the help of rosary beads. This “Chaplet of Divine Mercy” consists of the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Apostles’ Creed, and three brief prayers that offer Christ to the Father in atonement for sins, plead for God’s mercy for the world, and adore God as holy, mighty, and ever-living.
Through a priest to whom she described her vision of the white-robed Jesus, Faustina made contact with an artist who painted what she had seen. The painting was first displayed in 1934. Through her priest friend, the message about devoting one Sunday each year to the celebration of God’s mercy was relayed to Pope Pius XI—without any papal response.
The revelation strengthened Faustina’s focus on God’s mercy. As she grew in her awareness of God’s mercy toward her, she wanted to share in his merciful love for the world. At one point, Jesus told her, “I desire that you make an offering of yourself for sinners and especially for those souls who have lost hope in God’s mercy.” So, as she prayed and went about her tasks in the convent, Faustina would mentally unite herself with Jesus in his offering of himself to God. She prayed especially on behalf of men and women who had turned away from God and lost hope of being welcomed back by him.
Faustina’s diary is filled with notes recording moments when she felt Jesus speak to her about mercy. “My daughter, tell the whole world about My inconceivable mercy.” “Everything that exists has come forth from the very depths of My most tender mercy.” “Know, My daughter, that between Me and you there is a bottomless abyss, an abyss which separates the Creator from the creature. But this abyss is filled with My mercy.” “Know that my heart is mercy itself. From this sea of mercy, graces flow out upon the whole world.” “Let no one despair.”
The keynote of response to God’s mercy, Faustina emphasized, is trust in God. God calls us to trust in his presence and love whenever we find ourselves facing difficulties, sufferings, and misunderstandings by others, and especially when we experience our own sinfulness and weakness. Indeed, she said, God invites us to use our problems as an opportunity to participate in his mercy. Jesus told Faustina, “Join your sufferings to my passion and offer them to the heavenly Father for sinners.”
Of course, sharing in God’s mercy is not only a matter of praying but is something we express toward the people around us. Faustina wrote: “We resemble God most when we forgive our neighbors. God is Love, Goodness, and Mercy.” Here she almost seems to be echoing God’s words about himself in our Exodus reading: “The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness . . . forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6–7).
Faustina died of tuberculosis in 1938. In the years after her death, copies of the Divine Mercy image of Jesus began to circulate in Poland, along with reports of her revelations. But a poorly translated version of her diary created an unfavorable impression in the Vatican. In 1958, Church authorities prohibited any promotion of Faustina, her writings, or her picture of Jesus.
Faustina might have been headed for oblivion but for the interest of a Polish seminarian named Karol Wojtyla. During World War II, under the German occupation, he was forced to work at a chemical plant that happened to be within sight of the convent cemetery where Faustina was buried. Young Wojtyla found inspiration in Faustina’s devotion to God’s mercy. When he became the bishop of Krakow in the 1960s, he persuaded Vatican officials that they had misunderstood Faustina. He instituted the process for her recognition as a saint.
When Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, he declared that his special task as pope was to deliver the message of God’s mercy through Christ to the world. He promoted Faustina’s revelations and writings as an authentic and timely reminder of this mercy. In 2000, John Paul declared Faustina a saint and decreed that each year the first Sunday after Easter would be dedicated to Divine Mercy. The timing of the feast serves to underline the purpose of the events celebrated during Holy Week and Easter: through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God’s mercy reaches out to sinful men and women to lift us from our sins and draw us into his own life.
At the Mass at which Faustina was canonized, the pope concluded his homily with this prayer:
And you, Faustina, a gift of God to our time, a gift from the land of Poland to the whole Church, obtain for us an awareness of the depth of divine mercy; help us to have a living experience of it and to bear witness to it among our brothers and sisters. May your message of light and hope spread throughout the world, spurring sinners to conversion, calming rivalries and hatred and opening individuals and nations to the practice of brotherhood. Today, fixing our gaze with you on the face of the risen Christ, let us make our own your prayer of trusting abandonment and say with firm hope: Christ Jesus, I trust in you!