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Lectio divina on the book of Exodus

by Fr Piergiorgio M. Di Domenico OSM

Lectio 7 – 2016/17
Ex 32-34

The theological depth of these three chapters that we are now reading entails some difficulties, due especially to the incoherence of the order of narration. The sacred author could draw from a lot of stuff of various provenance, that could not always fit well into a system… It is possible, however, to single out three different lines of thought, from which I will gather some ideas for your personal meditation.

1. The violation of the Covenant: punishment, Moses’ mediation, forgiveness (Ex 32:1-35; 34:1-4, 10-28)

Exodus 32:1-35

1 When the people saw that Moses was a long time before coming down the mountain, they gathered round Aaron and said to him, ‘Get to work, make us a god to go at our head; for that Moses, the man who brought us here from Egypt – we do not know what has become of him.’ 2 Aaron replied, ‘Strip off the gold rings in the ears of your wives and your sons and daughters, and bring them to me.’ 3 The people all stripped off the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He received what they gave him, melted it down in a mould and with it made the statue of a calf. ‘Israel,’ the people shouted, ‘here is your God who brought you here from Egypt!’ 5 Observing this, Aaron built an altar before the statue and made this proclamation, ‘Tomorrow will be a feast in the Lord’s honour.’

6 Early next morning they sacrificed burnt offerings and brought communion sacrifices. The people then sat down to eat and drink, and afterwards got up to amuse themselves.

7 The Lord then said to Moses, ‘Go down at once, for your people whom you brought here from Egypt have become corrupt. 8 They have quickly left the way which I ordered them to follow. They have cast themselves a metal calf, worshipped it and offered sacrifice to it, shouting, “Israel, here is your god who brought you here from Egypt!” 9 The Lord then said to Moses, ‘I know these people; I know how obstinate they are! 10 So leave me now, so that my anger can blaze at them and I can put an end to them! I shall make a great nation our of you instead.’

11 Moses tried to pacify the Lord his God. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘why should Your anger blaze at Your people, whom You have brought out of Egypt by Your great power and mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, “He brought them out with evil intention, to slaughter them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth?” Give up Your burning wrath; relent over this disaster intended for Your people. 13 Remember Your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to whom You swore by Your very Self and made this promise: “I shall make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and this whole country of which I have spoken, I shall give to your descendants, and it will be their heritage for ever.” 14 The Lord then relented over the disaster which He had intended to inflict on His people.

15 Moses turned and came down the mountain with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, tablets inscribed on both sides, inscribed on the front and on the back. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing on them was God’s writing, engraved on the tablets.

17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, ‘There is the sound of battle in the camp!’ 18 But he replied: “No song of victory is this sound, / no lament for defeat this sound; / but answering choruses I hear!”

19 And there, as he approached the camp, he saw the calf and the groups dancing. Moses blazed with anger. He threw down the tablets he was holding, shattering them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He seized the calf they had made and burned it, grinding it into powder which he scattered on the water, and made the Israelites drink it. 21 Moses then said to Aaron, ‘What have these people done to you for you to have brought so great a sin on them?’ 22 Aaron replied, ‘My lord should not be so angry. You yourself know what a bad state these people are in! 23 They said to me, “Make us a god to go at our head; for that Moses, the man who brought us here from Egypt – we do not know what has become of him.” 24 I then said to them, “Anyone with gold, strip it off!” They gave it to me. I threw it into the fire and out came this calf!’

25 When Moses saw that the people were out of hand – for Aaron had let them get out of hand to the derision of their enemies all round them – 26 Moses then stood at the gate of the camp and shouted, ‘Who is for the Lord? To me!’ And all the Levites rallied round him. 27 He said to them, ‘The Lord, God of Israel, says this, “Buckle on your sword, each of you, and go up and down the camp from gate to gate, every man of you slaughtering brother, friend and neighbour.”’ 28 The Levites did as Moses said, and of the people about three thousand men perished that day. 29 ‘Today,’ Moses said, ‘you have consecrated yourselves to the Lord, one at the cost of his son, another of his brother; and so He bestows a blessing on you today.’

30 On the following day Moses said to the people, ‘You have committed a great sin. But now I shall go up to the Lord: perhaps I can secure expiation for your sin.’ 31 Moses then went back to the Lord and said, ‘Oh, this people has committed a great sin by making themselves a god of gold. 32 And yet, if it pleased You to forgive their sin…! If not, please blot me out of the book You have written!’ 33 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Those who have sinned against me are the ones I shall blot out of my book. 34 So no go and lead the people to the place I promised to you. My angel will indeed go at your head but, on the day of punishment, I shall punish them for their sin.’ 35 And the Lord punished the people for having made the calf, the one Aaron had made.

We are now dealing with what can be deemed Israel’s ‘original sin’ (and the sin which is at the origin of each and every of our sins): once the Covenant has been sealed, a serious rebellion breaks out. Israel does not recognize as his God and Lord the One who created them as a free people. Many scholars think that this story belongs to the time of the schism of Jeroboam, who established a cult to the Lord and worshipped a bull, according to Canaanite customs. The Book of Kings refers many times to this ‘original sin’ of the schismatic kingdom (cf for instance, 1 K 22:33; 2 K 2:3; 13:2). A later author would have projected then the sin of schism back to the time of Israel’s wanderings in the desert.

We can also suppose the reverse, that is, that this is the memory of a grave sin of the time of the desert, related according to the outline of Jeroboam’s schism.

In any case, it is a very ancient tradition indeed, witnessed by Ezekiel 20, where an account of Israel’s infidelities is given, starting with the time of the desert (“The House of Israel, however, rebelled against me in the desert; they refused to keep my laws, they scorned my judgements, in whose observance people find life, and they grossly profaned my Sabbaths.” – 20:13); as well as by Psalm 106:19-20 (“At Horeb they made a calf, / bowed low before cast metal; / they exchanged their glory / for the image of a grass-eating bull.”)

Moses seems to be missing as he is late in going back to the camp. His absence is equal to God’s absence. In the people’s eyes, Moses is “the man who brought us here from Egypt” (Ex 32:1). This is a serious mistake, as the statement denies God as their real Saviour and blames Moses for the exodus from Egypt. In the people’s eyes, the liberation from slavery is something to blame: they were happier where they used to be.

The people ask Aaron for help; and he orders them to bring him all their gold rings, to melt them down in a mould and with them make the statue of a calf. But the Lord had ordered: “You must not make gods of silver to rival me, nor must you make yourselves god of gold.” (Ex 20:23) The prophets and the Scriptures condemn the transgression of the precept forbidding the Israelites to make images of the Lord (cf Is 42:17; Hos 8:6; Dt 9:16; Ne 9:18).

“The Lord then said to Moses, ‘Go down at once, for your people whom you brought here from Egypt have become corrupt. They have quickly left the way which I ordered them to follow. They have cast themselves a metal calf, worshipped it and offered sacrifice to it, shouting, “Israel, here is your god who brought you here from Egypt!” ” (Ex 32:7-8)

God distances Himself from the people and makes His own their serious mistake, repeating their statement: the people is no longer His, it is the one that Moses led out of Egypt. However, God pronounces one additional word, which may make us foresee a change of mind on His part: “So leave me now, so that my anger can blaze at them and I can put an end to them!” (Ex 32:10) “Leave me / Let me”: it is as if God submitted His decision to punish the people to Moses’ judgement and approval. If Moses let the divine anger blaze at them, God would make a great nation of Moses instead. But Moses does not want to abandon his people and argues in favour of them. The first, less important argument, is linked to God’s good reputation: the Egyptians would think that He acted with evil intention. The second, decisive argument is that the liberation did not start with the exodus from Egypt but with Abraham’ exit from his country; the liberation is founded on God’s Word, which is irrevocable. Then “the Lord relented over the disaster which He had intended to inflict on His people” (Ex 32:14).

God’s ‘repentance’ or ‘change of mind’ can be found also in other passages of the Old Testament. Here it is Moses’ prayer that makes God change His mind. In Jr 18:7; 26:13 and Gn 3:10, it is somebody’s conversion or the conversion of the whole people. In fact, God does not change, He is always the same: it is our prayer and our conversion of life that may change in ourselves God’s image, who is always merciful love. Moses did not leave the divine anger destroy everything: his mercy for the people could be the winner because it was God’s pity itself.

Then “Moses turned and came down the mountain with the two tablets of Testimony in his hands, tablets inscribed on both sides, inscribed on the front and on the back” (Ex 32:15). The exegetical commentary by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (3rd century CE) rightly says: “Do not read ‘harut’ (‘writings’) but ‘herut’ (‘freedom’), as there is no freer man than he who devotes himself to the study of the Law.”

Indeed, it is our attachment and study of the Word of God that can free us from our narrow-mindedness as well as from our petty attachments; that can let us breathe more freely, that can let us be in communion with the whole world. When I take the Scriptures in my hand, stop any other activity, retire to a lonely place to devote myself only to reading and meditating and encountering the Lord, all the rest loses its importance; and I can see my relations with other people in a different light; and the daily cares – some of which absolutely useless – that otherwise would keep pestering me are no more important.

The people do not understand that the Lord’s law is a law bestowing freedom and life. Therefore Moses breaks the tablets and grinds the calf – in which they have put their trust – into powder, then scatters it on the water and makes them drink it: it is a kind of “water of bitterness and cursing” (cf Nb 5:22-27) which penetrates into the culprit’s body in order to reveal and punish his sin.

Contrary to what Moses does, Aaron tries to justify himself, laying the blame on the people. Is this perhaps a veiled polemic against those priests who are not able to be up to the situation and to their tasks?

God forgives, but forgiveness is not equal to going unpunished: punishment is indeed an inevitable consequence of being separated from God. In this situation of suffering and bewilderment, Moses raises his prayer to God once again: “Oh, this people has committed a great sin by making themselves a god of gold. And yet, if it pleased You to forgive their sin!... If not, please blot me out of the book You have written!” (Ex 32:31-32)

His solidarity with the people and his will to share the people’s fate seem to be more important than his relation with God; in fact, one can find God through an unwavering fidelity like his.

Exodus 34:1-4

1 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Cut two tablets of stone like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready at dawn; at dawn come up Mount Sinai and wait for me there at the top of the mountain. 3 No one may come up with you, no one may be seen anywhere on the mountain; the flocks and herds may not even graze in front of this mountain.’ 4 So he cut two tablets of stone like the first and, with the two tablets of stone in his hands, Moses went up Mount Sinai in the early morning as the Lord had ordered.

Exodus 34:10-28

10 He then said, ‘Look, I am now making a covenant: I shall work such wonders at the head of your whole people as have never been worked in any other country or nation, and all the people round you will see what the Lord can do, for what I shall do through you will be awe-inspiring. 11 Mark, then, what I command you today. I am going to drive out the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites before you. 12 Take care you make no pact with the inhabitants of the country which you are about to enter, or they will prove a snare in your community. 13 You will tear down their altars, smash their cultic stones and cut down their sacred poles, 14 for you will worship non other God, since the Lord’s name is the Jealous One; He is a jealous God. 15 Make no pact with the inhabitants of the country or, when they prostitute themselves to their own gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will partake of their sacrifice, 16 and then you will choose wives for your sons from among their daughters, prostituting themselves to their own gods,

17 ‘You will not cast metal gods for yourself.

18 ‘You will observe the feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days you will eat unleavened bread, as I have commanded you, at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in the month of Abib you came out of Egypt.

19 ‘All that first issues from the womb belongs to me: every male, every first-born of flock or herd. 20 But the first-born donkey you will redeem with an animal from the flock; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. All the first born of your sons you will redeem, and no-one will appear before me empty-handed.

21 ‘For six day you will labour, but on the seventh day you will rest; you will stop work even during ploughing and harvesting.

22 ‘You will observe the ‘Feast of Weeks’, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the close of the year.

23 ‘Three times a year all your menfolk will appear before the Lord, God of Israel, 24 for I shall dispossess the nations before you and extend your frontiers, and no one will set his heart on your territory when you go away to appear before the Lord your God three times a year.

25 ‘You will not offer the blood of my sacrificial victim with leavened bread, nor is the victim offered at the feast of Passover to be left until the following day.

26 You will bring the best of the first-fruits of your soil to the hose of the Lord your God.

‘You will not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

27 The Lord then said to Moses, ‘Put these words in writing, for they are the terms of the covenant which I have made with you and with Israel. 28 He stayed there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights. And on the tablets he wrote the word of the covenant, the ten words.

The broken Covenant starts to be renewed. Moses prepares the tablets on which God – or Moses himself – will write the “ten words”. The alliance with the Lord excludes any other political alliance or kinship with the Canaanites. To conform oneself to the world means to violate the first commandment: “You will worship no other god, since the Lord’s name is the Jealous One; He is a jealous God” (Ex 34:14). The rest of the commandments comes next: no images of God (cf 34:17); Feast of Unleavened Bread and first-born sons (cf 34:18-20); observance of the Sabbath (cf 34:21); annual feasts (cf 34:22-24); the Passover (cf 34:25); offerings and first-fruits (cf 34:26-27).

II. The proclamation of the journey. A different presence of God. Ex 33:1-6, 12-17; 34:29-35

Exodus 33:1-6

1 The Lord then said to Moses, ‘Leave, move on from here, you and the people whom you have brought here from Egypt, to the country that I swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that I would give to their descendants. 2 I shall send an angel in front of you and drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. 3 Move on towards a country flowing with milk and honey, but I myself shall not be going with you or I might annihilate you on the way, for you are an obstinate people.’ 4 On hearing these stern words the people went into mourning and no one wore his ornaments.

5 The Lord then said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites, “You are an obstinate people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I should annihilate you. So now take off your ornaments, and then I shall decide how to deal with you!”’ 6 So, from Mount Horeb onwards, the Israelites stripped themselves of their ornaments.

The people have sinned and shown no signs of real repentance yet. This is the reason why the Lord does not come in the midst of His people: they could not stand a Presence so different from their own lifestyle and mindset. God’s jealousy is like a consuming fire: “Which of us can survive the devouring fire, which of us survive everlasting burning?” (Is 33:14)

God will send His angel to protect them, but also to highlight His distance. The people do penance, put off their festal clothes and take off their ornaments, become aware of their sin… Thus they can depart and start walking again to go back to God, in order to feel Him close to them once again.

Exodus 33:12-17

12 Moses said to the Lord, ‘Look, You say to me, “Make the people move on,” but You have not told me whom You are going to send with me, although You have said, “I know you by name and you enjoy my favour.” 13 If indeed I enjoy Your favour, please show me Your ways, so that I understand You and continue to enjoy Your favour; consider too that this nation is Your people.’ 14 The Lord then said, ‘I myself shall go with you and I shall give you rest.’ 15 To which he said, ‘If You do not come Yourself, do not make us move on from here, 16 for how can it be known that I and my people enjoy Your favour, if not by Your coming with us? By this we shall be marked out, I and Your people, from all the peoples on the face of the earth.’ 17 The Lord then said to Moses, ‘Again I shall do what you have asked, because you enjoy my favour and because I know you by name.’

Moses asks the Lord two things: that He may teach the way to His people; that He may accompany them on their journey. God grants Moses’ requests, because Moses enjoys God’s favour and God knows him by name. It is out of love for Moses that the Lord still speaks to the people, and also accompanies them on their journey. This is the ‘grace’ that makes Israel different from any other people: in fact, “what great nation has its gods as near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to Him?” (Dt 4:7)

Exodus 34:29-33

29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, as he was coming down the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face was radiant because He had been talking to him. 30 And when Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin on his face was so radiant that they were afraid to go near him. 31 But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the community rejoined him, and Moses talked to them, 32 after which all the Israelites came closer, and he passed on to them all the orders that the Lord had given to him on Mount Sinai. 33 Once Moses had finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face.

Being in contact with the Lord’s light, Moses’ skin becomes radiant. Contact with God transfigures his whole person. In his voice instructing the people, resounds God’s very voice; and his whole person reflects the divine light. This phenomenon will occur once again inside the Tent of Meeting.

III. Moses’ relationship with God. Ex 33:7-11, 18-23; 34:6-7

Exodus 33:7-11

7 Moses used to take the Tent and pitch it outside the camp, far away from the camp. He called it the Tent of Meeting. Anyone who wanted to consult the Lord would go out of the Tent of Meeting, outside the camp. 8 Whenever Moses went out to the Tent, the people would all stand up and every man would stand at the wood of his tent and watch Moses until he went into the Tent. 9 And whenever Moses went into the Tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and station itself at the entrance to the Tent, while the Lord spoke with Moses. 10 The people could all see the pillar of cloud stationed at the entrance to the Tent and the people would all stand up and bow low, each at the door of his tent. 11 The Lord would talk to Moses face to face, as a man talks to his friend, and afterwards he would come back to the camp, but the young man who was his servant, Joshua son of Nun, never left the inside of the Tent.

Exodus 34:34-35

34 Whenever Moses went into the Lord’s presence to speak with Him, he took the veil off until he came out. And when he came out, he would tell the Israelites what orders he had been given, 35 and the Israelites would see Moses’ face radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak to Him next time.

God does not stay in the midst of the camp, but He is not far away either. However, if one wants to feel His presence, he will have to move towards Him, given that the will to meet Him is ‘the’ necessary condition to actually meet Him.

Moses has the privilege to go into the Tent, and there the Lord “talks to him face to face, as a man talks to his friend” (ex 33:11). The people follow Moses’ movements in reverent silence. He leads them to the encounter with God. His example arouses in them the wish to walk on the same ‘path of light’: “Fix your gaze on the Lord and your face will grow bright” (Ps 34:6).

Exodus 33:18-23

18 He then said, ‘Please show me Your glory.’ 19 The Lord said, ‘I shall make all my goodness pass before you, and before you I shall pronounce the name Yahweh, and I am gracious to those to whom I am gracious and I take pity on those on whom I take pity. 20 But my face,’ He said, ‘you cannot see, for no human being can see me and survive.’ 21 Then the Lord said, ‘Here is a place near me. You will stand on the rock, 22 and when my glory passes by, I shall put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand until I have gone past. 23 Then I shall take my hand away and you will see my back; but my face will not be seen.’

Exodus 34:5-9

5 And the Lord descended in a cloud and stood with him there and pronounced the name Yahweh.

6 Then the Lord passed before him and called out, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy, 7 maintaining His faithful love to thousands, forgiving fault, crime and sin, yet letting nothing go unchecked, and punishing the parent’s fault in the children and in the grandchildren to the third and fourth generation!’ 8 Moses immediately bowed to the ground in worship, 9 then he said, ‘If indeed I do enjoy Your favour, please, my Lord, come with us, although they are an obstinate people; and forgive our faults and sins, and adopt us as Your heritage.’

Encouraged by his friendly relationship with the Lord, Moses dares to ask, “Please show me Your glory!” (Ex 33:18) That is, I’d like not only to listen to but also to see; not only the Name (cf Ex 3:14) but the Person too. This request could not be granted – even though at certain conditions, as we have already seen, it had been indeed granted – “for no human being can see me and survive” (Ex 33:20).

Nonetheless, in a way, God tries to comply with this bold request, maybe because it is really bold: “…when my glory passes by, I shall put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand until I have gone past. Then I shall take my hand away and you will see my back; but my face will not be seen.” (Ex 33:22-23)

God passes by very briefly, but His presence is strongly felt. One can see luminous signs and then everything is back to normal once again. And the quest for God’s face goes on, in the incessant repetition of days, enlightened by Moses’ burning desire: Show me Your glory! This wish originating from faith enkindles our love and strengthens our hope.

God speaks and fulfils what was requested in 33:19-23, explaining the meaning of His name. The Hebrew tradition reads here thirteen ‘middot’, that is, ‘divine attributes’, which make up a kind of litany. These divine qualities include, and at the same time surpass, the covenant relationship: everything is due to God’s pure mercy. Moses is aware of that and therefore he prays the Lord once again: “Come with us, although they are an obstinate people. And forgive our faults and sins, and adopts us as Your heritage” (Ex 34:9).

God is present on the way, in the cloud, in the Tent, on the mountain. He is present, above all, in the deep experience of each of us. The chapters we have read and meditated relate about Moses’ meeting with the Lord: a privileged encounter which arouses in him a thorough solidarity with the people. Moses goes up towards God on his own and goes down to his brothers full of light. May God give us too the wish to utterly belong to Him, so that we can become each and every man’s brothers and sisters.


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