It was possibly the biggest wedding ever planned. Yahweh had descended to the mountain. The people of Israel had consecrated themselves, preened for the ceremony. They had covenanted together and exchanged vows—but with a wrinkle. Because when God came down in his terrible glory, thunder and fire, voice like a trumpet, and power that made the mountain tremble, his bride cowered. They could not bear his voice. Instead, they sent the best man—Moses—on ahead to arrange things. They had said, “I do,” to one another with lengthy vows, done the equivalent of exchanging rings (the two stone tablets, a symbol of their covenant), and shared a meal. Then it was time for the big party.
But first, God asked Moses to come up to him. Why not go ahead with the party? God was laying out plans for how he would literally pitch his tent among them so they could be together. They had to figure out the logistics of how this God—so good and but also so uniquely different (hear: holy)—could live with his people. No one had been near to God since before Adam and Eve had been exiled from his presence in Eden. But as God and Moses planned, all hell was breaking loose below them.
Maybe their fidgeting was understandable. This wasn’t 40 minutes of picture-taking. They had been waiting on God and Moses for 40 days! Israel wouldn’t wait any longer; it was time to take things into their own hands. They begged Aaron to make a Yahweh for them. They would still love God . . . just, in their own way. So they spent all their money, all the wealth they had accumulated since God had rescued them from slavery down in Egypt, and Aaron used his talent to make an idol to represent Yahweh. “Here are the gods who rescued you from Egypt,” Aaron says. “Now let’s get this party started!” And then an orgy of eating, drinking, dancing and sex ensues as the people pleasure themselves without their husband.
On the mountain, Moses saw Yahweh’s eyes burn with wounded rage. He almost wiped them out that day. Moses managed to hold him back, remind him who he was and what he had promised (Ex 32:14). Even then, Yahweh couldn’t bring himself to go any further with his people who had so quickly and callously rejected him (33:3). Only, again, when Moses begged him, and said there was no point in them going to the land he had promised them if he wasn’t with them, did Yahweh agree to go (33:12-17).
God carefully laid out two more stone tablets, like rings—the symbol of their commitment to one another. A commitment both he and Moses knew Israel would break. Yet he would still vow himself to Israel again. Then he reminded them why he would do it. He said, “I am Yahweh. I am an empathetic and gracious God, not with a quick temper, overflowing with loyal love and integrity, always loyally loving thousands upon thousands, and faithfully carrying away twistedness, betrayal, and failure. But I never fail to bring evildoers to justice, even if it takes generations” (Ex 34:6-7).
Moses knelt before Him and cried, “Please, Yahweh, go with us! You’re right, they’re fickle people. Carry away our twistedness and our failure . . . and make us your own!”(34:9).
It wasn’t going to be easy. They had hurt Yahweh, apparent by the fact that even after his tent was standing, and Yahweh entered the tent, no one was allowed to enter—not even Moses (40:35).
We will get fidgety. We are still just as fickle. But as we start this journey through exile, let’s soak in this story, and remember God’s character, even after he is brutally betrayed: patient, loving, compassionate. He still makes a way to be with his people, even when they turn away from him. In a sea of instability, not least of which is our own affections, let’s never forget his integrity is our anchor.
Watch: Bible Project video on Israel and the broken covenant
Listen: Exodus 32-34; also check out Psalm 106, where the songwriter reflects on Israel’s story of betraying Yahweh and His faithfulness toward them.