Friday, March 5, 2010

Deceit in the Desert

They gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32.1)

Something to See

It’s close to impossible for those of us “of a certain age” to read about the golden calf without flashing back on Cecil B. DeMille’s over-the-top orgy in The Ten Commandments. By the time Moses descends Mt. Sinai with the engraved tablets in hand, the Israelites have cast a stunning Art Nouveau idol and lost their minds in pagan abandon. Moses, whose hair and beard have grown markedly longer and turned white—apparently he’s been gone quite awhile—can’t believe his eyes. The frenzy looks closer to Mardi Gras than an ancient worship ritual. In the movie version, the calf is almost irrelevant; it’s little more than an excuse for a bunch of frustrated people to let loose.

According to Scripture, the Israelites are frustrated and Moses has been gone too long. But they’re not taking advantage of his absence to throw a wild party, as kids do when their parents leave town. They’re afraid harm has come to Moses and he’s never coming back. As Israel’s sole prophet and protector, they’re lost without him. Once it seems unlikely he’ll return, they approach Moses’s brother, Aaron, and say, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” The Israelites desperately need something to see, a figure to follow. Since it’s inconceivable anyone else can assume Moses’s role, they resort to Egyptian methods and invent a god. They don’t know God is issuing a law that forbids idolatry even as they embrace it. Thus, when Moses reappears, his inside information causes him to rush to judgment. In his fury, he breaks the tablets to bits. He sees rebellion and sin, when he’s most likely looking at fear and panic.

Less Than Best

This is one of those times when a more balanced, factual reading skews the truth, however. Despite the Israelites’ ignorance of God’s new anti-idolatry edict, they’ve still broken the pact between God and their forefather, Abraham. Up to this point, He’s primarily known as “the Most High God” and “the Creator,” which suggests Israel retains a modicum of belief in lesser deities. Yet God’s vow to raise a mighty nation from Abraham’s offspring lifts Him to supreme importance. It’s assumed His relationship with Israel is exclusive. This is what entitles the Israelites to unique standing as God’s people. It’s why He freed them to claim the land He promised their fathers. And though they’re unaware of God’s latest laws, there’s still no excuse for replacing Him. It angers Moses how readily they let fear to incite them to settle for less than best. He smashes God’s commandments because he doesn’t think Israel is worthy of them.

Weakness is everywhere in this story. Israel’s ties to its heritage are frayed by decades of slavery. Its identity has been diluted by Egyptian customs and beliefs. Its loyalty to God can’t bear pressures created by total trust in His promises. Aaron—who stood with Moses before Pharaoh and witnessed God’s miraculous power—hasn’t the fortitude to deny the request for an idol. Indeed, not a soul in the camp has enough backbone to protest this or urge Israel to be patient and trust God. Then there’s Moses, who loses control and literally destroys what he’s called to the mountain to receive. A pattern appears. Once weakness deceives us to settle for less than best, we’re no longer at our best. We’re not whom God wants us to be. We’re not confident who we are. We’re not driven by faith, even though we’ve experienced its power. We’re not in control of our feelings. And we’re not able to accomplish what God asks us to do.


We know there’s deceit in the desert based on Christ’s experiences there. He wanders for weeks without food, water, or shelter, and when He’s at His most fragile, the Tempter tries to trick Him into false worship. Jesus refuses to be deceived. And while this serves as the epitome of resisting temptation, the narrative suffers, I think, by having Christ as its central character. Of course, Jesus defeats the Tempter—He’s Jesus. The Exodus story offers a better picture of how easily fear and panic can deceive us into yielding to temptation. Any time we become disoriented, even disenchanted, probability we’ll give in to weakness increases. Instead of waiting on God’s guidance, we’re apt to settle for less than best. We probably realize it opposes everything we know by faith and have seen in the past. Yet weakness convinces us less than best is our best alternative.

During a discussion of Israel’s numerous desert deceptions, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10.11-12: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us... So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” We defeat our weaknesses—and their deceits—by knowing what they are and recognizing they’re in the desert because we’re there. They’ll stir fears of failure and loss, and if we’re not careful, our insecurities will persuade us falling to them is the only way to stand firm. But we know this isn’t so. Fear never ends in strength. All it does is reduce us. Having been at our best and seen God at His best, we can dismiss temptation out-of-hand, since everything about it is less than best.

It looks like a party, but it’s really the picture of fearful people settling for less than best.

Postscript: You Are God Alone

“That’s just the way it is,” the song says. Everything else pales by comparison. “You Are God Alone,” by Phillips, Craig, and Dean.


claire said...

'Fear never ends in strength.' Ha, Tim, I need to write this on a Post-It and stick on my bathroom mirror...

There was a time when I could not quite believe that Godde loved me as She does. So, I would give up easily when things took a while to work out...

Of course, temptations have also a great way of knowing me nearly better than I know myself, for I fall so easily in their grips sometimes...

Deceit in the desert. What a great title!

Thanks. Blessings.

Tim said...

Temptation knows all of us nearly better than we know ourselves because it's always with us. The knack (too light a word, perhaps) is getting to know it as well as it knows us.

This is a new understanding for me as of this Lent. I've really been striving for better self-discipline all around and I'm learning to watch for the earliest possible signs I'll be tempted to fall into slothfulness.

Here's a silly example: I'm a big fan of the snooze button and obviously I'm at my weakest when the alarm first rings. In the past, I've actually accommodated the temptation to "snooze" by setting my clock 15 minutes earlier, which buys me three overtimes. But I found this unacceptable recently. I wasn't defeating temptation. I was avoiding its effects. Now, since I know I'll be tempted, I'm learning to anticipate it. When everything in me wants those five extra minutes, I'm seeing it for what it is and forcing myself out of bed--just to defeat the temptation. It's what's best.

Have I always succeeded? No. But I'm finding the intervals between failure are widening. It's taking time, but it's coming along. And oddly enough this exercise is teaching me how temptation exploits my weaknesses and fears, and fosters doubts about God's supremacy and the majesty of His love.

It seems like such a foolish thing, yet as Paul said, God uses foolish things...

Claire, thank you for being here and always adding luster to the thought. You bless us all.

Peace and joy always,