It is not surprising that the people turned so quickly. Their whole lives had been disrupted, and they were in the wilderness with no direction and no timeline. People with no direction and no timeline are wanderers in every sense – lost, impatient, without direction or purpose. It is in our nature to make meaning, to find purpose, to have a direction. When Moses delayed (and it was forty days – a long time, from a wanderer’s standpoint), they were anxious for direction and purpose. If the Lord could not provide it, perhaps the gods of Egypt could.
The exchange between Moses and the Lord reminds me of an old married couple arguing over the kids. God begins, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…” Immediately Moses turns it back on God, “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?” (Your kids are misbehaving… No, they’re your kids…) God was as impatient with the people as the people were with God. God desired to wipe out the lot of them and start over again with Moses. He’d done it before with Abraham… why not again?
But Moses interceded for the people, imploring God not to give up on these people who had, as God had promised Abraham, become a numerous nation. Here’s the fun part: God changed God’s mind about the disaster. Ours is not a God that is unmovable, unchanging, and obstinate. God is passionate, pliable, and loving. God’s wrath burns hot, but not as hot as God’s passion for God’s people. What a gift to have a God that burns with passion for us! Imagine a God that gets frustrated when we do stupid stuff, and is delighted when we surprise God with unexpected good choices. Imagine a God who laughs when we do something funny, or who cries when we are hurt. That’s a God I can relate to.
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.” 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.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 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!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 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.
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 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!” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 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.” 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? 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. 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.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.