This is one of my favorite chapters in the whole bible, and reading it now through my grief further enriches its meaning. This is a story that makes me not only love, but like God, for They seem so relatable. Like, who hasn’t wanted to destroy the people who’ve betrayed them? I know I have, so I get God here. And I also get Moses, because I’ve also been the one talking a friend down from their vengeance.
God and Moses are in the midst of a holy getaway from the very irritating Israelites. They are sitting on the mountain together having beautiful conversations about how to create a community that both loves God and each other. God has just given Moses the Law, which was shared with the people, who responded enthusiastically “Everything the LORD has said, we will do!” (Ex. 24:3).
After sealing this covenant with blood, Moses goes back to the mountaintop with God for 40 days and 40 nights. We already know that the Isrealites quickly forget the goodness of their God, so we shouldn’t be surprised when they decide that a God they can’t see is not a good enough God to worship.
What is surprising, however, is how quick Aaron is to gather up the people’s gold and re-form it into a golden statue. It should rightly be Moses who feels betrayed in this story, but God’s immense anger overshadows whatever Their right-hand man might be feeling. And Moses proves himself a true friend of God by talking the Almighty down from Their homicidal plans.
I like to call this stage of grief that God experiences in Exodus 32 the “rage-sads” (h/t to my friend Elizabeth Rawlings for coining the term for me). It’s when the sorrow of grief expresses itself in a blind rage, often because the circumstance causing your grief involves betrayal at the hands of the loved one. The rage-sads are particularly familiar to women, I think, who find themselves inexplicably crying while trying to express their deep anger.
While anger in this biblical story, and many other situations of grief, is justified, it can also be destructive. Like God here, when we are betrayed, our first instinct is to hurt the other person as much as we’ve been hurt. This anger must be expressed, partly to let the sadness that undergirds it come to the fore.
Thank God for Moses, who is just the friend God needs in his moment of rage. “Whoa, my Divine Dude,” Moses says, “The Israelites really do suck; I’ll give you that. But, YOU DON’T, remember? You’re literally the best. Don’t give the Egyptians the satisfaction of seeing you slaughter your people.”
It is easy to forget who we are in the midst of righteous rage. It is easy to do things in those moments that we’ll later regret. Apparently, the same is true for our God. The Divine Being, as well as those made in Their image, needs good friends to remind Them who They said They want to be. Ours is a God who continually makes Themselves vulnerable for the sake of covenantal relationships, and this means that God allows Themselves to be hurt by us. It is often said that grief is the natural consequence of love, and this is never more true than for God. Because God has opened Their heart fully to imperfect people, that heart is continually broken.
Yet God keeps Their heart open, even if They sometimes need to be talked into it by Their friends, and that is when grief becomes transformative. When we allow the pain to be all that it is, when we allow it to shatter us completely, we find there is a reconstructed life on the other side of it, a resurrection even.
It is this kind of shattering and re-making, I think, that leads God to choose incarnation in the person of Jesus. Every time God’s heart is broken by God’s people, they remake Themselves and risk love again. Every new covenant is another attempt by God to let the grief They’ve experienced with their people transform Them, in hopes that the people too will be transformed. The cross represents the ultimate shattering of God, in Spirit and flesh together, so that it is not just God who breaks this time, but the whole unholy system of betrayal and atonement.
The question for the people of God in every age is this: are we willing to follow the lead of God who allows themselves to be shattered by grief and re-made for the sake of the world? Are we willing to trust that the shattering will not destroy us or those we love, but lead us deeper into love?