June 15, 2014
Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9
Sometimes we mess up. Hopefully, most of the time our errors are small, easily fixed, or even overlooked. But sometimes we mess up big, really big. The people of Israel found themselves in that kind of spot. They had seen God’s power deliver them Pharaoh and the Egyptians; they miraculously crossed the Red Sea; he appeared to them in thunder at Mt. Sinai, and yet they fail. They set up a false idol, the Golden Calf, and worship it at the base of the mountain while Moses is receiving the law from God. Oops.
This Sunday’s Old Testament reading presents a scene right after God’s people have sinned against him by worshiping the Golden Calf. After that happens, Moses stalks down the mountain and smashes the two stone tablets of the law in anger. Then he intercedes before God on behalf of the people, and the Lord offers to renew the covenant and write on a new set of stone tablets. Here Moses brings two fresh tablets (clean slates!) before the Lord on Mt. Sinai and awaits a revelation.
The setting for the scene looks a lot like the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 19—20, but here Moses encounters God alone. The people as a whole are not hearing his voice. Moses acts as covenant mediator. The Lord shows up in power, with the full force of his presence before Moses. The Lord repeatedly declares his holy name: YHWH.
The Holy Name
The name of the Lord, YHWH, was so holy to the ancient Hebrews that they left it unpronounced and written without vowels. To this day, when devout Jews read the words of Scripture aloud, they say Adonai (“my lord”) rather than the sacred name. In fact, just a few years ago the Vatican banned the use of the name in hymns sung during the liturgy. The name is often referred to as the “tetragrammaton” because of its four consonants. The exact meaning of the holy name of the Lord is matter for debate among scholars. It might originate from the verb “to be” in Hebrew (hayah) and mean something like “the one who is” or “the one who causes to be.” Whatever its etymology, YHWH becomes the personal name for the Lord in the Old Testament.
A God of Justice and Mercy
In the course of revealing his name to Moses once again, the Lord also reveals his character. He is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6 RSV). The Lectionary leaves out the more difficult verse 7: “…keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Our God is not a hufflepuff God. He doesn’t pretend that everything is okay when sin stands between us. He is not the sort of person to pretend like nothing is the matter when a major issue separates us from him. Rather, he will confront us with our wrongdoing and seek to reestablish a relationship. If we persist in our sin, then we get to suffer the consequences. The suffering caused by sin is not individualistic, but has ramifications for our families too. In Exod 34:7, a personal sin is even said to harm one’s children and grandchildren.
However, the Lord is not only a God of justice, but a God of mercy. In fact, St. John Paul II called it “the most stupendous attribute of the Creator” (Dives in Misericordia, 13). Here in Exodus, the Lord emphasizes his mercy, his compassion. He announces his nature as slow to anger and rich in hesed (covenant love) and faithfulness. The point is that while we can trust in God’s justice, his power, his authority, his omniscience, we ought not be overwhelmed by those aspects. That is, his mercy is bigger than our faults. His forgiveness can conquer even our worst sins. His fidelity is stronger than our infidelity. He is the God who gives us a second chance (and more!)
Starting Over Again
Moses responds to his encounter with God with an attitude of humble worship and submission. He falls on his face before the Lord and worships. This is exactly the right response. He submits himself and the people to the Lord once more, asking for God’s favor and his presence. Moses again repents on behalf of the people with a confession that in fact, yes, we are “stiff-necked.” He pleads for God’s pardon and forgiveness, to be restored once more into a relationship of covenant love. I love this moment, because Moses is so brutally honest, so transparent, so humbly self-deprecating. He realizes his errors, his people’s sins, the lack of commitment that they’ve displayed. Yet he hungers for relationship with God. He wants the people to have the Lord in their midst, to live in a covenant relationship with Him.
The Lord doesn’t ignore Moses’ request, but responds in mercy, forgiveness and even covenant renewal. Immediately after this passage, the Lord reinitiates his relationship with the people of Israel and so powerfully blesses Moses that his face shines with the reflected glory of God. He answers Moses’ humble petition.
The power of this story lies in the second chance the Lord offers. When we mess up, it is easy to get discouraged, to lose hope, to fall into despair away from God. Yet he invites us back. He offers us a second chance. He is “slow to anger” and rich in mercy. He wants us more than we want him and he holds his hand out to us. Our job isn’t to wallow in our faults or to clean ourselves up before we seek Him, but to come to him in our brokenness, acknowledge our failings and ask for his help. Then perhaps he will consent to “go in the midst of us” after all.
Editor’s Note: Unpacking the Old Testament is a series by CatholicBibleStudent.com‘s Dr. Mark Giszczak. Dr. Giszczak is here to help us all come to a richer understanding of what can otherwise be a very daunting collection of books, the Old Testament. Look for his column every Friday from Catholic Exchange.